Last of the Hard Working American Songwriters
For many of Todd Snider's diehard fans--and there are a lot of them--Snider is the last of his kind, the troubadour's troubadour, the last of the true believers. A modern Woody Guthrie who understands the humor, pathos, and poetry of America. Snider is also the spiritual son of a small group of renegade songwriters like John Prine, Jerry Jeff Walker, and the late Steve Goodman who chronicled American life in the 70s and 80s to great critical success while laboring under the heavy baggage of being touted as "the next Dylan."
Today, Walker and Prine are still Todd Snider's heroes and they equally admire him. Lately though, Snider has found that art is imitating life and vice versa. Just as Snider thought that Jerry Jeff Walker (whom he recently produced a tribute for) spoke the truth, today, Snider's fans cling to his every word. And that's where the trouble begins. While his career has arguably reached greater heights than most his heroes, it has at times also threatened to swallow Snider alive.
In this frank and revealing conversation on the occasion of his new album and new band, Hard Working Americans with Dave Schools of Widespread Panic, Neal Casal, Chad Staehly, and Duane Trucks, Snider talks about his iconic and ever present Epiphone EJ-200CE, his struggles with adoration, the meaning of popularity and the perils it presents to artists, and the brotherhood of a rock and roll band.
Thanks for speaking with us, Todd, and thanks for being so fond of Epiphone over the years.
Oh man, of course.
You've got a new album out with a new band, Hard Working Americans. That means you have a whole different stage show. How is it going?
I would say now more than ever, things are chaotic. I have this really serious back issue that is causing a ton of trouble in my life. And also, when I'm in these so called--not talent peaks but output peaks--I'm not saying that I'm putting out good stuff I just know that I'm putting out a lot of stuff--when I do, it's hard for me to sleep and it's hard for me to stay out of trouble and its hard for me to get where I'm supposed to be. I start to feel like the kid in the family they kind of wish they could send off to military school.
But the band, they seem to understand what kind of person I am. And the older I get, the more that I'm starting to understand that people have been looking at me for years with this look like: When is this gonna end? When is this lifestyle going to stop? When is this "Jerry Jeff" act gonna end?
I don't think it is. I’m sorry. It makes it difficult for me to want to live outside the exact moment that I'm in. And I just feel like my weakness and my strength my whole life is to live in the moment. I feel like that's getting more and more intense.
Your audience doesn't just embrace your work--it grabs for it. They call out songs you haven't released yet. Does that sometimes feel like an intrusion?
There's definitely some singing before I do and lots of requests. Last year, it felt like there was this element of wanting to argue with me or get me to commit to a cause or get me to explain or even--I don't know what town it was--wanting me to defend my politics in a grander way. That night, I told the crowd that I didn't come here for money and I'm about to prove it. And I did. And then they shook the bus and called me a (expletive) head and tried to get me to come back out. But I'm not there for money and I'm not out here to be a professional. My dream was not to be a singer. My dream was to be a disaster. And I'm going to continue on being that. And so--I thought--I don't mind that the shows have turned into this--like--episode of Donohue. I'm not in charge of telling people what to do after they've paid money to get into a bar.
But I do flee when I feel like it. And I thought the band would help that, and it is helping. I felt like that last week in Los Angeles and San Francisco, I wanted to just ask people to let go of me: 'I don't mind arguing with you about politics but take your hand off my arm.'
Or: 'You don't have to have your hand on my neck. I get that you've hugged me and you want to tell me I bring a message of peace, but let me go and back up a step and a half and then tell me that.'
And so I can't control how people behave but I can tell I'm doing something that's making people who already aren't that stable less stable. And I think I'm doing it to myself, too.
John Prine is someone I know you care a lot about...
Oh, I love John!
His audience is similarly devoted. His first album made him a kind of cult figure--a secret hero. And then 20 years later, he made The Missing Years, which really expanded his audience nationally.
I remember that. I felt like I was losing my secret. I was a runner on that record. I was a cigarette runner.
Like Kris Kristofferson emptying ashtrays during sessions for Bob Dylan’s Blonde On Blonde...
Yeah, I think of it like that. It was a very intense time. John worked so hard on that record and threw out so many songs.
Since your audience is also so devoted--requesting new songs they've found on the internet--does your new band act as a shield for you? A kind of protection from that wild energy you're feeling from the crowd?
Definitely. When we're up there, there are two of us and back home there's a few others. And we are like a family. I was talking to David (Schools) about it and we were thinking that getting a gang of like-minded people would help.
