The city of Kingston sits adjacent to the Hudson River, 91 miles north of New York City. In one of its oldest sections, streets of brick buildings spring up from the edge of the Rondout Creek, a Hudson tributary, and climb a steep slope, finally leveling off on a plateau that overlooks the waters to the east and gazes back toward the lower reaches of the Catskills to the west. Originally home to the Esopus Indians, Kingston was settled by the Dutch before being ceded to the English in 1664; the Brits burned it down in 1777 after it had become a Revolutionary hub. The town was rebuilt into a teeming industrial center in the 1800s, only to be crippled by the Depression in the 1930s and, once again, by the departure of IBM in the ’90s. So, yes, it’s seen some drama over the years, but it’s no New York, New York. No toddlin’-town Chicago, no missable New Orleans. Not even an, ahem, loveable LA. In fact, Kingston’s not a city known to inspire any songs—let alone a whole album of them. But that’s exactly what Adam Snyder’s This Town Will Get Its Due
is, though it wasn’t intended to be.
“I didn’t know it was going to be like that until after I’d started it,” says Snyder about his second solo disc (this one on his own Bare Bones label) since his leaving critically exalted Hudson Valley band Mercury Rev in 2000. “I already had some of the songs written and then I noticed a theme was developing, and at some point it became an album about Kingston.”
Anyone who knows Snyder, however, will tell you the subject matter is not really a surprise for the 40-year-old singer and multi-instrumentalist. Around town he’s known as a tireless crusader for the former state capital, especially on issues related to sensible development and sustainability, an active dynamo who belongs to neighborhood advocacy groups and frequently turns up at city hall to speak out at public meetings. (It’s no coincidence he tapped Kingston City Hall as the site of his record release gig.) Also an obsessive student of regional history, Snyder draws on local lore for the voices of the ghosts of Kingston’s past that populate his new record. “These songs came out of me with the same force of a breakup song or a love song,” he says. “They were essential. I had to write them.”
Be thankful he did. This Town Will Get Its Due plays like a box of chocolates left in the rain on Valentine’s Day. Inside: sweet morsels of sadness like the migrant-worker confessional “Trickle Down” and gospel-tinged weepers like the title track and “Down the River” warm the bones like The Band or Willie Nelson’s Red Headed Stranger. It’s a beautifully low-key album, full of soul-baring narratives wrapped in rustic intimacy.
In an underdog town, Snyder lives in one of its true underdog quarters: the Rondout. Once the rough-and-tumble waterfront province of Irish and German canal diggers, ice cutters, dock workers, brick makers, and brewers, the area was a city unto itself before being incorporated with Kingston proper in 1872. Throughout the 1960s and ’70s it was a buffetlike tableau of drugs and prostitution but during the ’90s urban pioneers and West Strand restaurateurs began moving in and revitalizing the neighborhood, which is now a prime nightlife district. If there are ghosts to be found in Kingston, they are most certainly here, in Snyder’s stoic, two-story 1850s brick house.
So what about those spirits, then, like the one of Mickey Finn, the boy in the defiantly upbeat, thrummed-acoustic “Snake Hill” who floats across the creek in a truck tire as he contemplates the Rondout’s impending demise at the hands of developers? Is there a real Snake Hill?
“Sure is. Come and take a look,” Snyder says. Leading the way past a sprawling, wall-mounted period map of the city and out onto his raised deck, he points to a modest mound topped with bare trees on the opposite side of the creek. “That’s Snake Hill, right there,” he says. “But Mickey Finn wasn’t a real person. It’s the name of a boy character in a series of stories by Ernest Jerrold, who lived in Kingston in the 1880s. There’s a little bit of myself in that song, too, but I also wanted to use the character of Mickey Finn to talk about how a boy who grew up in the Rondout during the 1800s would feel about developers coming in and knocking down the hill he played on so they could build condos there.”
Since becoming one of its permanent residents in 2000, Snyder has made an even more direct contribution to the Rondout’s renaissance. In February 2006, he and Aimee Gardner opened a gallery on Abeel Street, the Kingston Museum of Contemporary Art, also known as KMoCA (the name is a friendly poke at North Adams’s MASS MoCA). Over the past year, the tiny space has hosted exhibits and performances by a wide range of local and traveling artists and musicians.