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THE TODD SNIDER INTERVIEW

Todd Snider performing live at the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival in San Francisco, 2006 (photo by R.Berry)

I saw East Nashville's Todd Snider perform at the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass festival in San Francisco and was blown away at his perfect mixture of humor, charm, energetic songwriting, passionate singing, and overall stage presence.  Armed with just an acoustic guitar, harmonica, and hilarious in between song banter, he clearly stuck out in a lineup that included Elvis Costello, Steve Earle. I immediately picked up his latest album The Devil You Know, and was pleased to hear that his studio performances are equally fun to listen to. I hate to say "this artist is like that artist", but I think it would benefit you to know that Snider has an insane mixture of Mitch Hedgberg, Arlo Guthrie, Jerry Lee Lewis, John Prine, and the remaining percent is just...Todd Snider.  He's certainly one of the more entertaining guys I've seen perform in a long time.

Todd gleefully tweaks conservative values without letting liberals off the hook, either.  His bare bones philosophy of just living easy and being happy with what the person you are today is a simple message that anyone can relate with.

I spoke with Todd in a phone interview while there was still 2 games to be played in the World Series.  A diehard baseball fan, Todd was sad to see the two New York teams fade so easily, but always a champion of the underdog, was rooting for the Tigers to win.  We went on to talk about writing, porn, cheap wine, and dogs, and I'm happy to share the conversation with you.

In your song, "Tomorrow Never Comes", what inspired the line, "If worms had daggers, birds wouldn't fuck with 'em?"

(laughs)... I know where I got that, I heard someone say that one time.  This guy, his name was Skip McQuinn, and I was about 18 and I had been waiting around to meet Johnny Cash in front of his studio, and the guy let me in, the guy that was running it felt sorry for me.  And that day I met this friend of mine...he's a songwriter now, he's famous now, but he was 18, too.  And his name was Rufus Rutheford, he was working there, he played his song then and he said "If country music was worth a shit, this song would be a hit." And this guy said, "If worms had daggers, birds wouldn't fuck with 'em."  And I never forgot it.

That's great, so you got to meet Johnny Cash?

I did get to meet him.  It was real brief, he was walking out to his car.  And then they let me come in and play songs for him after he left.

Would you mind telling the story about the connection with that song and your song "Beer Run"?

Well...I got a song called "Beer Run" that my manager called me at the house and said that somebody had done a new version of that song...that wasn't mine and that it was on the radio, that wasnt' mine, and he wanted to know what I wanted to do.  And I might have told you before that just didn't want to have to go to town and get dressed up, and so I didn't.  Then I got a call back later where they said the guys that wrote the other version were looking into the idea that I had taken it from them, and that seemed that might be harder to deal with than the other way around.  I didn't want to go and be involved at all, I just try and stay out of those kinds of things, so my manager went in to town and they talked and decided that nobody took anything from anybody, which I thought was great.

And then a year or so later, I met one of the guys at this Tom T. Hall benefit concert, this hall of fame thing, and somebody said, "That guy over there wrote "If Tomorrow Never Comes" and I said, "I love that song", so I went over there and said "I love your song..." and when I told him my name he said, "Oh, I had a lot of trouble with you, I wrote 'Beer Run', too."  And I thought, "You took it from me", that's what I thought in my head, so I said that to him...and he said that he had, "Yeah I heard you play it at a festival", which is fine with me, but that is the night I got the idea to write "If Tomorrow Never Comes."

(laughs) That's Great!  Hey..."The Devil You Know" is one of the more exciting and action packed songs I've heard in quite sometime. Would you mind talking for a bit about the environment that inspired it?

Well, I live in East Nashville which I love living here, I love my friends and neighbors.  But it's like a "not normal" Nashville.  We don't starch our clothes as much, we don't usually have like a big clever title, and we'll sit at the green light for a minute, you know?

