Don't let Todd Snider fool you

Jun 25, 2012

As it turns out, Todd Snider has everyone fooled. 

The Nashville singer-songwriter who wears his hippie stoner persona proudly is actually a workaholic who released two albums in the first four months of the year. “Agnostic Hymns & Stoner Fables” is a scathing indictment of the current state of the union, while “Time as We Know It,” is a loving tribute to Jerry Jeff Walker, the man who changed the course of Snider’s life.

“Yeah, man, I think I work harder than most of my friends realize,” laughs Snider, who plays the 20th Century in Oakley Wednesday, part of a tour that will keep him on the road through September. “The thing is, most of it is fun stuff that you’re getting paid for that you would be doing anyway. So if you like to travel and drive your car and all that, it doesn’t seem like work.

“I read someplace that if you love what you do for a living, you won’t work a day in your life. Sometimes it feels like it’s just a long party ... But songs get written and recorded and stuff like that.”

“Stuff like that” is another area where the appearance belies the reality. Snider’s ditties can sound simple on first listen, like he’s just tossing words off the top of his head. However, his clear-eyed reporting on “Stoner” songs such as “In the Beginning,” “New York Banker,” “In Between Jobs” and “Big Finish” should be leading the evening news or displayed on the front page of the nation’s newspapers.

But Snider isn’t an ideologue, he’s a songwriter who loves to entertain people. That’s why his set list might feature “Mission Accomplished” back to back with “Beer Run.” And that’s why his latest set of original tunes is as musically energetic as it is lyrically pointed. Drummer Paul Griffith and bass player Eric McConnell – the Burnouts – are touring with Snider, while violinist Amanda Shires and organist Chad Staehly add unusual depth to the record.

“Amanda is very creative. That’s my arrangement style, to have everyone come up with their own stuff,” he deadpans. “She just came up with a lot of hooks, nobody told her what to do, she could just do whatever she wanted.” 

Shires’ other contribution was bringing boyfriend Jason Isbell to Nashville during the recording sessions.

“I’ve only known Jason for a while; I’ve been a fan longer than we’ve been friends,” Snider says of the former Drive-By Trucker who leads the 400 Unit and played guitar on one of the tracks. “We would be cutting all day, and then around happy hour he would come by and hang out. He even edited a few guitar parts where I’d get too close to them. I’d play them three times and then ask him to pick out the best one.

“I’ve always loved his records and Amanda’s. They have a whole new wave of singer-songwriters who are about 10 years years younger than me; those two, Hayes (Carll), Justin (Townes Earle) and Elizabeth Cook, too. I like them all. Actually, I resent them all because of their talent, but that’s a compliment,” he laughs.

Although it might seem odd to Snider that he would be a role model for younger artists, it shouldn’t come as a surprise. That’s what Walker has been to Snider since he was a teenager, and “Time as We Know It” is a gift to the mentor.

“He liked it,” Snider says of Walker’s response. “He hugged me and gave me a guitar. I know he loves me, but he likes to give me (crap) sometimes, he was trippin’ on me for (playing) the wrong chords. I think I know all his songs just as well as he does, but he likes to point out when I miss a little (chord) change here or there.”

Talking about Walker seems to make Snider wistful. And how will he feel when someone he hasn’t met yet releases the Todd Snider tribute album?

“Yeah, he’s in high school or something,” Snider laughs. “That would make me happy, I think that would definitely be exciting. It would be great to think that I could have the impact on a life like he had on mine.”

Walker’s impact in Snider’s own words

It didn’t take much prompting for Snider to tell the story of how Jerry Jeff Walker changed his life. His voice was filled with excitement as he recounted the events of more than 25 years ago.

“I had just moved to Texas. I’m an Oregonian and had gone to California and Texas, and in my mind I was about 18 or 19 and I fancied myself someone who could make up lyrics, and I was hoping I could be in a band. So I went to Austin, and started staying with these guys that played Jerry Jeff Walker, which was, outside of Neil Young, only the second time I had heard what I would call acoustic music and I really liked it. 

“I started really listening to that a lot, but it all had a band on it. Then he was going to play Gruene Hall, we got tickets to go and we all sat right in front, and he came out by himself and started singing his songs. And I remember they were all about being a free spirit. And at the time I really was, I was what everyone called a freeloader. I was a hitchhiker: ‘Can I stay on your couch tonight, can I borrow five dollars, can I come with you guys?’ I was that to my friends.

“And he was singing about it like it was a badge of honor, and I thought this is what I could do. I could do this and I don’t need to be a singer in a band, and he’s singing about the way I live.

“At the time I was trying to make up what I thought were deep poems because they didn’t make sense, which when you’re young, supposedly it’s deeper if you can’t understand it. But he was just up there singing songs about being a hitchhiker, a couch sleeper, he was moving all the time, and I just thought, ‘Well that’s probably the most natural thing for me to do.’

“And so I went out and got a guitar, and the next day – I don’t remember what I pawned or whatever – but something so I could get this old acoustic guitar, and I started making up my own songs about my life. And I’d say six months later I was already starting to get jobs.

“I learned, like three chords. I remember watching him and thinking, you know I had grown up with Van Halen back in high school, so the idea of the guitar seemed really impossible. When I saw Jerry Jeff do it up close, it didn’t look like a whole lot, he wasn’t doing much. It looked like something you could do.

“There’s so many singer-songwriters that I could rattle off that owe a big (debt) to him because he didn’t write his own songs all the time. I loved this about him; he would go out after his shows looking for songs. That’s how Guy Clark came into the world as a songwriter, and that’s how so many different songwriters that, had he not been willing to try to find that after-show guitar pull, that songwriter might never had gotten his song – “Jaded Lover” by Chuck Pyle – there were just so many songs that Jerry Jeff found by actually going and finding the guy that didn’t want to come to Nashville, but finding his song and bringing it to the world. He helped with Keith Sykes, Guy Clark, so many different people that the record companies – Joe Ely –  he was a big part of that scene.

"The thing that I think – I don’t think this would make him mad, I know him pretty well – but his tolerance for (crap) is soooo low ... he scares the (crap) out of people. And I think people are scared; I mean he parties ... he can get wild. And he can turn a bar into a really good time of storytelling and good times, but when he gets cornered and someone starts trying to give him (crap) or pushes him too far, he’ll say so. I’ve always admired him for that.

“When I’m traveling and people come up to me and know me as a singer, I’m pretty much going to smile and be nice until it’s over. And I’ve never ended up in an argument. But I’ve told him that he should stay on the bus because you end up in an argument every time you go out there. And Jerry Jeff, he just doesn’t give a (crap) which I love about him, and that’s the thing that gives you ‘Bojangles.’ ”

And that’s the thing about the person who gave us Todd Snider. 

Todd Snider & the Burnouts with Rosi Golan, 8 p.m. Wednesday, 20th Century, 3021 Madison Road, Oakley. $18-$25. 513-731-8000;;

Email Bill Thompson