At times throughout our conversation, Todd Snider had me on the verge of tears or laughing out loud. That’s his natural place in the cosmos, I suppose– keeping you (un)comfortably off-kilter with wit or revelations that you can’t quite discern whether they’re tempered over years or unfiltered by seconds.
Todd’s latest full-length, First Agnostic Church of Wonder finds the 54-year-old Oregonia-Texa-Tennessean leading dual charges conceptually as a con-heavy preacher who discovers faith can be hilariously real and actually as a wounded artist and admirer finding solace in funky, fatback R&B.
Originating from a weekly online residency that evolved from an experimental potential alternative to touring due to worsening arthritis, Snider’s real-life church of wonder, the East Nashville edifice known affectionately as the Purple Building, became a pandemic refuge and incubator. The songs and characters found within FACOW reflect the passing of time and heroes and for Snider, it’s the gospel of the now.
AI- You were already planning to go to a digital format even before the pandemic kicked off. That’s been something that folks have tried to take advantage of and use to connect to fans, but for you, it was something that physically, you were feeling necessary.
TS- That’s right. We were getting ready to try to do what we called these cyber shows, really, because my arthritis is getting so bad. I don’t know from day to day… So far, it hasn’t happened, where on a show day, I haven’t been able to move my hands, but I have days where it’s hard to move my hands. I take a little better care of myself than I used to– but not too much (laughs)! But yeah, we were gettin’ ready to do that. And now we still have that to do! That Purple Building has been the center of East Nashville for so long, everybody rehearses there and there’s a lotta card playin’ that goes on there.
We had taken it over and started collecting gear, and our first thinking was we wanted to be able to play shows people could see. But also, at night, we can record down there and we can film other people down there. So a lot of kids, like when you get off the bus in Nashville, the place you would go is East Nashville. Well, it used to be where you went. Now, it’s one neighborhood over that’s more affordable, but still, it’s the bars of East Nashville that all the new songwriters go to. I would like our purple place to be someplace they could go make cheap demos or just hang out and meet people.
So that’s an ongoing endeavor then? It’s not just a place for you to go and connect via the internet, you’re hoping to, in fact, really maintain a church of hope and wonder for musicians.
Yeah! We would like to! That’s a good way to put it. There’s almost always someone rehearsing in there– and it’s people like Yola, like real famous people go in there and practice a lot! It was already a pretty self-sustaining place when the guy that was running it asked us if we wanted it.
You started up these [weekly streaming] shows, and as I understand it, you were kinda blown away at the reach of it all!
Yeah, there was thousands! I think 16,000 people watched one of ’em! It might’ve been the first one– and it freaked me out! I was really nervous for the second one. The first one, they didn’t even really tell me what I was goin’ to do, you know? I was gonna go play down there and try some of the stuff, but then the second one I showed up and I was really over prepared. I’ve seen it since– it’s okay. But the third one, right after the second one…
John [Prine] was passing away during the second one, and right after, I got a call from Fiona [John’s wife] saying John was gone. The next day, I went in there and just played John Prine songs ’til my hands wouldn’t work anymore. I don’t need lyrics sheets for any of ’em. I know all of ’em. And that did it! Something about gettin’ lost in my own John Prine story and telling the story of his life, I all of a sudden felt I got comfortable with just talkin’ to a camera and my one friend that’s there. There’s three people in there runnin’ the show, but they don’t look up. There’s just one person that I talk to, which is just my card playin’ buddy. He’s on his way. He’ll be walkin’ in any minute (laughs)!
You brought up John Prine. I was gonna jump into that a little bit later, but since it’s fresh in the conversation, I too just had a… I had a meltdown kinda when it happened. I was takin’ the trash out and just happened to have my phone in my hand, which I never do. Jesse Dayton was actually the first person I saw post something about it. I was cryin’, like snotty and at the kitchen table playin’ all the John Prine songs I knew. It was just the timing of it. Just the weight of it. On your new album, you have a song, “Handsome John”, and I think that encapsulates my feeling about the man as well as anything I’ve heard anybody do. What about you? The weight of tryin’ to cram that relationship into the form of a song? Tell me about that.
