Epiphone continues our long-running conversation with singer-songwriter Todd Snider. For many of his die hard fans--and there are a lot of them--Snider is the last of his kind, the troubadour's troubadour, and the last of the true believers. Snider is a kind of modern Woody Guthrie whose deep understanding of the humor, pathos, and poetry of America has often incited his audience to cheer him, jeer him, and push him to the edge of not only his sanity but their own--often in the same performance.
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. On the eve of recording sessions for a new album (now in progress) we spoke with Snider about the influx of new artists streaming into Nashville and the impact that the sonic gold rush has had on the city’s fragile artistic community as higher real estate prices drive musicians farther and farther from the city center. Tellingly, Snider is not only upbeat about the city’s new population of "hipsters" but he’s also upbeat about Nashville’s future.
Thanks for meeting with Epiphone, again, Todd. The last time we spoke, you had just formed your road band Hard Working Americans. And now you’re back to mostly playing solo.
Yeah! I remember at that time I had just put that book out (I Never Met a Story I Didn't Like: Mostly True Tall Tales) and when I went out to do the book tour, there was something about that book that made the shows a little odd—people were interjecting in the shows a lot and then getting into fights with each other. It was turning into these Phil Donahue things.
I was happy they were sort of excited about it, but I wanted it to mellow out. And then when the band came in, it was a chance for me not to be the leader. And that also seemed to have killed all that. Now when I go back and do solo shows, that high energy is not there anymore. It seems like the band added a lot of distance--like there’s more hippies than there were before. They are mellower. You see, there’s about 5 basic nights on the boards for me--everywhere from pin-drop quiet to singing along or yelling for songs the whole night. I have the odd night when I come out and feel bullied by a bunch of drunks. But that’s been a long time. And that’s still kind of fun.
You’ve been working on new music. How is that going?
I’ve been making up lots of songs and I think there’s about 15 or 16 now—about 8 I really like. I’ve been recording. It’s starting to look like there’s an album there. And so next year I would try to do a bunch of new songs.
Do you rehearse new songs on the road?
I don’t sing them on the shows but I work on them in hotel rooms and stuff. And then I’ll play them for friends. These days, I try to keep them off the stage if they are new because they get around so fast. And there’s no sense in putting them out. Before I even formed the band I felt like I was starting to lose my understanding of the alphabet or the point in the lyric in my songs. I feel like I’m slowing starting to come back from the idea that songwriting is less of an altruistic endeavor than I thought it was when I got into it. It sounds philosophical but once you start realizing that what you’re doing is bullshit, you can really start getting good at it. And I feel like in the last five years, I like songs more than I ever have. But it’s getting harder to do them maybe. When I formed the band, I was sort of spent on the idea of some guy’s diary is something people should have to hear on a Saturday. Because I’ve been given this gift of-- ‘Hey read us your diary! It’s Saturday and we’re going to get drunk. It was quite a luxury. And then after awhile you wonder: how valuable is that? What is this? And I think that’s when I really started to feel that there’s not a big difference between “Louie, Louie” and “Blowin’ In the Wind.” I’m still trying to figure it out. I make up songs still but it comes from a different place.
Do you feel the atmosphere around Nashville can feel a bit too professional sometimes?
I feel like when I first started, I would say I was more into being a gypsy and more into being a hustler. Back then, being honest was the only way to be a hustler. It works as a way to feel good. If a girl breaks your heart and you’re honest about the song, it beats a doctor. There’s a practical use for it.
And as a grifter, it works, too, because if you’ve got a few songs, they’re going to let you ride with them and let you crash on their couch, faster than if you were just a guy who needed a place to sleep. I feel the closer I stay tuned to the idea that we get to live this life of high adventure, it feels profound, like you’re making God happy or whatever. It sounds like I’m talking about drugs but I’m not. The being-an-idiot-part, getting in the car because someone said so, is the part that keeps me in it. The band was really high adventure. There was always cops around, always something like that
Does performing overseas ‘feel’ different to you than it does in the States?
