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Wednesday, 29 May 2013 08:00

'You go up there and risk embarrassment' A pre-Twangfest interview with Todd Snider

'You go up there and risk embarrassment' A pre-Twangfest interview with Todd Snider
Written by Kevin Edwards

If this generation of folk musicians has a character that purposefully seeks to be the fart in the spacesuit, a poke in the ointment or a fly in the eye, it surely has to be Todd Snider.

He is Loki. Or Coyote. Bound to introduce chaos whenever things start to feel cozy, Snider is that barefoot guy who's wearing a hat and jacket, playing a guitar, telling stories that are fun, funny and that feel too honest not to be the truth.

Snider is headlining the first night of Twangfest 17 at Plush with Ray Wylie Hubbard and Stickley & Canan on June 5. In advance of the show, I woke the west-coasting Mr. Snider for a chat about coming back to St. Louis, but ended up in a conversation that ranged from the joy of festival season, Snider's new band, Jerry Jeff Walker worship, chain-sawed bears and giving it all away.

Kevin Edwards: I saw you in Oregon last year at Pickathon in the Galaxy Barn, and it was so intimate, like being in your living room.

Todd Snider: That was one of my favorite shows of the year last year -- that first one.

It was absolutely wonderful. So, I see that you have a hole in your schedule and it looks like you'll be close to Portland in early August. Is there any chance you might turn up at Pickathon again?

I think we're doing the Portland Zoo concert and I'm going out early for a wedding too, so I might, you know. I really had a good time that's for sure. If they wanted me to, I'd pop in. I know it's not on the schedule as a normal thing.

But I've always wanted that zoo job, even when I was in high school. They have a concert at the zoo every Saturday during the summer, when we were kids we used to go, and so I always wanted to get that gig and I finally got it.

I see you are playing some festivals; in fact the next place you're playing is a little festival over Memorial Day weekend in Alabama. One of the coolest things about playing festivals has got to be the hangouts -- the people that you see and that you never get to see and those you get to play with. Do you have any stories about that or anything you're looking particularly forward to this summer?

Yeah, for a musician that really is the best time of year because you meet people you look up to, run into old friends that we don't normally get to see. Like my neighbor three doors down is a singer and I see him more at festivals than I see him on the street. And so, yeah, I look forward to them a lot.

I've had some stuff -- you know, meeting Leftover Salmon and some of the guys from Widespread Panic -- I got to meet these guys at festivals. The real music is in the tent backstage at those things.

And then there are the people that you never expected to meet but run into.

Exactly. Like I know Taj Mahal and fucking Arlo Guthrie and people that I would never know but I got to meet and maybe play with the day of some gig they had that night.

That would be so cool. I see you have an album out that is a limited-edition collection of live recordings from last year. The record is called "Happy New Year - Volume One" and your website says it's something you're going to do every year. Tell us about that?

That's right. I forgot about that. We are starting to put so much crap out! Yeah, that's going to be every year because we record all of our shows, and then at the end our road crew picks the best performances to put on the record. And they've already sold a fuckload of those things so, you know, I guess I'll think of something weird to buy.

Last year I did an album of Jerry Jeff Walker songs and a record of new songs and then this coming year I think I'm going to do three albums. I thought I was about to quit and then I made up a bunch of new songs.

Well that's good for all of us -- that you've decided to carry on. You know, I looked at the song list on the album and the first song, "Barefoot Champagne," was recorded in St. Louis in January 2012.

I think that's right. I always love it and I always see Brian Henneman (frontman for the Bottle Rockets). I just joined a band called the Hard-Working Americans with Dave Schools from Widespread Panic and Neil Casal from Ryan Adams' band. We're like a hippie band and our album is called "Welfare Music" -- boy, put that in the paper because I haven't told Brian yet. We did one of his songs and I lost his phone number, so he doesn't know we recorded his song and named our album after it.

Well, they're going to be in St. Louis for Twangfest, playing with Marshall Crenshaw, so maybe you'll run into one another.

Yeah, they're some of my closest friends; I hope they'll come sit in with me at the gig. And I can't wait to tell Brian about his song because I really think it's good. I don't sing it as good as him, but I think the band's real good.

Sure, and I know that artists have got to love it when other artists cover their work.

I do. I love it. And I don't care who it is. If it's somebody I didn't like, all of a sudden I like them immediately.

I would too. So, Todd, how can people get their hands on this inaugural live collection?

I don't know.


I really don't know. Because I don't think it's a normal thing and there might not even be any more of them. I think they only made 2000. And they might be gone. But I bet if you go online or go to the YouTube, you can download it or get it for free. And I encourage anybody -- if you can get any of my records for free, I would do it.

Well that's cool. And a unique position.

Yeah that's not going to impact me that much. Come to the show, if you can. Buy me a shot.

There you go!

If you can get the music for nothing that's what I do.

I wanted to talk about the other album you mentioned which is a tribute to Jerry Jeff Walker and it seems like it's a real labor of love to you. Tell me a little bit about your relationship with Jerry Jeff Walker's music.

Definitely. I was 19 and I wanted to be a singer in a band and I thought I could make up words. And then I saw Jerry Jeff at a place called Gruene Hall. He didn't have a band, he was just by himself with a guitar. And I was convinced that was my path, you know. And that that was my real dad -- because I felt like I was already that. I dressed like that, I acted like that. And I was a hitchhiker and a freeloader and I was three chords from a free spirit. And I saw that and dedicated my life to it. I didn't even set out to be original; I set out to be like Jerry Jeff Walker.

And then, through studying him, I learned who all his friends were and then I just set out to become someone who could be in that social group. First I was just like, "What would Jerry Jeff put on?" But after a while, it became more like, "How would John Prine or Rodney Crowell or Guy Clark walk across the room?" I'll try to do that.

