Todd Snider on how he thinks of acoustic guitars and mandolins when he thinks of Colorado
It's not that tough to get Todd Snider to tell a story. The folksinger/guitarist is all about the power of a good narrative, and it's no wonder, considering his influences. Even before issuing his 1994 debut album, Songs for the Daily Planet, Snider followed the path of legendary folkies like Ramblin' Jack Elliott and John Prine. Snider's later albums benefit from firsthand tutelage from Prine, and one of his two releases from 2012, Time As We Know It: The Songs of Jerry Jeff Walker, is an intimate tribute to a master of the genre, the country rambler who wrote "Mr. Bojangles" and served as one of Snider's first heroes.
Those strains show up in Snider's conversational performances and story-heavy music -- and those skills are also hard to miss in a casual chat with the man. Snider is wont to break into side stories about Nashville, about recording in the studio, about dropping mushrooms and having a good time. We spoke with him in advance of his show this Saturday night at the Paramount Theatre for the sixth annual Swallow Hill Rootsfest to talk about the powerful influence of older artists, the future of folk music, the role of East Nashville in his creative approach and the power of the folk tradition in Colorado.
Westword: It seems like 2012 has kept you busy.
Todd Snider: We toured a lot, did 170 shows, which is a lot for me. Then I produced a Billy Joe Shaver record, which should come out next year. Let's see...I drank a lot, spent a lot of time at the bar. I'm going to do a show with David Schools next month, with Widespread Panic. I've been everywhere. I did a bunch of shows with Vince Herman a couple of weeks ago and that was fucking fun. Let's see, what else have I done? I've been in my house quite a bit. It's been a pretty busy year. I've been trying to keep writing and I'm supposed to put out a book. It's been a pretty eventful year.
You've released two albums this year, a collection of original tunes titled Agnostic Hymns & Stoner Fables, and a tribute album to Jerry Jeff Walker. Did that pace put any added strain on you?
I didn't expect to write the songs for the one, and I recorded all that Jerry Jeff stuff and thought that I'd put that out around his birthday. It just so happened that last year, right around this time, I started writing songs. I went in the week after Thanksgiving [in 2011] and made Agnostic Hymns. It's almost a year ago. I didn't see that coming, but once it did get done, I just gave it to the people who helped me. They told me it would be great if it came out this year. I didn't mind putting one record out and then another record out the next month.
The tribute album is pretty personal for you. Can you tell me about your artistic connections to Jerry Jeff Walker?
I was about nineteen, and I saw him at a place called Gruene Hall. I knew that night what I wanted to do with my life. I went out and I got a guitar the next day and sort of started trying to be him. About a month ago in Austin, I was telling a story about him onstage, and he came up behind me and surprised me and did a version of "Mr. Bojangles." It was a really cool performance, kind of a Tom Waits version of it. I met him in about '96, and now we'll go on vacation together sometimes. He's been like a father to me since I've known him. He tells me when it's time to get a haircut and shit like that.
What was it about Walker's music and stage presence that struck such a chord with you?
At the time, I was the guy who was always hitchhiking someplace or staying on someone's couch. I never had any money. There's a fine line between a crazy person and a free spirit, you know. It's usually money in most people's eyes. But I saw him, and it felt like he was singing about my life, and he wasn't singing about it in a way that sounded ashamed.
He was happy to be so free in his ways. I identified with that. He seemed like a Hunter S. Thompson with a guitar, and that really appealed to me. I thought, 'I'm already living the life, and all I really need to do is make up songs about it.' It didn't seem like his guitar work was so crazy that it was impossible -- that was a big part of it, just watching his hands. I followed him around and learned the guitar by sitting in the front row at his shows.
Storytelling figures pretty big in the way you play a show. Was that part of Walker's approach as well?
He was doing that, too. I think he gets that from Ramblin' Jack Elliott. John Prine was another person I listened to a lot in those days, and they both did a lot of that. I was doing that in my group, too. It seemed like if I went to go get the beer, something would happen, and I would tell everybody about it. I just reapplied that to the way I was doing my shows. But my show now, especially when I'm alone, is very similar to that Jerry Jeff show at Gruene Hall. I tell the story and sing the song.
The original record, Agnostic Hymns, doesn't shy away from topical and political statements. A lot of critics connected some of the content with what was going on earlier this year with the Occupy movement. Has that brand of lyricism ever got you in trouble?
No one's every tried to tell me to change who I was so I could make more money. I wouldn't have let them stay around too long. I'm just doing this to have a good time. I'm fortunate that I get a lot out of it and people give me a lot of things to do it. But the reason I do it is just to be amused. I never wanted to have an aim or a goal or any of that kind of thing. If I'd never have gotten on the road and made albums, I'd still be sitting around doing this.
You mentioned Jerry Jeff Walker, John Prine and Ramblin' Jack Elliott. Do you think the Woody Guthrie brand of folk singing, storytelling and traveling is still alive and well with younger artists?
I don't know. I don't think in those terms. I don't worry about what's going to happen to it, or care, really. I don't think of it like that; it's just something I've always done. It's a long tradition in America. Woody Guthrie was the best person doing it when they started recording things, but there were people before him. After Woody, there was Ramblin' Jack, and Ramblin' Jack spawned a whole generation in the '70s. There was a ton of guys like me. But there are still a ton of guys like me out there, younger and older.
I can think of older guys like Robert Earl Keen and James McMurtry and Steve Earle; they're not more than ten years older than me. Steve Earle's son is really good, and there's Jason Isbell. There are people out here doing this thing. So far, there's never been a big drought. Most of those guys I mentioned, I know, and we don't think about it like that. Most of those guys are stoned and don't give a shit about too much of anything. They're looking forward to seeing what's going to happen after the show tonight.
