by: Thomas D. Mooney
I started this interview talking about Todd Snider. Ended up talking about Amanda Shires. Bob Dylan. Mick Jagger and Keith Richards. Shel Silverstein, Johnny Cash, and Jack White. Jerry Jeff Walker had a lot to do with it.
Now stop reading. Go listen to Kris Kristofferson’s 1971 song “The Pilgrim, Chapter 33.” Now go listen to Jerry Jeff Walker’s “Pissing in the Wind. (You’ll have to Spotify it to get the version I want to you listen to. It’s from his 1975 album “Ridin’ High”).”
I’d imagine that had Kristofferson and Walker written those songs anytime in the past 15 years, Todd Snider’s name would be in there. Describing Snider any other way other than being a poet, a picker, a prophet, a pusher, a pilgrim, a preacher, and a problem when he’s stoned…well it’d just be inaccurate to say the least. Like many of the truly great songwriters, Snider has that rare gift where he’s able to stir up your emotions where you’re sad and chuckling all within one song–and in certain cases, all within a single line.
A true test of a songwriter is not only be able to conjure emotion, but also just as importantly, make you think. It’s something that stuck with me ever sense I read it. It was in a Texas Music magazine interview with Hayes Carll in which he quoted Snider with “I’m not trying to change your mind, I’m trying to ease my own.” Which all very well may be true, but still, it’s a product.
Snider has never been shy with his opinions. He’s been downright bold. Fearless. Why would his latest release “Agnostic Hymns & Stoner Fables” be any different? Why would you expect anything less?
As we discuss in the interview, Snider says many, if not all of these songs, are personal stories. Diary entries and tales about friends and acquaintances. But they sound like a direct response to the uneasiness the country is seeing in the 2012 version of the United States. I suppose that’s just how in tune Snider is with his environment. Just how great of a pulse he’s has on the big picture.
When you listen to “Agnostic Hymns,” you’re hearing small stories about small, ordinary people. When you look back as the album ends though, you see how these small stories have intertwine and created something much more substantial and colossal.
In many cases in “Agnostic Hymns,” Snider indeed shows he’s “a walking contradiction, partly truth and partly fiction.” Which I’m sure, is just how he prefers it.
I keep going back “The Pilgrim, Chapter 33.” I think because, Snider, just like the song–and “Agnostic Hymns” for that matter–is bits and pieces. Stories, fables, hymns, facts, tales, insert what you will, that all just connect and show who Snider really is when they’re all put together.
New Slang: I guess I’ll just start off talking about “Agnostic Hymns & Stoner Fables.” It feels like it was really influenced and impacted by modern-day America–especially the politics side of life.
Todd Snider: Yeah, I’ve heard that and I’m glad that I hear that. Glad people are saying that, but for me, it was a lot of personal little arguments. I didn’t realize I was talking about America. I thought I was talking about my own petty shit.
NS: [Laughs] I think in many ways, you’ve been one who is asking important questions. You may not have the answers yourself, but you raise questions about who we are as Americans and what we’re going to be as a nation looking forward. But you do so in these personal stories about these characters. You think that’s a fair assessment?
TS: Yeah. I think that’s what comes first. It’s mostly personal stories. And then without even really trying, I think that other thing comes up. It just may be something that makes people human together or something like that. The way I would say something would resonate with somebody else. I don’t know.
NS: A lot of your songs, they are these character-based tales. It really seems to be art imitating life for you. How do you keep up with all these stories? How do you keep that story with you until you’re ready to put it into a song? How does that go about?
TS: Usually the whole thing will kind of show up–like on the song “In the Beginning,” before I even started, I knew how it was going to end. You know, I live them. I try not to do it as much as I used to, but I used to go out after shows and look for trouble and then try and make it rhyme later.
NS: I was actually wanting to talk about a few songs in particular on “Agnostic Hymns.” That OK with you?
NS: The song “Brenda.” That’s probably my favorite song on the album. You’ve mentioned it’s about the Rolling Stones. Can you talk about that?
TS: Well, I’m a fan. And a big fan, I’m not a fair weather one. I don’t have a period where I think they’re better than another. I like all of it and I hope they keep making it. And I know a lot about them. I listen to them a lot. And I had just read Keith Richards’ book “Life” where he calls Mick, Brenda. I knew that he did call him Brenda, but something about reading it in the book made me really think it’d be interesting to write a song. I can’t exactly remember where I was when I got that idea, but that was another one that formed completely first. The first idea was to make up a song about a couple and then you realize it’s them. I think something that made me think of the song was that I read some place where one of them was born Saturday night and other one was born a Monday morning. That got me thinking about the two separate images they have. I just got the idea that it’d be something that maybe Shel Silverstein would do. And then it was easy to care about. Really important to me in my life. They’ve been my family, you know?