Yeah, and I think that's a common way to come to music, don't you think?

I feel like you meet the people you idolize, and they're the ones that teach you to be yourself. At least that was my experience. John Prine was the one who helped me to see that I couldn't just be John Prine. I had to figure out something else to be. And he was very, very supportive because he said, "You're really great at doing me, but when are we going to hear you?"

And I'd say maybe around my fourth or fifth record I started to figure out a way to be me and not just copy my heroes. Or I hope so. But I'm sure it's still in there and you can still hear it. But, boy, if all I ever did with my life was to become some sort of B-rate Jerry Jeff Walker and Prine guy, I'd put that on my tombstone.

I guess I should have been calling you Reverend Snider as I've read that you've become ordained and that you're a man with a mission. Tell us what's going on about that.

I do gay weddings. I support them and I'm glad to be in that fight. I feel like they've been persecuted enough by the dumb, and I would like to contribute some positivity in the life of the homosexual community, if I could. You know, their fight seems to be really inflamed right now, and I'm for them in a big way. It started off marrying Jason Isbell and Amanda Shires, but after I did the straight couple, I thought, "Okay, after this I only do gay couples."

That is so cool and a noble calling, I think.

Thank you.

You've been doing this for 20 years now -- and that's just your recording history -- you've probably been doing it longer than that.

Eight or nine years more. I think I was 19 when I started and 28 when my first record came out.

So how is doing this for a living now different that it was then? What's better and what's worse?

I would say that it's almost completely the same. And that I never ended up learning anything, like I thought I would. And it didn't change, you know? My first gigs were in front of three and four people in little bars, and now it's considerably more, but it still feels like the same job. You go up there and risk embarrassment. You go up there and open your heart and sort of deal with what's in there. Some nights you open your heart and it really resonates with what everybody else is feeling, and some nights it doesn't.

But you can't change what's in there or then you're lying. You can't keep your heart closed and tell people that what's in their heart is also in yours, which is what it looks like you could do. But once you get started, people just do not accept that. And so, from the very beginning, it felt like all I really have to do is sort of be vulnerable for about 90 minutes and rhyme my feelings.

I can't rhyme my thoughts, man, because that's boring. I've got to rhyme my feelings, which is a risk, especially among other men. It's a risk of embarrassment, especially when you're younger. The older you get and the more you do it, people are like, "He makes up poems." But when you're 20, they're like, "Nice poem, pussy!"

Exactly: Let me pummel you for that.

Yes. Let me pummel you for writing that poem. So, it just still feels like that's the job to me, and I haven't really thought of it as a ladder to climb or a thing to achieve. The first gig was the same as my last gig.

And I think that helps keep it fresh. If you lose that, it starts to become more of a corporate job.

I've seen that happen a lot. People are young and they're trying to figure out what everyone wants so that they can give it to them. That doesn't seem to ever work. Unless you're lucky. Neil Young does whatever he wants and we want it. Shuggie Otis did whatever he wanted and not as many people wanted it. But it's still art.

That's the thing. It's art and you've got to do it and if people follow, they follow. But if they don't, you've still got to do it.

You've still got to do it. That's right. I feel like if I was just sawing -- you know you drive down the Oregon coast, and those guys are chain-sawing bears out of logs. God knows how many they sell. There's 50 of them sitting outside, and they probably sell one every four months. Who gives a shit? I got to cut up another one, man.


It's not about selling. I've got to cut another bear out of a log. And why? For fun. You can have it when I'm done with it.

It could kind of be like a motivational slogan before you get on stage: Time to cut another bear!

Time to cut another bear, man!

So, you've played all over St. Louis, I don't know if there's any place you've not played, and you're kicking off Twangfest June 5 at Plush. When I saw you in Oregon you were solo. Are you traveling with a band?

Sometimes I do and sometimes I don't. I just finished like 40 days with a band and now I have some solo shows coming up but there should be friends joining me onstage.

Okay, one last regular question and then a little fun at the end. If someone is reading this interview and hasn't been to a Todd Snider show, what can they expect?

A completely unprofessional person that's going to not treat it like work. And so it could be good, it could be bad. It could be so bad, it's good. It could be so good, it's bad. It could go a million different ways.

I'm 99 percent sure I'll be there. For sure. Barring some weird, twisted something that happens. Like, you know, if I get invited to a cock fight like five seconds before show time, all bets could be off.

And that could happen. It is St. Louis. So…

(Laughing) It is St. Louis. And I hope I run into Chuck Berry. He's my favorite songwriter in the world. Every time I come to St. Louis I try to make a point of going by his bar. I've met him like six times.

That's very cool! I saw him once at the Pageant a couple of years ago.

Just the best 28 songs I've ever -- you know, you could put it all in one sentence: He's Bob Dylan's favorite songwriter. The fucking story.

There you go. That is all that needs to be said.


Okay, one last fun thing. It's kind of like a Rorschach test. I'll hold up a sentence and you give me a one-word answer.


Okay. What's your favorite color?


See how easy this is?


Thelma Velma or Daphne?

Oh, Daphne.

How many dimensions are there, really?


What's the solution to the calamitous violence and injury in football?

Get rid of it. Replace it with marijuana and Beatles records.

That's not one word but I love it.


Are tomatoes legally considered fruits or vegetables?

Fruits. No, vegetables. Vegetables!

What's the coolest thing you can buy for $600,000?


We will accept that, but the answer we were looking for was "submarine."

(Laughing) Yeah, you're right. "Submarine" is the right answer.

One last question. Any advice to young musicians?

Turn back! It's a trap!

Barring some pop-up cockfight, Todd Snider will be onstage at Twangfest 17, presented by 88.1 KDHX, June 5 at Plush.

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