On the tour recently, there was this guy who had a moment in the front row that seemed to involve me. For us and for the crowd, it was hard to discern if he was having a positive reaction or a negative reaction towards me. It was above the din of the normal chatter. And I'm tall but I'm a wimpy kind of a guy. And I was starting to get scared at not being able to understand this guy's energy. And David and Neil (Casal) and I could feel it--so they moved closer to me. They were tuning and they stopped when they saw this guy. I was just sort of staring at him and I could feel tears welling up like: 'I don't know what to do to you or for you.' And I realized that Dave was almost touching my shoulder. And so was Neil. And David said, "We're up here, too." And I felt 'ok!' They (the club) removed the guy but still--in that moment--something about it really made me feel like there was somebody to back up the words that I had sang. And a lot of times when I'm alone, I don't feel like that.
Like there was a time in Durango when they (audience) were shaking the bus. And I can't fight. My temper goes to about "1." So I don’t know--it definitely feels a lot better now and I can't say it was bad before either 'cause some of that was exciting. When they were shaking the bus is a good example. Part of me was thinking 'I'm so scared.' But then also for me and my buddy George who was with me too--he invented these shoes called Crocs--we were like, 'I'm not sure what to do because the bus driver isn't going to be here for awhile. But this is kind of exciting!'
And this guy was yelling: "Come on out big boy!" And at a certain point, we started giggling like, well, this was kind of fun. These are the problems we prayed for, I guess.
What kind of place is Nashville for you now as a home and for your music?
Well, first of all, I'd say I don't feel part of what happens on 16th Avenue (Ed, Music Row home to most of the country music industry) but I feel defensive of it when I hear people attack it. I think it's as valid as anything going on including alternative country and punk rock. And I think that it has just as much room for phoniness and legitimacy and honesty as any other genre. And I know some of those cats. And I know and personally believe their intent. Casey Beathard is someone I think of as a very strong poem writer. But then, that's part of what I like about that town is being so close to a music that reaches so many people.
My favorite part of Nashville is East Nashville where, to me, it's the anti-eye-rolling capitol of the world. When you come from some other town and you say to someone: I want to be a singer, they say--'You mean like the singer that's on my television all day long?’ And you say, No, not like that. And they say: 'Well, I don't understand. How are you supposed to win the state championship with your singing?'
I'm not headed towards that. I'm not going into an arena where you can keep score. So all my friends back home aren't going to want to follow this because there's not going to be a winner or a loser. And when they decide for themselves that they've seen a winner or a loser they don't know that they're wrong. So, it's that alienating feeling where they can't understand that you and Taylor Swift get up every morning and do the same thing and that when they make fun of her they make fun of me.
I predict there will be a songwriter like Jake Bugg that will be so good and the East Nashville thing will get thrust on him so much, that his only recourse will be to roll his eyes at it--or hers--and it will pop this whole thing. And it will be ok. But for now, it seems like there's old guys like me having some luck and there's young guys and we like each other. And if someone came and said to the bar: I'm not going to 'songwrite' anymore, I'm going to juggle, everybody would be like, '(expletive) yeah! You're gonna juggle! All right, rounds on me dude! We're having a juggling party! Let's do this thing. Let's take over the world, brother. You're my juggler!
And that happens in East Nashville and it doesn't happen anywhere else. Because, you want to be someplace where poets will listen to your poetry and not hear it as a threat to their poetry. This is the place to come.
Nashville's first wave of songwriters tended to write by themselves; Hank Williams, Willie Nelson, Kris Kristofferson. But starting in the early 90s and continuing today, hit songs tend to be credited to multiple co-writers.
I think that's when country music decided to leave the art field. And it's totally fair. Somebody was going to have to say: wait, music doesn't have to be art. What about the prom queen and king? Who's gonna sing a song for the quarterback? Because everybody who picked up a guitar is trying to help out the disaffected.
And I feel like country music figured out--hey, who's gonna sing for the affected? Who's gonna sing for the comfortable? What about the good looking guy who married his high school sweetheart?
This is my theory: when Mike Curb started the Music School at Belmont, it just set loose this generation of kids who figured out how to make singers more popular. Which is ultimately saying: 'you sing and we will try to read the minds of the people that you're singing to and come back to you with ideas.'
And once that started, that was the first time that music got re-appropriated into being more of a sport. And I think for the most part Neil Young fans don't want that. And I like Neil Young because I know he's not trying to read my mind and figure out what I want him to say and then say it. But in country music, that is the openly discussed plan. What would a country person that's going to work today like to hear me say? And maybe, if I'm lucky, I will read his mind and tell him what he already knew. And to me, that's not self-expression.
I don’t believe that's what Hank Williams was doing. I don't believe that's what Kris Krisotfferson was doing. I think it's a fair thing to do, but I think Kristofferson spoke his heart and then dealt with what people thought was in there. When he sang "Billy Dee," most people in those days thought: 'eh, that's all right.' But when he sang 'take the ribbon from your hair,' people went wow!--that could make money. But he was like: they're both just thoughts of mine I don't consider one better than the other. I open my heart and you guys go through it like refrigerator and pull out what you need. As opposed to--I try to stock my heart like a refrigerator with what I think you might need.