NS: The very next song is “Too Soon to Tell.” It has a lot of interesting and great lines. “I wish I could show you how you’ve hurt me in a way that wouldn’t hurt you too” comes up early in the song and then later on, you say “They say that living well is the best revenge. I say bullshit, revenge is the best revenge.” I think it’s really interesting since those are in many ways the polar opposite when it comes to the thoughts and idea of revenge.
TS: Yeah. That your thoughts could move like that in a short span of time. I think that happens–or at least it happens to me sometimes.
NS: Exactly. And then also a line in the song is “It’s too soon to tell what’s going to happen to us when we die.” When I first heard that line, I immediately thought it tied back to “In the Beginning.” For you, was that exactly what you were going for?
TS: Yeah, that was something I was trying to–well, I guess I saw it happening. I was realizing it was happening and starting to see it. When the record comes together, you start to see little themes show up. I think it’s usually because it’s like an expression of the way you’ve been feeling for a couple of years. And so as much as they are different songs, they tend to intertwine with each other because that’s sort of how my thoughts go together as I’m living my life. Know what I mean?
TS: I like to connect them all. Also in “In Between Jobs,” it talks about why people don’t kill poor people. And then “In the Beginning,” where there’s this poor person wondering to himself why he doesn’t just rob this person instead of just begging. I was hoping those would be connected too.
NS: Yeah. I think that the album overall, lots of Americans can relate to it. But specifically “Too Soon to Tell.” People can really see themselves in the song thinking those lines. Relating to what you talk about with revenge. “
TS: Yeah, I hope so. That’s a favorite really. That’s just me saying how I feel really. I made that song up over a long period of time–and really, made it up kind of one line at a time too. Wasn’t really sure what it was about for a long, long time. Just letting it out. But yeah, it’s one of my favorite ones.
NS: Does that happen often for you? Where you’re writing a song and you just don’t know what it’s about until the very end?
TS: Yeah. It starts off and keeps evolving. For me, it works. It happens all different kinds of ways. That’s a lot of it. Especially the older I get, the less aware I am. The less I know how to do it [laughs].
NS: [Laughs] Also on the album is Amanda Shires. I don’t know if you know, but she’s from Lubbock.
TS: Oh yeah, that’s right.
NS: Yeah. How was working with her on the album?
TS: She played a huge role in how all that went about. She had a lot of great ideas and she was fearless. I told Eric [McConnell] before we recorded, I said that I wanted to get musicians that were going to not be afraid to get tipsy and I didn’t want to give direction. I wanted to have a party and I was wanting everyone to think of their own stuff. And I want it to be really spontaneous. A lot of people don’t like that. And he said she would. She played a big role in how that record was produced. In a way, the whole band could have got a producer credit in that everyone came up with their own parts. She sang and helped arrange things. Just a gifted chick. I think she’s one of the best young songwriters. You know there’s–I’m just going to rattle them off–there’s Justin [Townes Earle], Hayes [Carll], Amanda, Elizabeth Cook. Oh, and Amanda’s boyfriend, Jason [Isbell]. Those are my favorite young songwriters. I think those are the young songwriters who are going to take my job. And that I’ll resent for years [laughs].
NS: Yeah. She’s definitely up there. She’s just really blown up these past few years with her own material and playing on many other great people’s albums.
TS: She’s a natural, man. I’m a big fan. I knew who she was just from [her] being a singer. I knew there was an Amanda Shires out there. And I had met her one time and she had a feather in her hair like an Indian. And when Eric brought her name up, I asked if she was the one who wore a feather in her hair. I remember saying to tell her to wear the feather when she comes to record. I like that [laughs]. But yeah, that was the first, then I met her and was really taken by what a creative person she was. So I went home that night and started listening to her music and became a big fan. She’s a natural. She’s one of them songwriters I’d say–like those others I mentioned–I feel every once in a while, I’ll meet someone who makes up songs and they seem like a lifer. I almost want to tell them how sorry I am. I just want to hug them and say, “I’m sorry. You’re probably going to make up songs for the rest of your life, you poor thing. You’ll never go home [laughs].”
NS: [Laughs] Going back to her impact on the album, you can really hear her everywhere. And you can hear her style. Overall, the album just feels so loose and fresh. Feels like you guys were making the songs up on the spot really.