Yeah

And it's also a bit rough, semi-crime infested.  We've got rappers and country singers in our part of the town and there's a project not very far from here, and these kids get in trouble like kids do especially... well the song gets in to that, but it's been 4 times in the last 7 years in my house where the police helicopter will be hovering down real low, over your street, and you know if a police helicopter is hovering over your house someone is being chased pretty damn close...they did something dumb, it didn't work out, it's gotten pretty dramatic, didn't work out, and they could come over your fence at any second.  And so, when that happens we lock ourselves in and turn the alarm on, and that song, one night, that's one night...well, it was actually when the sun wasn't totally down yet, and this helicopter got real close, like right over our back yard, and I went out and looked at it, in fact I could see the guy's face, so I went into the house...got on the typewriter, and I made up the first draft of that song.

Yeah, it's a great song. There's a line in there about "there's a war going on that the poor can't win".  What do you think it'll really take to change the amount of people living in poverty in this country?

I don't know, that's sad, I can't really say that I feel optimistic about somebody coming along and doing that. God, the thing that scares me is it seems like we have this enemy that's mad at us, if all the poor forgotten people get mad at us to, I probably shouldn't say "us" 'cause I'm close to the poor group, but if you think those people are pissed wait until the poor people get pissed.

Right, look what happened to France.

(laughs) Right! It makes me sad that...well I don't want to get political 'cause I know like 7 chords and I've been smoking pot since I was 18, so if you're listening to me, I would advise against it.  But it seems like we're trying to spread this system that we haven't got working yet.  Let's make it work and then go tell everybody about it.  But seems like we're gonna spread it, then fix it.

Yeah, like we're gonna break it first, then fix it.

Right, but like I said, I smoke more dope before 9am than most people do all day, so ask your dad that kind of shit.

Historically, it seems that folk singers seem to be more prominent during times of war.  Do you think that screwed up government is a key ingredient for folk singers to succeed?

(laughs) That's a great point, I haven't thought of it like that, but, God...probably so.  I know it seems like it's been good for me to have these songs I don't think I would have have come up with had George Bush not been the President, so I guess I owe him.  I would take...I don't know I'm one of those people that has a hard time getting behind any government.  I'm not somebody that the Republicans would come and pluck out, but I would definitely call myself a reluctant Democrat.

It's kind of hard to be proud of that end of it too much, either.

Everybody voted for the war.  Everybody was in to it when it started.  I don't know...I'm an anarchist for comedic reasons.

You have songs about Phil Ochs to borrowing a few lyrics from Snoop Dogg even.  You probably have one of the more diverse mixtures of subject matter I've heard in some time.  Are you a music history buff?

I'm not as good as some of my friends, but I definitely am... I don't read the music books as much as I used to, but I'm still a big avid like...especially with my heroes, I could beat John Prine in a trivia contest about himself, I bet. And there's The Stones and Dylan, I get into it.  I would say that I have 3 friends that I would defer to, there's a guy named Will, Tommy Womack, and another guy named Peter Cooper. Those are the 3 rock historians that put me to shame.  I know enough about music to babble on and bum out my girlfriend, like most musicians do. 

You'd do pretty good on Jeopardy, I'm sure, huh?

Yeah, if it was music I'd do pretty good.

It's funny cause when I first encountered you at this Not Strictly Bluegrass festival, my buddy said, "Hey let's go over to this stage and you gotta check this guy out."  And one of the things that I thought about when I was listening to you, without any knowledge of you beforehand, was that the humor in your lyrics really reminded me a lot of the early John Prine stuff that I heard...my parents albums when I was a kid.  I was impressed to see that you had actually recorded some albums on his label.  How did that relationship come about?

I stalked him.  I stalked John Prine pretty good.  A few people, John Prine, Jerry Jeff Walker, Kris Kristofferson, and Billy Joe Shaver.  Those are the four people I was pretty obsessed with as a kid and know all of the lyrics to all of their songs.  And I also bought all the records of their friends, and Keith Sykes was one of their friends.  And my dad was working construction and found out where Keith Sykes lived...so I went to his house and I asked if I could play him some songs and he liked me and let me stay there, and said "come on in...I'll help you if I can."  And through him I met Buffet (Jimmy) and Prine, and Jerry Jeff, and everybody...he's the one who got me going.