It happened really fast. Usually, my songs take a long time to work on, and then this one, it was kinda like this song of mine called [“Play A Train Song”] where it’s more like I’m working on songs all the time so that I’ll be ready when something like that happens, you know? I knew as soon as he was gone, I was like, “I know I’m gonna do a song. I know it.” I could already see it. It just fell out really quickly, and my first thought was, “I hope he was gonna like it.” I kept tryin’ to make it a fast song ’cause it was just too painful at the time. A lot of the record is very uptempo because the time we were making it was so dark that we couldn’t lean into the darkness any further than we were bein’ forced to. It felt more like we were having to chant and cheer our way through it. Even with the Prine song, I tried to just make it something up.
The kid that was filmin’ it– his name was Joel, he’s only like 30 or something– he said to me, “This one, you’re gonna have to do.” And I was like, “You’re right.” And then as soon as about an hour after he said that, I had the music. ‘Cause I tried all kinds of different melodies and music. That kid? I knew what he meant. He said, “You’re just gonna have to sing this one.” I knew he meant that I wasn’t gonna be able to hide behind any music for it. So I just sat down at the piano and did it like an hour later and just did the melody. I just did the “Kristofferson” melody, which is where I come from. I did the most basic thing I know how to do to it, which isn’t basic. I just went back to my earliest songwriting endeavors and drew from there for the music.
First Agnostic Church Of Hope And Wonder. There is the running concept of the shyster preacher, that aspect of it. But overall, I don’t know that that dominates the album. I feel that through most of it, it really comes across as a tribute to your friends and heroes, the artists that we’ve lost most recently. We talked about John Prine, but also Jerry Jeff Walker and Billy Joe Shaver, who was a great inspiration and hero to me as well. And then of course, in [“Turn Me Loose (I’ll Never Be The Same)], you invoke the memory of Colonel Bruce Hampton as well.
It’s been a really hard time personally ’cause that’s four really serious mentors. That’s four of the people that I would make records for. I’d send ’em to them, you know? It all happened really quick, and yeah, it felt like this is sort of a eulogy or wake. The thing that I felt like I was gonna do, and I don’t know if it’s ’cause I’m older or not, but I’ve always avoided songs that are like “self-help-y”. And now, I find that when people started callin’ this thing a church and sayin’ I was a reverend, I felt like that song, [ sings “The Gambler”], “You got to know when to fold ’em,” or any of those songs that they say, just breathe… You don’t really have to do any of that. I know that.
This is the first time I think I’ve really embraced songs that say “never let a day go by” or “turn me loose”, like egging somebody on to be more adventurous. I feel like that was sort of this funny pulpit, this oxymoronic pulpit that I had found myself at. For some reason, it just felt right to say something positive and just champion that. I felt like the people makin’ the record, we were gettin’ ourselves through. And there was so many ghosts lingering around! Before those four, my Hard Workin’ American buddy, Neal [Casal], and my buddy from the Yonder Mountain String Band, Jeff Austin, he died. The last words he said in public were that he had just got off the phone with me and that I had helped him get through somethin’ really hard.
Who did you write “Sail On, My Friend” for?
That’s for Jeff Austin. Yeah, right before his last gig, he called. He had just gotten out of rehab and I was on the phone with him a lot. After that, I talked to Neal– and then bam, he died too, right the night before he was supposed to come stay with me for a while. Those two just knocked me off my feet! And then my dog [Cowboy Jim], who traveled with me for… It’s funny, I’m Mr. Bojangles now. I don’t know how I’m still… I remember a couple times just thinkin, “If I get through this, if I can beat this sadness and go swimming, then it’ll be just practice for getting your own card punched.” But a lot of loss in two weeks. And then my first manager too! Damn! It’s been a lot.