TS: That’s exactly how we did it. We were stoned. And drunk late at night. We didn’t have any plans. Her and the drummer Paul Griffith, they were the big stars of the record, I think. Her and him were the colors of the album I would say. They were the main colors. And I was really thankful they gave me so much. I was really glad she gave so much of herself. I owe her for life for that.
NS: You not only have “Agnostic Hymns” out, but you also released your Jerry Jeff Walker tribute album recently. You’ve always really admired Walker and really been appreciative. What made you want to do a whole Walker tribute album?
TS: Yeah. He’s been a hero to me. And I’ve had others. If I was going to name them, [Kris] Kristofferson, Shel Silverstein, Billy Jo Shaver, and John Prine. Those are the five people who I really studied hard. But Jerry Jeff was the first one. And he turned me onto the others. But he was always my favorite because it was always more than the songwriting. It was a way of life. It was a philosophy. You signed on for it. It’s like being a Hunter S. Thompson fan. I hope that’s what we’re creating. Something that’s not necessarily where when the show ends, it ends, but rather it stays. It’s a lifestyle. You sing your songs and you go out after the show and you look for more.
NS: Yeah. I think you put a real interesting and telling way to put that. You studied. I’m not sure how many songwriters will do that now. Obviously, people will tell you they’re influenced by or like these other certain songwriters and stuff. But really studying them, I’m not sure how many go totally in with that. It certainly feels though, that you’ve gone past the songs.
TS: Yeah, I hope so. Thank you for saying that. I like to think that. I don’t know what the younger people are doing. The ones I mentioned seemed to be. To be working hard. I know they do. I bet they’d be able to sit down and play all their songs for you (as in they would be able to play songs by those who influenced them the most right on the spot). I think with most of my songs, I can hear where I took them from. They’re all derivatives of something else.
NS: Earlier you mentioned Shel Silverstein. I know you’ve done many covers for different tribute albums. You did “Boy Named Sue” for Silverstein’s tribute album. Was that intimidating, since Johnny Cash did the song and his version was such a force?
TS: Well you know, I hadn’t thought of it like that. For some reason, my thought was, you know, you couldn’t top it or whatever. I don’t know, for some reason I thought people would give me a pass. No one would think that I was Johnny Cash. It was a lot of fun to do too. We recorded it in Johnny Cash’s house and Bobby Bare was there. He brought Shel Silverstein’s guitar. It was a real thrill to be a part of that.
NS: I guess I’m going to get you out on this last question (it ended up not being the last). I guess it was last year or so, I read this thing you did about the prospects of meeting Bob Dylan where you go into talking about these friends of yours who had met Bob Dylan. Is Dylan the most intimidating person to meet in music–and have you met him since you wrote that?
TS: No, I have not met him. And everybody that I know that has said that he is very intimidating. Those stories are all true–or at least they were truly told to me. I don’t think the people made them up. Him and the Stones are my top thing. I know too much about them. Way too much. It’s stalkery. Bob is probably my favorite human being. Stones and Bob are my two favorite things–not even my favorite bands–my favorite things. I like them better than Christmas and family and stuff like that. Food [laughs].
NS: Yeah. After reading it, I really thought about how I would meet Bob Dylan too. I’m definitely with you on the whole thing where you can’t tell him how much you love him or his music.
NS: He would just walk off obviously. Have you come to a conclusion yet on how you’d handle it or is it still up in the air?
TS: Run. I’m not going to take the chance. I don’t even know. I wonder if I would even do it if I had the chance. He’s already given me so much. If there was a reason for it, I guess I’d do it. If there was some sort of reason for it. But if it was just to say thank you, I’d probably just leave him alone. He’s given me so much already. They’re like parents to me. Sort of was raised by all those records.
NS: I did think of one thing I would do. I would have to get a lot more famous or would just have to get lucky I guess though for it to work. If he approached me, I would just “Bob Dylan” him and just walk off.
TS: Nice [laughs]. He’d probably appreciate it. I like that he’s himself. The ’60s were so different from now. It was such a smaller world. Freedom was a different thing for them. He’s created an interesting story for himself. I just love him. My favorite stuff is his new stuff.
NS: Yeah? What’d you think of him doing the Christmas album?
TS: I thought it was brilliant. I thought he knew what he was doing. You know, I won’t listen to it over Christmas or anything. I thought it was hysterical. And he had just made those two brilliant records (“Modern Times” and “Together Through Life”). That Christmas record seemed like it could have been bit of an inside joke. I think he got a kick out of it. I think it probably gave him a chuckle.
NS: Yeah. I think the same thing. And I thought “Modern Times” was really such a strong album.
