Todd Snider: Occupational Hazards

Videos by American Songwriter

Todd Snider, renegade of Nashville, troubadour of the toker, folker and political interloper, acoustic poet in bare feet, really wants just one thing. And that’s to mentor a local punk band.

“Oh, man. I would love it,” he says, up early with his yard’s chirping birds so he can catch a flight. “Form a killer punk band, and I’ll at least get you high.” If you think about it, this inclination shouldn’t come as much of a surprise: subtract the hollow guitar, sing-talk growl and John Prine references and Snider’s music is punk in sheep’s clothing (or, at least, denim and a cap). Telling tales of the poor, underserved and generally screwed-over, he may not pull power chords, but his spirit is no less rebellious. So on Agnostic Hymns And Stoner Fables, his acclaimed new album, it’s easy to peg him as spokesperson for the Occupy crowd. In truth, he’s been angry all along.

“I invented Occupy,” Snider jokes. Clearly, he’s a little serious. While Stoner Fables tackles zeitgeisty topics like the corrupt financial industry, the Great Recession and the inability of anyone – specifically when politics or religion is involved – to just get along, they’ve been Snider’s running narrative, his lyrical inquisition for years. “I really feel like if you went and listened to my last five albums, I’ve been singing about the same thing the whole time,” he says, quickly adding, “Look, I’m for any kind of hippie get-together. Always am.”

While Snider’s journey began in Oregon, one could say it was when he arrived in East Nashville in the late nineties that his already stellar catalogue of songs found their permanent muse. Now known just as much for its trendy restaurants as its rocky history, the neighborhood at the time was a haven for a guy obsessed with Bob Dylan, who idolized the Greenwich Village vision where musicians gigged in their living rooms and spent evenings crowded around a bar scrawling notes on napkins to include in the next day’s songs. And while that happened, poverty happened too. Snider saw the crime, the struggle, the daily shuffle of those just trying to get by. So he wrote about it.

Of course, Snider doesn’t write songs; he “makes them up,” something he establishes in a careful choice of words. It’s an organic part of life, a compulsion that he likens to a habit one might have for coffee or cigarettes. Most days, when not on tour, Snider finds himself down the block at Drifters bar, drinking and jotting down things he overhears to use later.

Sometimes the lyrics come, sometimes a riff, and Snider often layers words upon music in many different ways on many different songs until it clicks. “I never know when [songs] are going to show up or if they are going to,” he says. When writing Stoner Fables, Snider began where he always does: with whatever his buddies were talking about. One particular high-profile pal, Rahm Emmanuel, inspired him to write the song “New York Banker.” “I got on this idea that I wanted to have a story-song, and he challenged me to do that,” he says. “Or at least I felt that way.”

It’s a crucial thing for Snider to feel a connection to the people or stories he writes about, otherwise, when he plays the songs live, “it feels like trying to pull a piano up a flight of stairs.” On this record, he sought out the help of violinist Amanda Shires to provide a subtle counterpoint to his acid tongue. “I was thinking of doing something that seemed creepy,” he says. “Tonight’s The Night by Neil Young, New York by Lou Reed, those are the records I threw out at everyone: a ragged guitar with (Bob Dylan’s) Desire-y fiddle.” The wail of the bow isn’t the only tribute to an idol Snider incorporated: the song “Brenda” is an ode to the “love story,” as he puts it, of Mick Jagger and Keith Richards. “If all Jagger did was write lyrics, I’d still think he was one of the best that ever was,” he says.

For now, Snider must leave the comfort of his southern home and head out on tour, circling the country through summer. There’s no doubt that despite the exhaustion and road-wear he’ll keep making up songs. “Something comes from it,” he says. “Some druggie kind of thing that makes it worth chasing around all the time.” For Snider, his Stoner Fable might just be writing the fables themselves.

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