Fifteen years ago, Todd Snider’s “Conservative Christian, Right Wing Republican, Straight, White, American Males” skewered the privileged group. He still pokes in similar ways. On new song “Talking Reality Television Blues,” Snider sings about “reality killed by a reality star,” when “an old man with a comb-over sold us the moon.” But the Nashville-rooted singer/songwriter doesn’t see himself as being political.
“I don’t take it that seriously,” says Snider, 52. “I’m not worried about the future of our country. I’m a liberal, but I’m not a panicked one.” He agrees, however, that he embraces “gallows humor,” facing the dark side with a smile.
“One time I got mugged, and when they stuck the gun at me, I said, ‘What’s this, your first one?’ and I laughed,” Snider says. “That’s sort of been my whole life, a smart-ass response to some tragic event.” He continues on as if chatting up that robber. “I didn’t even have any shoes on. You could have picked someone who looked like they had something. I’m a folk singer. I just came out of a bar. Every single chick in that bar knew I was broke in two seconds. You want to rob me?”
Snider’s free-streaming, culture-referencing wit has been a hallmark of his career since he released his 1994 debut, Songs for the Daily Planet. Snider gravitated toward—and was mentored by—kindred, lyric-steeped songwriters like Jerry Jeff Walker, John Prine, Billy Joe Shaver and Kris Kristofferson. “It always seemed like they were living the Mark Twain-type of adventurous lives,” Snider says. “I figured out what I wanted to do.”
In recent years, nonetheless, Snider paused his solo act to front Hard Working Americans, a jam-rock outfit with members of Widespread Panic and the Chris Robinson Brotherhood. “Almost every time I go do something, it’s like trying to learn more about being a folk singer,” he says. “I’m pretty good at being a folk singer.”
Now Snider’s touring solo again, playing the Sinclair on March 15, the street date for Cash Cabin Sessions, Vol. 3, his first release from recordings at Johnny Cash’s former retreat near Nashville. It’s as stripped down and earthy as anything he’s done.
“I started listening to Woody Guthrie, and it occurred to me that I’ve never made a record where I just do on the record what I’ve always done at my shows,” Snider says, noting he’d just written songs better suited to that folk treatment. “If you listen to the songs, they’ll tell you what they want,” Snider continues, repeating an old adage. And then he got his first invitation to play the Newport Folk Festival this year. “This email came in, and my friend said, ‘Now you have to do [that record.]’ ”
Snider’s first visit to Cash Cabin Studio was to watch country icon Loretta Lynn record songs that they’d co-written. He returned to work there after multiple dreams in which the late Cash woke him up, eventually telling him that he was missing something and pointing to one corner of the cabin. Snider says he looked in that corner for a song idea but didn’t find anything—until a strange conversation with Cash’s son John Carter, who asked Snider if he thought the studio was haunted.
“He said, ‘Loretta thought it was,’ ” Snider recalls. “She’d park her bus in the front yard, and in the middle of the night, he’d hear loud country music, and she was out there dancing like a young person. … She said she’s dancing with his dad. And we were standing in that corner when he told me that, and I was like, ‘Maybe that’s the song.’ ” He’d found his new album’s centerpiece, “The Ghost of Johnny Cash.”
Nashville today reminds Snider of the town in the ’70s, adding that Jason Isbell and Amanda Shires—who sang backup on his album—have assumed a role akin to Johnny and June Cash. “There’s this new wave of creativity,” Snider says. “Those are the phases I really like, those eras like the ’70s or grunge or early rap, anything that just feels accidently authentic.” ◆
Todd Snider plays the Sinclair on March 15 and Newport Folk Festival on July 26.
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