Todd Snider At Newport Folk 2019
Photo: Nate Hertweck/Recording Academy
Todd Snider On Songs About Songs, Storytelling & His Dreamlike Return To Folk | Newport Folk 2019
Todd Snider's latest album, Cash Cabin Sessions, Vol. 3, marks a return to his acoustic storytelling roots—but true to his track record, it's anything but unimaginative. After creatively experimental and successful stints with a garage band (on the raucous Eastside Bulldog) and an Americana jam band (the psychedelic supergroup Hard Working Americans), Snider began to dream up his new album, literally.
It all started with Snider's recurring dream of Johnny Cash standing over him after vising Cash's cabin studio for the first time. The ensuing aptly titled album was recorded there by Cash's son, John Carter Cash, after Loretta Lynn invited Snider to the cabin to record some songs they'd written together.
But these musical giants' influence on Cash Cabin Sessions, Vol. 3 are more cosmic than musical. Musically, Snider is in rare form with his stripped-down sound, poking and sauntering with irreverent candor and hilarious wit of Woody Guthrie, Ramblin' Jack Elliott and, of course, John Prine. In fact, Snider is an intriguing twist in the road paved by Guthrie, Elliott, and Prine. Part sharp left turn, part missing link, he occupies a musical gap between these storied folk heroes and a new generation of songwriters plagued by a new era of political, social and technological issues to sing about.
Perhaps Snider's special songwriting and storytelling abilities are best described by one such artist, his friend, mentee and fellow East Nashville counter-culture song rebel Aaron Lee Tasjan.
"I see Todd as being the full amalgam of an incredible, all-encompassing show as one guy with a guitar on stage," Tasjan said. "My other hero growing up was Mitch Hedberg. And for me, Todd kind of had this sort of way, it was almost like he would fall into punchlines on accident, and his lyrics felt that way to me too."
Tasjan, like many folk hopefuls, was under the influence of Prine from a young age. But he points out how disorienting it can be to find yourself born a generation (or more) after your idols.
"As an artist, when you love, when you have that kind of reverence for music like that, and you're a young person, sometimes it can make you feel a little out of touch with your own generation. Well, all of a sudden, along comes this guy named Todd Snider, with this album called East Nashville Skyline. And it was like, he took all of that tradition and all of that history that I loved about Prine's music and made it for right now, for right then. And it totally blew me away," Tasjan said, adding, "He's a Mark Twain of our time."
During his set at Newport Folk this weekend, Todd Snider didn't blow the audience away in the traditional sense with vocal acrobatics or maudlin folk ballads. Instead, he told his stories and played his songs with a kind of loveable truth that had the Newport audience chuckling with respect. We sat down with Snider before his set to talk about his unique craft and style, his triumphant return to folk on Cash Cabin…, what he remembers from marrying his friends Jason Isbell and Amanda Shires and more.
There's a dreamlike quality to Cash Cabin Sessions, Vol. 3. What does the album mean to you, to have these songs touched by a sort of divine intervention?
I guess at my age ... when I was young I wanted to stay driven by the muse or artsy-fartsy stuff, and I felt like to me, that's what I'm always trying to do, is stay interested or follow a muse rather than try to figure out how to make a living. Just chasing the muse all the time. The older you get, the more attempt there is to make wiser decisions, but I like to just chase songs around and that. This record that you're asking about, it felt like at a certain point I went to the studio and I started having dreams about it, and I thought maybe there's something there. Maybe there's some songs there, and there was.
— Todd Snider (@ToddSnider) March 15, 2019
Yeah, I believe Keith Richards used to say, "incoming," like the idea is coming from somewhere else and passing through him, and he just tries to capture it before it gets away. Do you feel that way about songwriting?
I do. I feel like it happens a lot of ways, but that particular way is the one that is like an addiction to me. I think a lot of singers, that one, the song that feels like it wrote itself is the one you're driving around looking for constantly.
What's interesting about that is one thing you do, I think, as good or better than anybody, is the sort of songs about songs.
On this record too, yeah. Lots of that on this record.
This kind of meta-songwriting. Where were you first exposed to that kind of songwriting?
Maybe this guy named Ken Finlay who lives in Austin, Texas, and teaches people to write. Then I think on this particular record too going back to a feeling in my 50s, and for some reason I'm feeling ... my dad died at 54, so I did a lot of reflecting on my own job in this record. I didn't see that coming but, so it's a lot of, like you said, songs about songs.
