They remain friends, allies and, in essence, musical co-conspirators. But at the dawn of the '90s, when their careers were just starting, Todd Snider and Patterson Hood came together by chance.
"Back in 1991, I lived in Memphis and was running a booking agency that occasionally booked shows for Todd," said Hood, co-founder of the acclaimed Alabama rock troupe Drive-By Truckers. "I was already familiar with his music and had already seen him live a couple of times. So I knew what he was doing. That was before Talkin' Seattle Grunge Rock Blues," he said of Snider's Dylan-esque novelty tune that became a rock radio hit for Snider in 1994. "That was before that little burst of fame."
Snider added, "I was hanging out with Patterson down in Memphis before he ever became a Drive-By Trucker. I've watched him become this really incredible songwriter. That's something you try not to like too much, though. I'm not supposed to like someone who writes better songs than me."
Throughout the ensuing decades, both song writers established loyal fan bases with tunes saturated in vivid literary narrative. Snider's music leaned slightly closer to country. But it also balanced socially informed story lines colored by streaks of wry humor with starker, darker folk contemplations. Hood's songs reveled in tales of what the Truckers have long termed "the Dirty South." Recently, however, the works he has written for the band, and for a mounting solo career, reflect an inspiration that brings them closer in line with Snider's music.
In short, both artists of late have been reflecting a lot on family. But how those influences manifest themselves is strikingly different.
"It seems my music has always been going through this long family argument," Snider said. "I grew up in a household that worshipped Ronald Reagan. But as a 12-year-old, I looked up to Hunter Thompson. After that, my life seemed like it was one verbal decision away from being a free spirit or a freeloader."
The rebellious voice of a free-thinker in a hard-and-fast conservative environment resulted in Agnostic Hymns and Stoner Fables, one of two new albums Snider released in the spring. The other recording is a tribute to one of Snider's musical heroes, the veteran Texas songsmith Jerry Jeff Walker, titled Time as We Know It.
"I remember thinking long ago that if I ever got myself a guitar and started to sing about my life, the music would sound like a Jerry Jeff song," Snider said. "But things didn't turn out that way. Actually, his songs set an undertone that was telling me to be myself."
And how did Walker take to a stylist like Snider covering his songs?
"Well, he kissed me on the cheek after he heard it," Snider said. "So he must have liked it."
The family view that surfaces in Hood's songs is a bit sunnier — so much so that some of the songs on his forthcoming solo album, Heat Lightning Rumbles in the Distance, stand in marked contrast to the often shadowy rural spirits that frequent his songs on albums by the Truckers.
"A lot of these new songs were really influenced just by being homesick and missing my family during a period when the Truckers were touring all the time," Hood said. "We were in the midst of, essentially, a two-year tour for The Big To-Do and Go Go Boots," the band's most recent studio albums.
"But I was also saying goodbye to one of my most beloved family members," Hood said. "I had a great-uncle who was kind of a second father to me. I wrote the title cut about the sadness of losing an older generation of people that you love but also mixing it with the joy of having children and watching them play.
"The song is set at the old homestead where he had lived 88 years of his life. Right after I recorded it, he passed away (at age 91). About three weeks later, I found myself out at that homestead for the memorial service, watching my kids run around and play while we were all feeling sad. So this is a very heartfelt and personal record for me."
With the Truckers on hiatus until next spring (save for a few isolated performances), Hood will tour extensively after Heat Lightning's release next month with a newly assembled band called The Downtown Rumblers (which will include two fellow Truckers, keyboardist Jay Gonzalez and drummer Brad Morgan). But the bill he will share with Snider on Thursday at the Lexington Opera House will dispense with bands entirely. The two songsmiths will perform their sets without ensemble accompaniment but with plenty of the high musical spirits that have marked their respective careers.
"Todd and I played a show together at the Georgia Theatre (in Athens, Ga.) about nine years ago," Hood said. "That's the only time we've shared a bill as far as I know. We had a pretty amazing time, too. Fans on our Web sites still trade bootleg tapes of that show and talk about it, because it kind of degenerated into a rather bawdy evening of story telling and song.
"We can only hope that will happen again."