Todd Snider on how he thinks of acoustic guitars and mandolins when he thinks of Colorado
Does the touring schedule ever take a toll?
I like it. It's actually very easy. I've heard musicians say that the show is free, what you're paying me to do is travel. I enjoy the traveling just as much as the show. It's not that hard.
You get to see the world and meet all kinds of people. You have a purpose, so you're never a tourist. You don't go to St. Louis to see the arch. You find where the locals hang out. The country feels like it's gotten smaller and smaller to me as the years have gone by. I still look forward to it for that reason.
All the same, it seems like you have a pretty strong base in Nashville. Do you think that's had an impact on your music and performance style?
For sure, especially the place I live now, which is East Nashville. I came here about a decade ago and made the record that was all about my neighborhood, East Nashville Skyline, my neighborhood. The Colorado equivalent would be Nederland. My side of town isn't really the country music side of town. Some of Dylan's band lives over here; some of Prine's band lives over here; tons of songwriters live here, lots of painters and poets and authors and actors.
The bars are really fun -- things will get started around lunch. Guitars start coming out. We don't really have live music here in the sense that you see it listed that so-and-so is going to play; it's more that you go to the bar, and there's Justin Townes Earle just sitting around with his friends, picking in a circle and you can listen if you want. Or me, I might go down there today and start playing with my friends.
It's very romantic, I think. There are a lot of people whose dream of a life seems stupid where they came from. Where I come from, in Oregon, the idea that you would want to go be a folk singer and take a song and record it and put it out, it's a silly idea. When you get here and everybody that you meet is from someplace else and they have an idea of what their life could be that people rolled their eyes at back home ... We don't compete, we help each other. It's very poetic and artistic.
Do you think that's shaped your sound?
I think I sound like my neighborhood. When we make our records, most of the people who come to the sessions walk over there. That makes a difference. I remember last year, we were cutting something and we needed a drummer, so we sent this kid who had agreed to be our runner into [town], into the crowd. I think we ended up with three.
The Rolling Stones played a big role on my side of Nashville; everybody on this side of the river is really into them. I think you can hear that on all of the records that come out of my neighborhood. Our side of town is the Jack White, Black Keys kind of thing -- you might go into a restaurant and find them. The other side of town is somewhere you might see Faith Hill.
How does that compare to where you grew up in Oregon?
Now there's a music scene in Portland, but when I was a kid, there wasn't. It was very jock-y and Republican. My family particularly was very different than I am. My family doesn't like what I do; they don't like what I say. The kids I grew up with wanted to belong to golf clubs. I never wanted that. I wanted to get high and get in trouble.
Your early sound seems more indebted to classic and electric rock, bands like Lynyrd Skynyrd. When did you transition more toward acoustic folk and storytelling?
I never stopped liking Skynyrd. My first two or three records, I had a band called the Nervous Wrecks, and my hope was that we'd be a Southern rock band like that. Then, at a certain point, the people I studied the most with were Jerry Jeff and John Prine; I didn't want to get too far from that. I didn't want to make records that I couldn't go alone and support. On my third record, I got off the rails a little bit -- it was pretty rocking, pretty Tom Petty-sounding. Then after that, I felt like I kind of OD'ed on that.
The very next year I went out and played folk houses and started studying specifically under John Prine, with my fourth album. He started giving me songwriting lessons. About two records after ... in my opinion, I found my voice. I'd say my first five records were more imitative and trying to figure out what that whole studio thing was. The first time I'd ever been in a studio was to make my first record. I'd never done any of it. It took me a long time to make records I liked.
I realized I like records that are out of tune and sound a little tipsy. That's what I started doing with East Nashville Skyline. If we made a mistake, we just left it. That's what all my heroes had done. That's what Exile on Main Street has. That's what Tonight's the Night by Neil Young has. If he misses a note, he doesn't care. Now, I never have any idea of how it's going to go. I just let it happen.
For all of your roots in Nashville, it seems like you have plenty of Colorado connections. Is the state more amenable to folk music than other parts of the country?
Yeah, definitely. Boulder feels like a sister city to East Nashville for me. I have so many friends -- the Yonder Mountain guys are like brothers to me, and so are the Leftover Salmon guys. All of those bands from up there -- Elephant Revival, I love them so much. When I'm there, I always want to stay a few extra days to see what's going on. I'll stay at Jeff Austin's house for a little bit.
They'll come here, too. Leftover Salmon was in East Nashville not too long ago. We took all those 'shrooms and everybody was happy to have them in town. That's kind of a jam band thing, almost; there's a real connection between that and what I do. There are a few cities across America that have a thriving musician scene, and Boulder is definitely one of the bigger ones.
Atlanta is a bigger one, New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Minneapolis. When you go to town for the gig, you're going to see all your old music friends. Most cities don't have that. Lincoln, Nebraska -- there's maybe one folk singer, and he does covers. There's maybe a band, and they do covers. Maybe there's one band that makes albums and tours.
I think the Rootsfest gig you're playing speaks to that quality. You're playing with Patty Griffin and Lake Street Drive; Swallow Hill is presenting the show; the Denver Folklore Center is a sponsor.
Yeah definitely. Acoustic guitars and mandolins -- I think of Colorado and think of the mandolin. I think of Planet Bluegrass concerts.
Since 2012 was such a busy year, do you have plans to ease up in 2013?
I have this funny idea of wanting to be in a band. I don't know how that's going to play out, but I want to be in a band that I wasn't necessarily always in charge of. I want to do something that's collective.