So is that why Nashville is so important to be home based in just because of all the...just such a Mecca for all this stuff?

I like living here, but actually I found this place in South Carolina called Folly Beach that I might move to.  But I've liked living here because I've got to be around my heroes.  Last night the Drive By Truckers came to town and it was nice to drink with them. It's just a real music town.

Now I'm getting 40, and...my doctor says...what is it, "I gotta stop calling home sick from work" as they say.  (laughs) He says "you need to set aside some time to NOT listen to records and think about them so hard." So I have to start thinking about that a little, that is if I want to live a long time, which I guess has it's benefits.

It sure does. Speaking of the drinking there, I read in your bio that you have a rooftop bar that's the stuff of legend in your town.

Well, at least in the neighborhood. This summer we were gone most of the time, but we have this deck that's one the side of our bar that sits under the trees, it feels like you're in a treehouse. We built a bar up there...we put a TV up there, and we got a record player up there.  And we put up these lights around the deck and there's blue lights and red lights.  If the red lights are one, that means we're trying to be romantic, and if the blue lights are on that means we're open.  When the blue lights come on, there's usually going to be some good music, someone's gonna come play.  Cause you can see it from pretty far...well not very far, but it doesn't take long for word to get around that we're open.

I gotcha, sort of the "everyone come over lights", huh?

Yeah, we don't charge for nothin'.  I got it from, I had a friend named Moondog that had a tavern, he had it in his backyard and it was open and it functioned just like a real place except you just brought you own beer. It's a way for people to get out and not have to spend a bunch of money. We serve wine, too.  We always have lots of wine, so you don't necessarily have to bring your own, but if we're open, it's free.

What's your favorite kind of wine to drink?

It's called Big House Red from Bonny Doon Vineyard and it's made by prisoners in Northern California.

Do they make it in their toilets out of raisins in their cells?

I'd like to think so!  There's a screw off top. And whether you're just trying to relax for the evening, or drink a whole in your stomach like I'm doing, it's good for all occasions.

 

As a self proclaimed, "porn watching hippie" would you say the quality of porn has got better or worse since the creation of the internet?

(laughs) Well, the accessibility has improved so much that you would have to imagine that the quality goes down with that. I don't know, that's a tough question.

Well, it's certainly more accessible, as you say.

What is they say..."Ever since the first I had the worst I had was good".  Unless it's that porn that you don't really get to see nothing in, it's pretty good.  What is that Bill Hicks said, "Unless it's that hairy bobbing 'man-ass' for 30 minutes."

I always laugh at those ones you see in the hotel rooms when they're edited to be a bit more safe so you just see...

Yeah...you're like "what's the point?"

10 seconds of just some guys face just groaning 'cause they have to cut out the rest.

Yeah, that's aggravating.

Your live show is a great mixture of comedy and music.  Are we gonna see another live album or a DVD soon?

I would definitely like that to be something I do every few years. I think I might do something like that again.  I don't know when the time would be right. I'm not sure exactly what we're doing next...I think there's maybe some kind of DVD coming in the Summertime (2007).  And I also heard that there's some album that Oh Boy's gonna do that I haven't heard yet...some outtakes or something.

I'd also like to...I wrote a story one time that I'd like to put out, the story of Moondog's Tavern, and I'd like to try and record it someday.

Like a spoken word story thing?

Yeah, just like a 30 minute story, I'd like to try and record that someday.

 

We had your video for "A Tale of Two Fraternity Brothers" linked on our site, and we got a great response from the readers about that.  Do you really enjoy making videos?

I do but I'm not into them.  I'm like actually, if you're the video director, I just got there and say "Now where do you want me to be?" Once I pick the guy...they come at you with a few video directors, and I tell them that I'm pretty shy, you know, and then I'll do whatever.  Once I pick the guy I just let them (do their thing)...I don't want to hire a guy and say "Here's what we're gonna do", I just want to say, "I trusted you, so go for it."  And not many people like the way they look, I hope I'm not alone in that.

Yeah, it's kind of hard to see yourself so much, huh?