TS: Me too. It might be my favorite one.
TS: Yeah. And I like the one after it too. But that “Modern Times,” I could listen to that for days. Those songs freaked me out. “Too Soon to Tell” was really influenced by that record I think. I remember when I first heard that record, I was on a houseboat with my wife. I had a notebook full of songs. I put that Bob Dylan record on and I played it through all the way twice. And when it was done, I threw my notebook into that fucking lake. I was so moved and frustrated by my own efforts. Moved by his and just thought “I don’t know why other people are writing songs. Why am I making songs up?” It’s ridiculous. So I’ve got some songs on the bottom of Dale Hollow Lake [laughs].
NS: [Laughs] Now I’m definitely going to include this and now you’re going to have people with scuba-diving gear diving for this lost book of songs. Hopefully you wrote it in–I don’t know really what keeps in water better.
TS: [Laughs] Well it’s down there somewhere.
NS: [Laughs] I think personally, my favorite Dylan is “Nashville Skyline.”
TS: Oh yeah. I like that one too. One of my others is “New Morning.” That’s a huge one for me. And you know, “Blonde on Blonde,” “Highway 61 Revisited,” and “Bringing It All Back Home,” sometimes I might say I like “Modern Times” better. I’m astonished I would even say that at the age he was, that he made something that makes me wonder if I liked it more than “Highway 61.” When he was in charge of rock’n’roll there, I really like where he took it.
NS: Yeah. It’s really incredible. I think for me about Dylan–and there’s a few others like this. Rolling Stones being one– is how long they’ve been making music and that it’s still relevant today.
TS: I can’t believe it. It’s astonishing. Especially among my musician friends. Those two entities get so much respect. Mostly because they’re still working. Chuck Berry is up there with them too. Berry’s working, man. He’s out there somewhere tonight. Or if it’s a Saturday, he’s going to be working. And he invented rock. He invented the shit.
NS: Yeah, exactly. The one thing I can’t wrap my head around is with Dylan for example, “Blonde on Blonde” came out in ’66, “Blood on the Tracks” in ’75. That’s about a 10 year space gap and those are just monster albums. Who can do that? And I’m not even mentioning how 40 years later “Modern Times” is out. The Rolling Stones did the same thing. Having great, great albums 10 years apart. People’s music careers aren’t even that long. Know what I mean?
TS: Yeah, I agree totally. I don’t know if the music business is as serious an art form as it used to be. Like you said, not only does it not last as long, there’s lots of people getting into it that don’t want it to last long. They just got out of college, they’d like to have a couple hit songs, tour the world a few years, and then open up a strawberry farm or some shit. Where in the early days of rock’n’roll, it really was something that, in my opinion–especially Dylan, Jagger, and Richards–it seems to me from all my reading and shit, that they were looking for a job that they could do for life whether it paid or not. And now, there’s so many pop stars where you can do it for a minute. Justin Bieber can’t do this forever. “Satisfaction” was a hit in the way Britney Spears had hits. I just think that in those days it was more of a higher art form. It was something people wanted to do forever and not do just to make money.
NS: Yeah, exactly. It was more that they were born to make music. To do this specific craft.
TS: Yeah. I don’t think there’s much of that in music any more. There are some good people still though. I’m trying to think of some people who would move me like that. It might be a perspective thing. It might age like wine. I think Jack White does exciting stuff although I can’t say I have much of those records. I probably too old; they’d probably make me jealous where I couldn’t enjoy it.
NS: [Laughs] I agree with you on White. He’s definitely doing some amazing things.
TS: Yeah. It seems very artistic too. He feels like an old guy.
NS: Yeah. He’s definitely a lifer. Made to do this.
TS: Definitely. Really reminds me of a throwback to the older generation. And Wilco. They’re fucking badass. I mean, there’s always been some cool people. R.E.M. was cool. Every decade has some monster artist that hang around. That first batch–or actually the second batch–after Elvis and Jerry Lee Lewis and all. That was the second wave of rock. And they never went away. Still, people when they get in ninth grade, they discover Zeppelin and the Stones. Still. And now they have other things to get into, but they still like the Stones. I guess every decade picks out a few people like that.
NS: Yeah. I feel like Jack White will end up being that whole intimidating Dylan thing. I think he’ll end up being that kind of force. Just that going up and being intimidated by his greatness.
TS: Yeah. But you know what, he’s such a nice guy. He’s really nice to people. He hangs around East Nashville. He might change though and get all surly and old–which is fine. I intend to do it. Randy Newman did it. He’s great at it [laughs]. He don’t even like music any more.