Does the touring schedule ever take a toll?
I like it. It's actually very easy. I've heard musicians say that the show is free, what you're paying me to do is travel. I enjoy the traveling just as much as the show. It's not that hard.
You get to see the world and meet all kinds of people. You have a purpose, so you're never a tourist. You don't go to St. Louis to see the arch. You find where the locals hang out. The country feels like it's gotten smaller and smaller to me as the years have gone by. I still look forward to it for that reason.
All the same, it seems like you have a pretty strong base in Nashville. Do you think that's had an impact on your music and performance style?
For sure, especially the place I live now, which is East Nashville. I came here about a decade ago and made the record that was all about my neighborhood, East Nashville Skyline, my neighborhood. The Colorado equivalent would be Nederland. My side of town isn't really the country music side of town. Some of Dylan's band lives over here; some of Prine's band lives over here; tons of songwriters live here, lots of painters and poets and authors and actors.
The bars are really fun -- things will get started around lunch. Guitars start coming out. We don't really have live music here in the sense that you see it listed that so-and-so is going to play; it's more that you go to the bar, and there's Justin Townes Earle just sitting around with his friends, picking in a circle and you can listen if you want. Or me, I might go down there today and start playing with my friends.
It's very romantic, I think. There are a lot of people whose dream of a life seems stupid where they came from. Where I come from, in Oregon, the idea that you would want to go be a folk singer and take a song and record it and put it out, it's a silly idea. When you get here and everybody that you meet is from someplace else and they have an idea of what their life could be that people rolled their eyes at back home ... We don't compete, we help each other. It's very poetic and artistic.
Do you think that's shaped your sound?
I think I sound like my neighborhood. When we make our records, most of the people who come to the sessions walk over there. That makes a difference. I remember last year, we were cutting something and we needed a drummer, so we sent this kid who had agreed to be our runner into [town], into the crowd. I think we ended up with three.
The Rolling Stones played a big role on my side of Nashville; everybody on this side of the river is really into them. I think you can hear that on all of the records that come out of my neighborhood. Our side of town is the Jack White, Black Keys kind of thing -- you might go into a restaurant and find them. The other side of town is somewhere you might see Faith Hill.
How does that compare to where you grew up in Oregon?
Now there's a music scene in Portland, but when I was a kid, there wasn't. It was very jock-y and Republican. My family particularly was very different than I am. My family doesn't like what I do; they don't like what I say. The kids I grew up with wanted to belong to golf clubs. I never wanted that. I wanted to get high and get in trouble.
Your early sound seems more indebted to classic and electric rock, bands like Lynyrd Skynyrd. When did you transition more toward acoustic folk and storytelling?
I never stopped liking Skynyrd. My first two or three records, I had a band called the Nervous Wrecks, and my hope was that we'd be a Southern rock band like that. Then, at a certain point, the people I studied the most with were Jerry Jeff and John Prine; I didn't want to get too far from that. I didn't want to make records that I couldn't go alone and support. On my third record, I got off the rails a little bit -- it was pretty rocking, pretty Tom Petty-sounding. Then after that, I felt like I kind of OD'ed on that.
The very next year I went out and played folk houses and started studying specifically under John Prine, with my fourth album. He started giving me songwriting lessons. About two records after ... in my opinion, I found my voice. I'd say my first five records were more imitative and trying to figure out what that whole studio thing was. The first time I'd ever been in a studio was to make my first record. I'd never done any of it. It took me a long time to make records I liked.
I realized I like records that are out of tune and sound a little tipsy. That's what I started doing with East Nashville Skyline. If we made a mistake, we just left it. That's what all my heroes had done. That's what Exile on Main Street has. That's what Tonight's the Night by Neil Young has. If he misses a note, he doesn't care. Now, I never have any idea of how it's going to go. I just let it happen.
For all of your roots in Nashville, it seems like you have plenty of Colorado connections. Is the state more amenable to folk music than other parts of the country?
Yeah, definitely. Boulder feels like a sister city to East Nashville for me. I have so many friends -- the Yonder Mountain guys are like brothers to me, and so are the Leftover Salmon guys. All of those bands from up there -- Elephant Revival, I love them so much. When I'm there, I always want to stay a few extra days to see what's going on. I'll stay at Jeff Austin's house for a little bit.
They'll come here, too. Leftover Salmon was in East Nashville not too long ago. We took all those 'shrooms and everybody was happy to have them in town. That's kind of a jam band thing, almost; there's a real connection between that and what I do. There are a few cities across America that have a thriving musician scene, and Boulder is definitely one of the bigger ones.
Atlanta is a bigger one, New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Minneapolis. When you go to town for the gig, you're going to see all your old music friends. Most cities don't have that. Lincoln, Nebraska -- there's maybe one folk singer, and he does covers. There's maybe a band, and they do covers. Maybe there's one band that makes albums and tours.
I think the Rootsfest gig you're playing speaks to that quality. You're playing with Patty Griffin and Lake Street Drive; Swallow Hill is presenting the show; the Denver Folklore Center is a sponsor.
Yeah definitely. Acoustic guitars and mandolins -- I think of Colorado and think of the mandolin. I think of Planet Bluegrass concerts.
Since 2012 was such a busy year, do you have plans to ease up in 2013?
I have this funny idea of wanting to be in a band. I don't know how that's going to play out, but I want to be in a band that I wasn't necessarily always in charge of. I want to do something that's collective.
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