There was two guys that did this video, and I appreciated them. I didn't really have to do a whole lot.  It was all their idea. I just read it and thought, "That's cool!"

Your look's kind of evolved through the years.  Is it kind of weird looking at yourself with the different stages of hair and whatnot.

Oh yeah, it looks like I've been beat all over with a tire iron.

Now you're with a new record label with your new album that's just come out "The Devil You Know"...was it difficult to leave Oh Boy! or was it kind of in between deals?

Yeah...they just had the most bread, really...I had lived up to my agreement with Oh Boy, and they wanted me to stay, but it turned out that there was a bunch of people, there was four...I guess maybe five people that had come to my manager...actually this guy that was very close to Oh Boy, this guy that signed me the first time, for Margaritaville, his name's Bob Mercer, and he's just always been a close friend...and he had a lot more dough than everybody else.

And I'm not one that really thinks about it that much 'cause I just make the record.  Just like I did with the video I just go "OK guys, do your best." and I don't bitch.  And I'm just like, "Thanks for the dough, I'll try and be at all the stuff you say for me to go to."  I've been really lucky 'cause I've switched labels a few times and...I've never had any kind of a feud or anything like that, you know?  Of course I haven't heard this outtakes record yet, so if I don't like that I may have to go throttle them, but that don't mean I don't love 'em.

So will this connect you back to the stuff you released with MCA so you could have compilations with your new and old stuff together now?

I guess they could but I don't think they would, I think they'd separate them. But part of the deal was that I got to...they said they're going to do a greatest hits album, and if you give a shit you can pick the songs and do everything.

Oh, that's great.

Yeah, that was really generous, and so far I've got no complaints with the people I've worked with and i don't think they have any complaints with me.  They all still call and shit.

Do you think that frat boy is still going to get away with it?

I...yeah, I do, I do... I think it's the nature of the world. I don't understand why no one has explored anger at God during these times.  I dunno...sometimes I wonder how does things get the way they are? I dunno...but yeah, of course I do.  I'm a negativitist, so I think this, too, shall blow up in our faces. (laughs) I've chosen to go through life without hope or confidence. It really sincerely is working out.

That way you're never disappointed.

I've taken all the hope out, I've taken all the confidence out, and now I'm just rolling along.

To kind of wrap things up, if a new fan enjoyed your latest CD, The Devil You Know, what previous album would you recommend they should try next?

I think if you like it the very next one to get is East Nashville Skyline, which is like the prequel.  To me I felt like I made them as bookend records. And those are also my two favorites. After that I would say, a lot of people would say there's a live one...I like that one a lot.  I'd go with those three at the top.

And then my next favorite after that is one called Happy To Be Here, but I don't like that as much as the last three.

But I don't know, it would be a tie.  If you get The Devil You Know (laughs) East Nashville Skyline, the greatest hits album, and the live record, you don't need none of the others.

(laughs) Okay! So you're taking a little break from touring for about a week or so and you'll be back on the road again.

Yeah, I'm home for a couple weeks.

That's good, it's kind of nice to touch base for a while and relax.

Yeah, I was glad to get home. I've been away most of the time this summer, so it's nice to (be back).

Do you have a kid?

No, it's just me and my wife.  We used to have 3 dogs, but we lost 2 of them, now we only have one.

You had them quite a while?

Yeah, both of them we had for 5 years or more, then both of them died from different reasons within a few months of each other.

Oh...that's too bad.

So now I'm gonna get a new one, and I'm going to name him Cowboy Jim.

How do go about picking a new dog out, do you go to a pound, or a breeder?

We go to the pound.

That's cool.  Well, thanks so much for talking to us. Best of luck to you and we're big fans of your work here, and we wish you much success.

Thanks!  Next time you come to a show, come and introduce yourself.

Will do, thanks!

-Robert Berry
rberry@retrocrush.com

If you'd like to listen to the entire audio interview in our podcast (including our exciting baseball commentary) visit our PODCAST PAGE and listen to episode 98.  Also, subscribe to our podcast via iTunes and they'll be hand delivered to your iPod within hours of their creation.

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