I feel like I’m more and more drawn to bein’ a troubadour than ever. It’s really a vocational thing. A lot of us have been talkin’ about who’s gonna take over this town. It was kinda John’s town, but Guy Clark was sort of the cop or the vice-president. There was this structure of rules and stuff that was pretty loose. No one ever wrote it down, but the older guys tell you how to treat the younger guys. We could use a new Johnny Cash or a Guy Clark.
Up front there oughta be a man in black.
Yeah, that’s right, that’s right, that’s right (laughs)! He lives right out here by me now. I live right by Johnny Cash. I got divorced and had to move out to Hendersonville.
I’ve seen you play, and inevitably someone will ask to hear a song, and even if it’s something that you haven’t done in a while, you give it a shot. It’s interesting to me that you talk about the songs that you’re writing now versus the songs that you wrote in the past. With your weekly streaming show, you took that opportunity to dive into your entire discography, startin’ at the beginning. I’ve spoken to other artists who did that same thing, and I want to ask you what I asked them. What did you discover about yourself throughout those performances? Was it a re-introduction to those songs? Was it a trip down memory lane? Or did you see who Todd Snider used to be and who he is now?
When I was younger, I wanted to have more to say. I felt like there was a preachiness that drifted away. And now, like I say, I just sort of re-embraced it, but in definitely a different way. When I was young, I wanted to say things that impacted the world. I have no desire to do that anymore. I saw through that pretty young, and I can hear it when I’m goin’ through the songs. Right around the third record, I realized that there’s not really an agenda, it’s just vulnerable. You open your heart and show people what’s in it, and then hope they tip you. And that’s the end of that. You don’t educate them. They don’t walk away a better person. All they did was hear a song and throw you a quarter. That’s all that happened. If it’s supposed to be more than that, you’re probably not born for this.
If you’re usin’ your singing to affect change, there’s way better ways to affect change or things like that. I think a lot of young people go through that– wanting there to be a message to have and wanting to be the one who says it. But there isn’t. There isn’t anything to say. There’s just a 90-minute distraction from our doom. And that’s pretty damn valuable! I like things that engage me. Music? I can go to a concert and be lost for a couple hours, but I don’t feel like I’m goin’ there to learn anything. Sometimes I do, but it’s not the singers. If I feel like I pick up something, it’s usually not from the singer that’s there with that intention. I get it in some subtle way by Jimmy Buffet, rather than in some over-the-head way by Phil Ochs.
Do you think it becomes, at some point in time, and maybe for you, in particular, maybe it’s not so much about finding that larger message, that global message, but more of an individual conversation that you may just be having with the multiple people who are listening to what you have to say? Maybe it’s not the implication of the greater world, but it could be an implication and it could be an inspiration to the individual.
I feel like that’s the healthiest way to look at it. And then with that said, some of my favorite singers are John Lennon and Bob Marley, but they just came from a different time and a different world. I’m not saying I don’t sing my feelings either. I just have taken the loft out of it. It’s been 20, 30 years! When I was a young kid, just like any other kid, I wanted to make the world a better place by doing what I did. People will tell you sometimes that music really helps ’em and you just gotta take it with a grain of salt. I think the quickest thing I learned in music was that it’s a job like my dad had and I have to go do it. I mean, I love it! I love it very much, but it’s not just this party where I go get adulated. When I was a kid, I thought, “I’ll make a record, I’ll meet all the girls,” and it doesn’t go like that. (Laugh) But I didn’t mind! I found it richer to focus on traveling as my main thing I like to do.
You talked about that– really wanting to embrace the troubadour’s life. Is it just the need to be on the move? If you stay on the road and you stay moving, you stay on stage, all of these things that you just talked about… I won’t say that they disappear, but I imagine they do drop to a faint hum?
