Time and perspective may just prove that Todd Snider was the modern era’s original alt-folkie. Rooted in the tradition of Woody and Dylan, the earthly Snider has long been coaxing time from out the bottle, expressing with a wry twang his clever observations of the past, present, and sometimes even the future of our unpredictable cosmic existence, always with a stark sincerity and a woodsman’s wisdom. Since the release of his 1994 debut LP, Songs for the Daily Planet—whether the topic has been cocaine, politics, or just old friends passing the jug around—Snider’s songs always combine brutal honesty with a well-traveled troubadour’s “all you can do is smile sometimes” shoulder-shrug.
From a tour stop in Little Rock, Arkansas, Snider hops on the line to chat with AQ while he indulges in what has to be the folk singer’s breakfast of champions: coffee and weed. He’s been listening to Bob Marley’s Babylon by Bus while out on the road for this tour (on vinyl, naturally). Each tour, Snider finds himself digging deep into something binge-worthy. On a previous tour, it was the sixties TV series Flipper that captured his attention. This tour, it’s Marley’s work.
Snider will be performing at the New York Society for Ethical Culture on March 6, in support of his latest release, the outstanding Cash Cabin Sessions Vol. 3.
You’re a folk singer who gets up and says exactly what he has to say and that’s a pretty ballsy thing to do in this day and age, isn’t it? Especially given the global political climate.
Yeah, I mean… maybe not from where [I was] 30 years ago. But there’s a kid named Chicago Farmer, he’s just getting’ started and he’s kickin’ ass, but…. I get now why my dad wasn’t into it, but I just was addicted to it. It seems like an odd job to give a person. It seems like an odd job for a grown man. It’s a guy hitting a box with strings tied to it saying what he thinks. It’s absurd that people get away with it, but I am just addicted to it. I do it when people aren’t around. But I think people who come to see me can almost tell they’re giving a sandwich to a homeless guy. They’re like, ‘I like some of these songs, but also, this guy’s got nothing else to offer—I’ll just give him a couple of bucks.
(Laughter) I think you may be being a little too hard on yourself, Todd.
Well, I’d say that’s kinda the truth about a lot of singers, so… I don’t feel like I’m knocking myself. You know, you sing a few songs, people like it, and it gives you a rise….
I feel you. One of the things that I really like about your songs is that they express a particular meaning in a time when rock and roll doesn’t really seem to need to serve a purpose to exist. And that’s okay, for what it’s worth, but I get the sense from you that purpose and meaning are essential for you as a writer.
God, I love that question…. I agree totally about rock—and folk. They’re both vocational and there is a point to both of them. You’re not supposed to say–and I won’t [say what it is]… [but] the point of folk show is different, and the point of a rock show is also different, and not everyone knows this sort of “put the devil in the room,” [kind of vibe], or whatever that means to you…. There’s other ways to describe it, but that’s the way I’ve heard of it. But what we’re going to do is take the roof off, as they say. And now, I don’t understand it. It’s the kind of thing you could do that your parents would be proud of, and that just doesn’t work for me. And people go, ‘Oh, it’s just a sound, though’—I disagree. It’s a lifestyle choice. And the group I was in [Hard Working Americans], we did it like the old days. Groups like Pearl Jam do it like the old days. There’s a point to doing it like the old days like Pearl Jam, whether you like them or not, or a crazy fan of that kind of music. But you only have to watch Metallica play one time to go, “Oh, oh—I see the point of all that. I don’t know what it is, and it might be absurdity and it might be rebellion. I have no idea. But it doesn’t matter. You can see that those cats have an intention, which is what (Aquarium Rescue Unit’s) Colonel Bruce Hampton was always talkin’ about….. Ramblin’ Jack (Elliott) has an intention… Widespread Panic has one.
You absolutely have one.
I do. I do. And it came way before learning to play the guitar. I’ve learned not to talk about it too much, because it ruins the show, but there’s a thing about trying to call you into my show. I don’t state it…. it’s not like you have to take it and leave through the gift shop, although that’d be nice, too—well, I really don’t care about that. But you know what I mean? There is a general theme to folk music, I think.
