The Americana singer/songwriter/storyteller on Nashville, touring, drugs, and Hunter Thompson.

Todd Snider photo

Americana singer/songwriter Todd Snider prides himself on being an open book, and he didn’t hold much back during my recent interview with him for The New Orleans Advocate. My story about his storytelling tour and the onset of degenerative arthritis is online now, and he’ll be in Baton Rouge to play the Manship Theatre Saturday night and New Orleans to play Tipitina’s Sunday

My article only tells part of the story, though. In our 40-minute conversation - him in his backyard in East Nashville, me on my bike riding through Uptown - he laughed a lot, told stories and good-naturedly offered opinions on a variety of topics. Here are some of the highlights.

On Touring and Country Music

I’m home today. I came home a couple of days ago. I have a week off, then I go out for another two weeks, then I’m kinda taking some time off. I have these little book things that I do.

I never seriously thought about how musicians tour until I talked to John Prine, who said he only performed Thursday to Saturday because that’s when his audience could make it to a show.

Yeah. A lot of my stuff I learned from him. Not just chords. We shared the same manager. There’s a part of the year where I’ll do that. But it depends. I just joined a group and we did a tour tour like a rock group where you play every night. That’s the one I prefer, where you play 35 shows in 35 nights. It becomes this insanity. It’s like a ride you get on. You couldn’t be rich enough to pay to get on a ride like that. It’s like a Hunter Thompson film all the time. That’s what I’m signed up for, is the weird part. The music’s fun, but I’m looking for some kind of gas.

I’d imagine that that would be fun, but as a way of life, I can imagine that could become an exhausting life.

It’ll kill you if you’re not into it. Shit, it’ll kill you if you’re into it! [laughs] But people who don’t get into it hate hate hate it , which is why I always get defensive of these country singers that people naturally assume are the creations of some marketing team because nobody would do it. It’s too hard. 

If it was as as easy as just marketing, there would also be way more of them.

That’s the other thing. Then go do it! I think Bob Dylan said that. Some said he stole, and he said, You go steal and be Bob Dylan. I’ll meet you back here. It’s the same with those country singers. Then go tell MCA whatever, I’ll meet you back here in a week and you can buy me a Cadillac. Actually, that makes the country singer you hate the most even sadder because it means it was all his idea. Whatever that was that you hated and you wanted to tell yourself it was a marketing acheme, it was just that cowboy, sorry. What’s-his-name really does think about Spring Break all the time, god bless him.

And his self-expression is sadly just like everybody else’s self-expression.

Yeah, country music really is for the popular. Cheerleaders and football players - as they get chubby, they need some jams too. It’s it’s own country. It strikes me as odd as listening to a Japanese person sing a song in a language I don’t understand. 

But when I go to those shows, everybody’s having fun and nobody’s getting hurt, and it’s just not our thing. I wasn’t in a frat, I wasn’t good when I was on the team. I’m not handsome, I listen to AC/DC, and I’d rather spray paint something on the side of the school than go golfing with you guys. I’m almost 50, so fuck it.

The music often feels like factory work, but when I go to shows, the people who are there are ecstatically happy.

Ecstatically happy. Because you say it’s factory work, you want to pretend it’s not art, and it may be factory work, but it’s the highest, most artistic form of factory work there is. It’s not what Amy Winehouse was doing, but it’s in the same ballpark, and the kids who do it have to tell the IRS the same thing. I think it’s all good, man. Casey Beathard is one of my favorites. He put out a record a couple of years ago of all this Bill O’Reilly country music, and I disagreed with all of it except how well it was written. I shouldn’t say “how well it was written.” How well I liked it the way it was written. I don’t know “well” from fuck-all. 

I get a little tired of what seems like fake nostalgia for the days when we took daddy’s pickup to the quarry and discovered love.

It might not be the literal truth, but it’s not phony. It’s poking somebody somewhere because they’re lining up to pay for it.