I guess it’s the same. Though when I go there--I’ve been there 3 or 4 times-- I feel like people are showing up to watch me leave. Sometimes I feel like English people want to see a train wreck. In England, they really applaud that –confrontations. I always feel like I’m being plied with drugs and @&$# when I’m there (laughs) to see if I might blow the gig so they can write about it. But I still love it. I remember when we were making East Nashville Skyline,we were singing about something that was just starting to happen as if it had happened already. We we’re singing about this being born as if it had been here for awhile. I wasn’t the only person singing. There seemed to be a collective at the time of people who were just starting to realize that we were here. Elizabeth Cook, Chuck Mead, Kevin Gordon…all a sudden there were a couple dozens of us. Then the younger ones started coming. I remember hearing from some people that it was starting to get to be too much. But I still say bring ‘em on. I remember somebody asking me if I thought there were too many hipsters who had moved to town and I said: Yes, you. You’re the one too many. We have one extra!
Do you find. Young artists are seeking you out to produce or give advice?
I don’t feel I’ve been taxed yet so far. But I remember when I met (singer, fiddler) Amanda Shires and I was like: ‘Damn!’ And then she introduced me to her husband (Jason Isbell) and I went Wow! Just before (the album) Southeastern. Then it felt like all of a sudden there was Aaron Lee Tasjan…and I thought this generation made my generation look like we weren’t even trying. I was excited to see it all. But they do hang out with me because most of the new types of people they know are on the hit song train. Instead, they are copying (John) Prine really, which is what I do. I wouldn’t say I succeeded at copying him but I tried. I tried to have a life like that and just make up songs about whatever I wanted and hope that it would be ok. I feel like I hear Jason Isbell looking for an audience or Chris Stapleton, Sturgill (Simpson)…and Margo Price. They all remind me of Neil Young types of artists—just singing what they want to sing and then dealing with the outcome as opposed to altering themselves. Which, in my day, felt like in the if you we wanted to be a real country singer you were going to have help with your outfit and stuff.
When I started, Nancy Griffith and John Prine and Steve Earle had already established it was a viable job to shoot to be the non-star singer. So I really felt like I showed up just in time to get nurtured by people like Prine and Buffet. It was the very beginning of the idea that someone would let you behave like I get to. Now lots of people do—sort of.
What have you been listening to?
I’ve been listening to a lot of Django Reinhardt almost exclusively. It’s a relief to not hear lyrics. And I’ve been playing a lot of the guitar. I like the young people. There’s a Woody Guthrie record called Struggle, very protest-y. We put that on last night and listened to it a few times. And I could tell: ‘Oh I’m going to be wearing this out for awhile.” Ramblin'’ Jack Elliot is still a live—still here to learn from. He told me Woody taught him to travel but just taking him somewhere and leaving him. That will do it! But that’s what I like about songwriting.
You still perform with your Epiphone EJ-200?
I do. To me I really like this dull low end. I always hear (the Rolling Stones’) “Country Honk” with my EJ-200. That’s the sound I want. I don’t want that bright shimmery thing. Which a lot of people like. I’m a low-end person.
Do you like to use technology in the studio to find new sounds?
I’ve produced myself a few times. I’m interested to see what else I can do. I’d like to be better at it. I know a lot of singer songwriters don’t get into production. I do. I remember a couple of my first records when (the labels) really catered to you, we tried to delve into that. I think those records cost a fortune. Me and Will Kimbrough once worked on a $300,000 record. And we built a bar. Me and him –in the studio! And we even spent money on the wood (laughs). We went to dinner every night. We knew there was a hole in the boat. So we went, “Well @#$# it! Let’s go get new shirts!This thing is almost over. We better get the guitars we want.” Those days don’t happen again. But I don’t think songwriting is not a waste of time. I think Margo Price could have a hit and Aaron Lee…But if they don’t, that’s ok. Prine never did.