Touching on those themes, there’s a song on Cash Cabin Sessions, Vol. III, that I keep going back to, which is “The Blues on Banjo.” The lyrics capture many of the fears and trepidations that I have personally, and I think many other people have, as well. You know, like, ‘What if I am the next unlucky schmuck who picked the wrong day to go to the movies?’ Or, ‘Why is it that people who are tasked with coming up with solutions always sell us short by telling us they’re are thinking and praying for us? When I listened to “The Blues on Banjo,” it makes me want to stand up and say, ‘You know what, man? You can save your thoughts and prayers, just fucking do something about the problem.’ When I listen to that track, like, you know, I get riled up like that, you know what I mean?
So my question for you is, do fans often come up to you and let you know just how motivated they become by listening to your music and message? And if so, do you channel that response back into your writing at all?
It’s not often, but like what you’re saying to me now is inspiring and makes me feel listened to, you know? And then, if somebody just came up and said, “I liked that banjo picking!” That would make me happy, too. I really appreciate the thought you put into it, though. Sometimes, I will hear things like that, and yeah it does [resonate]…. And again, it’s like… If my intention was for that, I’d never do it. But when that happens, I like it.
I wonder with socially conscious writers, especially folk singers and punk bands, if Donald Trump is the gift that no one wanted, but keeps on giving in terms of source material. Do you feel that way?
Um, let’s see. Well, the simple answer is of course, yeah. He’s not even really a politician. He comes from a whole different kind of thing…. I mean, I could say that in a way that wouldn’t offend his supporters, and unless you’re talking about the KKK, my hope through all this has been to try to be a non-sore loser, and all that. Like if I won a championship and that guy invited me over to his place, I’d go, and I’d be like, “Hey, I met the President,” you know? But then again, I’m probably going to vote for whoever is running against him, you know? I know I’m going to—I hope it’s going to be that Bernie guy. I like him. And then on a whole other level, we all have to wonder what role [Trump supporters] really play in our lives and all that…. I mean, as long as I’ve been alive, Republicans and Democrats have sort of disagreed with each other before they even really knew what was being discussed.
And now the Republicans have this sort of wild card that could have just as easily happened [to Democrats]. The Democrats could have ended up with a crazy TV star, but it happened to [Republicans]. And so that’s what makes it new, and I try to be respectful of all that. But that said, my thing with most politics is that I try to be positive…. In fact, the thing I was thinking as this election year comes, I’ve never heard a folk singer sing or talk about politicians. You know, [politicians] put up with a lot of bullshit—they’re not that bad. In general, like I said, this is a tough time—I would like to see people get along and be part of it. So here we are talking in the magazine and I’m watching my tongue because I want to be respectful of my country. You know, I do think the system works. In fact, I think that our forefathers, those cats were ready for the idea that an odd duck might win, and we’re built for it. When a president comes along and you don’t like him, well, this country’s built for that. He’ll be gone soon. And if you want to change the rules he makes, we can.
I really liked that positive outlook that you have as it relates to speaking [about] politics.
The thing I try to remember is that all those presidents usually have kids, and whether you like those kids or not…. you know, this particular president, people dislike him in—even more so—the people that dislike him, they hate him. Democrats who really hate Republicans, really, really hate this guy, and it makes sense. He says some awful, terrible things…. I’ll go vote, and when I do, I’ll vote for Bernie Sanders. I hope he wins, but if he doesn’t, I’ll go back to singing and being an American.
You were around 28-years-old or so when you recorded your first LP and now you’ve had a very prolific output since then. You’re in your early fifties now. What has changed and what has remained the same in terms of your musical ambitions since that first LP?
Let’s see…. I am learning about recording. I’ve been trying to get better at guitars. I’ve gotten older and just the process of arranging and learning to record, and all those things, becomes more interesting. It was a long time ago, but it does feel like a thing where people go in on the road and about five years into it you can see that it’s either who they are or kind of not. You just let go; let go of what day it is and what you wore and all that and just learn to be kind of on this never ending camping trip. If you can do it, you’re all good, and if you’re not, you can go into a studio. I live for this shit. I live for it. I will feel uncomfortable when we stop.