Writer of the Week: Todd Snider

“I write songs from the road all the time. I do it like smoking. You know like how many cigs will a chain smoker have a day? But maybe it lasts a little longer than a cigarette.”

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Todd Snider came to the American Songwriter offices and played four songs from his current album The Excitement Plan, and talked about being on the road and writing songs.

Are you going on tour in support of The Excitement Plan?

I leave Monday for the record. I just did a big long winter tour and then came home and mostly went out every weekend and now I think it’s kind of starting again. East Coast for the start and then I know I’m going to be back working my way across ’cause I go out to Seattle and all that. We stay moving all the time. Even when the records aren’t out, we work and work and work.

And it’s just you and your road manager?

Yeah, Elvis, my arch nemesis.

Not a full band?

No, sometime we’ll have a band come, like the other day in Louisville some guys drove down to play. We just played out in Reno last year and the old Nervous Wreck band that I used to have, they came out and played. Coming up in June, the Nervous Wrecks and I are going to play in Memphis. So I do maybe like ten shows a year with a group. Or like last year I did a tour with the Yonder Mountain String Band [members] Jeff Austin, Ben Kaufman, and then Vince Herman from Leftover Salmon, the four of us. They had time off and came and did a run with me. You know, they didn’t tell anyone they were coming either they just walked out with me and played.

Did it sound kind of bluegrassy?

No, it was really weird sounding. It didn’t come out bluegrassy. It was almost acoustic, classic rock-ish or something. That’s one of my favorite things to do now is to play with those three guys.

We saw you on a tour once when you came through Birmingham. Will it be like that tour where you will be playing some places and people will be seated?

Sometimes, yeah, it depends on the place but usually it’s like a theater where everyone’s seated. I used to make them put chairs out ’cause when I used to go see [John] Prine or Jerry Jeff [Walker] or some of my heroes everybody would be seated. Sometimes I’ll play and everybody’ll be standing. I don’t mind it. It doesn’t bother me. I used not to like it as much but now it doesn’t seem to matter what they do. I can have fun. I remember liking The Zydeco [venue in Birmingham, Alabama], but I haven’t been back in a while. I don’t remember where I last played in Birmingham but I liked that place and have a lot of good memories of that dressing room and the gig too, but I just think I spent a lot of time back there. Usually I don’t do any of that [choosing where to play]. Usually I just get in the car. Sometimes I’ll say like “I don’t want to play there” but usually I’ll just say “Where am I going? Where are we headin’? What’s tomorrow?” That’s just ’cause I’ve got a nice group of people that take care of me, I trust ‘em pretty good.

Do you ever write songs on the road?

I do it all the time. I do it like smoking. You know like how many cigs will a chain smoker have a day? But maybe it lasts a little longer than a cigarette. You don’t kind of stop all day every day, just compulsively stopping.

Do you write them down or just keep them in your head?

I’ll write ’em down most of the time and sometimes I’ll write em down and cut ’em up and move ’em around. I do that a lot. The main thing though is it just seems like by some hook or crook at least every hour or so, some song I’m working on will come back into my head and occupy it for about 25 minutes or so. And you just do it and stare like there will be some little line. Like right now there are a handful of songs in my head like hoping that the next line will show up as I’m walking around here. I got into [songwriting] really compulsively really young. Early, I was about 19 and it was just this way to argue with my dad and talk to girls and not actually have to do it. And then I found this guy named Kent Finley who runs a club called Cheatham Street Warehouse and he was a songwriting fanatic, though that would be a too soft of a term. It’s in San Marcos, Texas. It’s a honky tonk but it’s also kind of a [place for] songwriting – just go see it and you will see what I’m talking about. Just last year we had a reunion with me and James McMurtry and Hal Ketchum and Bruce Robison and Terry Hendrix. We used to go to the open mics there in the ‘80s. That guy [Finley] took me in and showed me how to do it. We would sit up and he would play Kris Kristofferson records and we would listen to it all the way through and Shel Silverstein, Bobby Bare, John Prine. Those were probably the main ones, and then there was Jerry Jeff, Guy Clark. So I would study that and then I think he did show me how to meter and stuff like that. I stayed at his house for about a year then moved to Memphis and moved in with Keith Sykes. Well I didn’t move in with him. So anyways there’s an answer to a question that I don’t even know if you guys asked me. I think I just started talking.

To listen to music Todd recorded live in our office, check out his American Songspace Profile.

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