Just seconds into my conversation with Todd Snider, he’s telling me about some LSD that was “going around the neighborhood” a few months back. The next moment, he’s on to a story about dodging fruit hurled by Jimmy Buffett. He then deadpans that if young musicians come to him asking for career advice, “they’ve already failed.”
Such is the frenetic personality of the singer-songwriter-poet-open-drug-user who’ll bring his variety show to Charlottesville’s Jefferson Theater on April 26. Snider dubbed the event “Springer: The Folk Show” on a whim during a recent phone conversation.
“I’m not exactly sure what it’s going to be,” he said. “I kind of have a plan, but I also am the VP of the Abrupt Plans Change Department at Aimless Productions.”
It’s hard to tell whether Snider’s kidding or not, but the rough schedule at this point is to open the show with a partial screening of a new movie produced by two of Snider’s friends, who he called “total jerks.” After he denounces the movie, a “stoner musical” entitled East Nashville Tonight in which the aforementioned LSD figures prominently, Snider said he’ll read a poem that he hopes to dash off earlier in the day, and move into a reading from a collection of autobiographical yarns he’s going to unleash on the masses at the end of the month.
According to Snider, I Never Met A Story I Didn’t Like (Mostly True Tall Tales) was pieced together with the help of Nashville music writer Peter Cooper and lacks any kind of linear structure, which makes the book the perfect way to capture Snider the man.
“It’s kind of like Tuesdays With Stoner,” he said. And then, pleased with himself: “I just thought of that.”
At some point after the book reading, there promises to be some music played at Snider’s Jefferson show. But even that’s intended to have a circus bent to it, with microphones set up in the crowd so people can either make song requests or just ask questions to see where Snider goes with them.
The answers are sure to be surprising. To wit: Does it ever bother Snider to be pigeonholed as a folk singer? “Pigeonholes don’t bother me. You get all snuggled in there,” he said. “Everyone that offers me a hole to pigeon in, I take them all.”
Um, is that LSD still going around the neighborhood?
For all of Snider’s irreverence, there’s a conflict between his easygoing truant’s lifestyle and his music. Sure, there are the funny songs—he sings about “the human race to fill up more and more empty space” on the opening track of his latest, Agnostic Hymns and Stoner Fables—but Snider also knows how to throw a sucker punch to the gut while his audience is giggling along.
“This is the last time you’re going to break my heart,” he sings over strings and craggy guitar riffs on “The Very Last Time.” “Staring down the barrel of a lonesome truth, we never got that far/From the worn out welcome of a wasted youth/I see the way we are.”
It’s the lyrics, man, that have always spoken to Snider. He admits he isn’t the best at melodies, and he knows he doesn’t have the range or power to do some of the things other singers can do vocally. But he knows how to work a crowd and turn a phrase.
“If I’m working on a song, I wait ’til there is a line in it that makes me want to sing the whole thing,” Snider said. “Every 12 songs I make up, I find a line that has a heart, then we wait for the next one.”
Snider is willing to look to others for help with the melody stuff. He has a good relationship with a few songwriters he trusts, and he hopes his latest project, the super group Hard Working Americans, will continue to push him in the right direction. Alongside Snider, the group consists of bassist Dave Schools from Widespread Panic, guitarist Neal Casal, keyboard player Chad Staehly, and drummer Duane Trucks. The band’s first record was composed entirely of covers, but Snider hints that there are surprises to come.
“We are working on some new stuff that is a little more melodic for me, [as well as] some country songs that are mostly melody first,” Snider said.
The idea for Hard Working Americans, according to Snider, was to take his folk roots into another arena. But the project quickly became “something way bigger than that.” Snider said Schools has become the de facto leader of the outfit, the guy who can serve as the first line of defense against any of his ideas that might be off the mark.
Hopefully, Schools’ filter won’t be too conservative. It’s a lack of filter that makes Snider who he is—a guy who openly credits his ability to “work high” for allowing him to be a productive artist.
“The things I do most naturally are make up words and be an emotional conduit for music,” Snider said. And then, once again pleased with himself: “Which is not a talent, but it is a problem.”