"Working On A Song" specifically traces your time in Nashville. Obviously you've seen the city change in the course of time that song covers. How was it trying to finish a song that started that long ago?
When I first got to Nashville, I was working on a song called "Where Will I Go (Now That I'm Gone)." I still haven't technically finished it, but on this record, I have a song about that song, that you could call that song. It's a tribute really to my friends in Nashville. A lot of them are here, Aaron Lee, Jason, Amanda, a lot of singer/songwriters live in Nashville. We spend our life looking for a song, and eventually there's almost no reason. It's usually about a girl or something, and the next thing you know, it turns into an album. Then you have to figure out, are you going to still sing for real girls, or are you just going to sing for the crowd? That's been my experience anyway.
Jason joined you on "Just Like Overnight." You and he go way back.
Yeah, I married them, Jason and Amanda, and they both sing on there.
What do you remember about the wedding ceremony?
That it was hilarious, and I did a prayer written by John Hartford that was very funny. They both looked really beautiful, and it was the beginning of a sea change in our town and our genre. Those two are connecting our town in a way. There's an east side and a Music Row side, and those two have really ... and the guy that was just here [in the interview room], Lukas Nelson, there's a lot of young people right now that are connecting two sides of this Nashville thing that have been separate for a long time. It's fun to watch.
Yeah, it is. It seems like a new era for the city, more united…
Right. I've always wanted to see that happen. That's what it was like when Willie Nelson and Kris Kristofferson and Billy Joe [Shaver were active]... so I'm excited to see that happening, Chris Stapleton, Kacey Musgraves, Margo Price, that lot.
Storytelling is such an integral part of your live show and your live albums. Where did the urge come to do more than just play songs?
It started right off the bat, mostly because I only had my own songs, and you had to cover a certain amount of time. So I would just talk to try to cover it, to bullsh*t my way through the gig. But then, really quickly, I learned through trailing back ... somebody pointed out Arlo Guthrie to me, and that led to Ramblin' Jack Elliott. Then pretty early in my life, I started studying that guy. He's played here. He played here the night they landed on the moon, and he's here today. But Ramblin' Jack Elliott, if you look into him, he is the first person that really did that. There's others that do it, but I probably copy him more than most people. Arlo did too. He did "912 Greens." "912 Greens" is the song that starts that stuff, I think.
"Talking Reality Television Blues," pulls from that same well, right?
For sure, and Woody Guthrie, I was listening to a lot of Woody Guthrie at the time.
How did Cash Cabin Sessions, Vol. 3 become a "Vol 3"?
It was a record I worked on for a long time. I found this studio I liked, and then I started making songs and recording them. I went through the process three times before I was certain I had this record I wanted, but made two others in the process. They're okay too, they might even be better, they just didn't feel finished, but I'm going to put them all out. So Vol. 2 comes out in January. It's got different songs, same session though. Then Vol. 1 is a bunch of spoken-word stuff. I just started hanging out at the studio for a long time until there was a record, but there was tons of stuff building up to it.
And is that what's going on next for Hard Working Americans?
Right, the Vol. 2 is them, is Hard Working Americans… We're sort of a jam Americana group.
You seem like you're an adept observer of the world, creating a compelling interpretation somehow without casting a lot of judgment or a lot of negativity on it. You have an incredible knowledge of the music history and what's going on in our culture. What's inspiring you now as you move towards the next phase of writing?
Thank you. Next year I'm going to do a tour with a band, and I'd like to try to ... I don't know if this is [possible]... before I die, I would like to do some music that's really original, which is really hard to do and not even necessarily... It'd be fun to come up with a sound like ... even Waylon Jennings did it or Bo Diddley did it. I can't imagine why I would do it, but why not try?
[Waylon Jennings] came up with his own groove, too. Like there is a mathematical way that you can show that he did something that hadn't been done. Bo Diddley did it, rap did it. If a 50, 52-year-old guy came up with a new music, I don't think it would matter, but I would have done it and I would be able to play it for my friends. When 20-year-olds, like when somebody young does something, that's when I think music is really powerful.
You're playing here at Newport later today, how you put a set together for something like this? Are you a set list guy or you just go with it?
I usually will pick a song and then start. I haven't thought of that yet. No, I stopped doing set lists a couple of years ago. Yeah, I haven't decided what to play yet, I don't know what I'll do.