On Country and Americana

The coolest thing about living in Nashville is that this the only place where the two sides of the country music that are so different that you don’t even think they speak the same language aren’t at war with each other. We like each other. We hang out with each other. Goddam, Kenny Chesney is a bad motherfucker, man. I would doff my cap and if I got a chance to see one of his shows, I’d race my ass down there, And there’s some I don’t like, but in my own genre - if Jason Isbell’s playing tonight, what time should we get down there? Can we get backstage? But there’s others - Yeah, some people will be murdered, there will be some going to the river, it’ll be an Americana shitstorm. Every genre’s got it’s overly ambitious people that are going to offend those of us who are lazy and stoned, but they’re not hurting nobody.  

I get tired of people singing songs of days long ago that don’t have any reality. I interviewed one musician who had a song about a gunfight or hunting a man, and I asked him if he had any guns or experience with guns - no.

What you’re speaking to is the big, huge picture which isn’t just my job but everybody’s job. There’s this huge elephant in the room, which is this: There isn’t anything to do. That’s why we’re all failing at it. Whatever we try to do, it’s not going to be right. Because what’s the goal? To live, and it’s not going to work. It’s like your gym coach said, you’re going to fail because you’re weak. It’s true, it’s true. Some day you’re going to get attacked where you’re weakest and die. Don Was said to me, What we do is provide people a distraction from their doom. Who are the people we provide a distraction for? Us. That’s it, and if you can con some fucker into putting you in a box and convince people to pay to come into that box and watch you do that for yourself, more power to you. But the moment you start doing it for them so that they’ll come into the box, you’re finished. 

You mentioned Jason a moment ago. I was listening to a recent Marc Maron WTF podcast with him, and he said you officiated at his wedding. How long have you been a reverend?

Since that wedding. They called me in the middle of the night and I thought they were kidding. I’m like a big brother to him, but that’s not fair because I get more advice from him than they get from me. They said they wanted me to do the service, and I said yeah thinking it was some joke. Then a week before the service I get this thing in the mail that says I’m a reverend, and my manager calls and says, You’re going to the wedding, right? I said yeah. They think that you’re marrying them. So i went over to their house and we came up with a service. We did a prayer the John Hartford “The Lowest Pair.” I did a speech about how easy marriage is, especially for traveling musicians. [laughs] Then I said, If there’s anybody who thinks these two shouldn’t be together, you’re just a fucking idiot.

On Drugs

How does it feel to be as well known for being a drug guy as a song guy?

[pause] Lucrative? 

This is probably wrong, but when I look back, I think, I'd get insecure when they'd ask me, What's the marketing plan for the ...? I'd be, "Dude, I'm chugging tequila! There's strippers here." Sometimes I think, "Did you create a reputation and then do it" Which came first?" 

I haven't given it a lot of thought, and I'm known for that. I'm kind of impulsive and in the moment. Never really tried to work at it. At the end of the day, you end up a cartoon, but I love cartoons.

In a way, it gives your songs some reality. For people who have followed you, that knowledge gives the songs subtext and makes them all sound like they come from a real person.

It's kind of a Jerry Jeff Walker Thing, that's what I call it. I glommed on to him so hard that I found out that the whole thing is Ramblin' Jack Elliot. I'm Jerry Jeff's son and Ramblin' Jack is Jerry Jeff's dad. I copied that guy offstage and on. He wanted to be the Hunter Thompson of singing, whatever that meant. He didn't want to stop.

Did you ever meet Hunter Thompson?

Yeah, one time. He pushed me. He got mad at me. He wanted me to sing some more songs. [Jimmy] Buffett came and brought him to this bar gig he saw us play at. He didn't know who we were. When he came back afterwards, he wasn't like, I thought you were great, sing some more. It was like [doing a passable Thompson impression] You're the singer. I could see you from where I was. I didn't hear it from where I was. Get your guitar and sing me another one. I said, "It's in the car underneath the drums," and he got mad at that. I didn't care. He could have kicked me in the balls and I'd have said thank you for those books.