Yeah, they do. And I like it. I don’t mind it. I’m friends with Ramblin’ Jack [Elliott]– he turned 90 yesterday! He’s probably the first troubadour to tour. You know, there was a lot before, but they didn’t have venues yet really until the ’50s or ’60s. There’s a part of it– you have to be born for the chaos of it. And if you’re not, there’s just so little structure to this lifestyle that you have to sort of be cut out for it.
Everybody has asked me about this, and so I wanted to specifically bring it up to you. Back in mid-April, the “24 hours of drama and confusion,” the joke about regaining control of the record label…
The joke makes so much more sense once you hear the album, but at the time there was a lot of head scratchin’ and a lot of, “What is goin’ on with Todd Snider right now?” Tell me about what put that into motion. And what was the goal of the chicanery, if you will?
Well, the label [Aimless Records] that I was protesting is my own, of course. But before I’m a label owner and an artist, I was a fan! And I know fans like it when artists tell the record company to go fuck themselves! So I went for it! It was like fish in a barrel (laughs)! They’re just gonna swim around in there? I’m gonna shoot one!
Well, it worked (laughs)!
It really did! It actually worked (laughs)! I didn’t think that it would work that well! I think that’s the most money we ever made in one day. Isn’t that weird? People wanted to get my shirt like, “That guy’s standing up to the label! I gotta get his shirt!”
I totally understand that need to “fight the power”, even if you are the power!
That’s right! In a weird way, there’s a lot there! There’s a way I could break it down to be complicated, but I can say there’s actually two people and they really are arguing, and yeah, they are me! And that’s how this thing gets sometimes!
You brought up Ramblin’ Jack Elliott a little while ago. You’ve been back out touring– the “Return of the Storyteller” tour. You’ve got so many great special guests joining you on the road. I know that Ramblin’ Jack’s gonna be joining you for a couple of dates. When you get here to Macon, you’re gonna have Aaron Lee Tasjan with you. We love him here! You’re gonna be recording shows to include certain selections on a live album to mark this occasion. Can you reveal, are you going to be recording at the Capitol Theatre when you come here to Macon?
I sure am! I have all kinds of new songs and new stories to tell, and so I’m recordin’ all of ’em. All our live records have been that– composites of a certain amount of shows. So we’re gonna go out and do these 50 and make a record out of it called The Comeback Special. After that, there’s a box set– remember when I did all my albums? Now that’s gonna be available in one package.
From what you did on the streaming?
Lucinda Williams did a similar thing when she did her “at home” series and she’s releasing all of those different tribute shows she did. I thought that was just a cool thing. That’s cool that you’re doin’ that too! Is there a release date for that one?
Yeah, I’m looking forward to that! I think it’s spring of next year. And then the live album will come out quickly in the next year.
But you still feel motivated as a songwriter? I saw where you had mentioned that you thought you were gonna step away from that. That you in fact did, and you stepped away from songwriting to write a song.
Yeah, to make up different characters and make up different types of songs. I thought that [First Agnostic Church Of Hope And Wonder] was gonna be more earnest until about midway through it, I realized that’s not really my own voice I was speaking in. I was speaking in this sort of reverend voice. And then I had Elmo Buzz in the [Eastside Bulldog] record. And then the jam record, I was Blind Lemon Pledge. I could give myself these new names and then drift into these characters and come out with songs that didn’t sound like my own. On this one, I thought that I was gonna try to get back to being more me ’cause the [Cash Cabin Sessions], I tried to find myself in there again. But it gets hard ’cause I get lost in all the different people I’m tryin’ to be (laughs)! So this one ended up bein’ almost a new alter ego. I don’t know what I have left to say personally. My favorite poet is a guy named Alan Watts. A lot of my favorite poets quit. So I feel like I’m gonna try that at some point, but I don’t know.
You do appear at a crossroads. Whether it’s personal or professional, you seem to be trying to make a decision rather than waiting for the decision to be made for you.
That’s a good way to put it. I feel so born to be a troubadour that the recording part of my life, I don’t take it as seriously– and kinda never have! But I like art. I like to think of the albums as like a singular piece of art, you know?