I know for John Prine that wasn't the plan. The plan was to be a rock star and have hits on the radio, which cracked me up when I found that out. You're kidding me! Which one was supposed to be hit? Oh, "Saddle in the Rain?"--oh that's so sweet!
The first time I was on the radio, I called my label and said, "How are we gonna make this stop?" I was supposed to be the next Lyle Lovett. Now I'm on the radio every five minutes. I thought, I'm going to be finished by fall. It was a funny song, too. But I feel like as the years went by, I was wrong. MCA said 'make a "Talkin' Seattle Grunge Blues" video' and I didn't want to for these delusions I had about my own integrity. But it's an integrity that I now no longer want. I think I had my head up my own (expletive) and somehow thought that I was hip or deep or that music could be deep. I no longer think that. I don't even think Bob Dylan is deep. I think music is fun.
Do you enjoy making albums? Not all songwriters find it easy.
I do. When I started, I had these delusions of being a John Lennon type or a Bob Marley type and I had massive delusions of what they were and what they had done. They made it seem as if music was important instead of just being another distraction from our doom, which is what it is. And so I feel like when I thought I had something to say to the world, I didn't. And now I'm certain I have nothing of value to tell anybody. Sometimes when I'm at the grocery store, someone will come up and tell me I'm deep. And I just think I like being considered that for sure but I know that's not what I am. I'm a diary keeper. I'm like an 8th grade girl with a diary. If I take an extra 20 minutes to make it rhyme, I get some chump change.
Has having a full band changed your process for writing and performing?
Yeah. The first time that David and I were talking, he asked me, could you write some songs for this band? And I said to him with where I am at making up songs I don't believe I have the melodic talent to come up with the music that I hear in my head for this band. I know all the chords. That's a misnomer that people will say--are you saying you don't play guitar well? I play everything as good as I want. I write whatever I want. I could make up any chord you want on a piano but I won't come up with a chord progression and a melody like Will Kimbrough that you can't get out of your head. Mine will almost certainly sound like a talking blues. And it won't have that thing that--oh gosh--(John) Fogerty, (Paul) McCartney have, that composer element. I started off as someone who had words I wanted heard. And then I learned some chords. And then I realized chord progressions weren't melodies. I had a record deal when I learned that.
And so I told David, let's go at this like I'm a guy who has a melody and a lyrics. I'm going to get in the middle of the studio and stomp and dance. You guys find the key I'm in and make a song out of it. Write riffs. Write hooks. It's like if you were building a house: ah, here's a place you could put more shelf space...I like to think I learned a little bit more about composition from the process. The best way I can contribute is to really undervalue what I can bring to the party. My favorite thing to do is to come up with a poem that is open to interpretation. Everything you guys think that we should try, I want to try.
The band seems to have re-invigorated you in a lot of ways.
It's very rebooting for me and very exciting for me and especially at my age and trying to make new music and trying to feel like I need to come up with another "Beer Run." I feel like I really love this project and I love the life I've chosen but it got a little lonely.
But, I don't care what the crowd does. I don't mind the chaos and I can honestly say I've never had a gig I didn't like. If they talk, if they're pin drop silent--all of it--I like. It feels like surfing, like a kid who loves to skateboard. Some days you come home with a cut on your elbow but you love it. The falling is fun. The flying is fun. When it comes to performing I like failing at it every bit as much as I like to succeed.
Tell me about your Epiphone EJ-200.
It’s a long story but it’s got a good ending. When I had that song "Talkin Seattle...," I always wanted a jumbo Gibson because I thought that's what the Rolling Stones used and Emmylou Harris used. So, I called Gibson and asked if I could have a jumbo Gibson and they told me that me my song was not popular enough to be making that phone call. But maybe it was doing well enough to let me try the Epiphone jumbo that they were trying to promote at the time. And I got that and definitely fell in love with it.
A couple years later they wanted to give me a Gibson. I didn't want it. I've given a bunch of them (Epiphones) away. Since my first album, I've written every song I've written on those jumbo Epiphones. I believe the low end has that "Country Honk" (*Ed, acoustic version of "Honky Tonk Women" from The Rolling Stones 1969 album Let It Bleed) sound of the Stones.
I feel like the jumbo Epiphones with medium strings are the way to get it. When it was time for me to try a Gibson, I felt like the high end was too bright for me. So I stuck with my Epiphone. I just never, ever went back. The first time I used one was on Austin City Limits and I remember hearing the monitors at sound check and thinking: I've been wanting this sound my whole life. And I finally have it. And I've had so many people try to talk me out of my guitar. Jerry Jeff always say: 'but it's too heavy, you're getting old.' I say, nah, I don't care.
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