Todd Snider on how he thinks of acoustic guitars and mandolins when he thinks of Colorado
It's not that tough to get Todd Snider to tell a story. The folksinger/guitarist is all about the power of a good narrative, and it's no wonder, considering his influences. Even before issuing his 1994 debut album, Songs for the Daily Planet, Snider followed the path of legendary folkies like Ramblin' Jack Elliott and John Prine. Snider's later albums benefit from firsthand tutelage from Prine, and one of his two releases from 2012, Time As We Know It: The Songs of Jerry Jeff Walker, is an intimate tribute to a master of the genre, the country rambler who wrote "Mr. Bojangles" and served as one of Snider's first heroes.
Those strains show up in Snider's conversational performances and story-heavy music -- and those skills are also hard to miss in a casual chat with the man. Snider is wont to break into side stories about Nashville, about recording in the studio, about dropping mushrooms and having a good time. We spoke with him in advance of his show this Saturday night at the Paramount Theatre for the sixth annual Swallow Hill Rootsfest to talk about the powerful influence of older artists, the future of folk music, the role of East Nashville in his creative approach and the power of the folk tradition in Colorado.
Westword: It seems like 2012 has kept you busy.
Todd Snider: We toured a lot, did 170 shows, which is a lot for me. Then I produced a Billy Joe Shaver record, which should come out next year. Let's see...I drank a lot, spent a lot of time at the bar. I'm going to do a show with David Schools next month, with Widespread Panic. I've been everywhere. I did a bunch of shows with Vince Herman a couple of weeks ago and that was fucking fun. Let's see, what else have I done? I've been in my house quite a bit. It's been a pretty busy year. I've been trying to keep writing and I'm supposed to put out a book. It's been a pretty eventful year.
You've released two albums this year, a collection of original tunes titled Agnostic Hymns & Stoner Fables, and a tribute album to Jerry Jeff Walker. Did that pace put any added strain on you?
I didn't expect to write the songs for the one, and I recorded all that Jerry Jeff stuff and thought that I'd put that out around his birthday. It just so happened that last year, right around this time, I started writing songs. I went in the week after Thanksgiving [in 2011] and made Agnostic Hymns. It's almost a year ago. I didn't see that coming, but once it did get done, I just gave it to the people who helped me. They told me it would be great if it came out this year. I didn't mind putting one record out and then another record out the next month.
The tribute album is pretty personal for you. Can you tell me about your artistic connections to Jerry Jeff Walker?
I was about nineteen, and I saw him at a place called Gruene Hall. I knew that night what I wanted to do with my life. I went out and I got a guitar the next day and sort of started trying to be him. About a month ago in Austin, I was telling a story about him onstage, and he came up behind me and surprised me and did a version of "Mr. Bojangles." It was a really cool performance, kind of a Tom Waits version of it. I met him in about '96, and now we'll go on vacation together sometimes. He's been like a father to me since I've known him. He tells me when it's time to get a haircut and shit like that.
What was it about Walker's music and stage presence that struck such a chord with you?
At the time, I was the guy who was always hitchhiking someplace or staying on someone's couch. I never had any money. There's a fine line between a crazy person and a free spirit, you know. It's usually money in most people's eyes. But I saw him, and it felt like he was singing about my life, and he wasn't singing about it in a way that sounded ashamed.
He was happy to be so free in his ways. I identified with that. He seemed like a Hunter S. Thompson with a guitar, and that really appealed to me. I thought, 'I'm already living the life, and all I really need to do is make up songs about it.' It didn't seem like his guitar work was so crazy that it was impossible -- that was a big part of it, just watching his hands. I followed him around and learned the guitar by sitting in the front row at his shows.
Storytelling figures pretty big in the way you play a show. Was that part of Walker's approach as well?
He was doing that, too. I think he gets that from Ramblin' Jack Elliott. John Prine was another person I listened to a lot in those days, and they both did a lot of that. I was doing that in my group, too. It seemed like if I went to go get the beer, something would happen, and I would tell everybody about it. I just reapplied that to the way I was doing my shows. But my show now, especially when I'm alone, is very similar to that Jerry Jeff show at Gruene Hall. I tell the story and sing the song.
The original record, Agnostic Hymns, doesn't shy away from topical and political statements. A lot of critics connected some of the content with what was going on earlier this year with the Occupy movement. Has that brand of lyricism ever got you in trouble?
No one's every tried to tell me to change who I was so I could make more money. I wouldn't have let them stay around too long. I'm just doing this to have a good time. I'm fortunate that I get a lot out of it and people give me a lot of things to do it. But the reason I do it is just to be amused. I never wanted to have an aim or a goal or any of that kind of thing. If I'd never have gotten on the road and made albums, I'd still be sitting around doing this.
You mentioned Jerry Jeff Walker, John Prine and Ramblin' Jack Elliott. Do you think the Woody Guthrie brand of folk singing, storytelling and traveling is still alive and well with younger artists?
I don't know. I don't think in those terms. I don't worry about what's going to happen to it, or care, really. I don't think of it like that; it's just something I've always done. It's a long tradition in America. Woody Guthrie was the best person doing it when they started recording things, but there were people before him. After Woody, there was Ramblin' Jack, and Ramblin' Jack spawned a whole generation in the '70s. There was a ton of guys like me. But there are still a ton of guys like me out there, younger and older.
I can think of older guys like Robert Earl Keen and James McMurtry and Steve Earle; they're not more than ten years older than me. Steve Earle's son is really good, and there's Jason Isbell. There are people out here doing this thing. So far, there's never been a big drought. Most of those guys I mentioned, I know, and we don't think about it like that. Most of those guys are stoned and don't give a shit about too much of anything. They're looking forward to seeing what's going to happen after the show tonight.