While the electric guitar marks a departure from Todd Snider’s last few records, Agnostic Hymns and Stoner Fables falls squarely into the groove he hit after 2004’s East Nashville Skyline. A laid back traditionalist whose wry lyrics belie his stoner persona, Snider trades in smart, sharply observed songs delineating the travails of American have-nots. On his new album, he speaks from that same underbelly, employing a live-in-the-studio feeling and a deceptively casual vernacular that makes this his most engaging effort in years.
Snider and bassist and producer Eric McConnell aim for a shambolic mess, pitting Snider’s electric guitar against Paul Griffith’s crashing drums and Amanda Shires’ fiddle. Snider’s best lines emerge from the clatter, demonstrating an offhand and often humorous brilliance. “If I had a nickel / for every dime that you had / I’d have half of your money / you talk about not half bad,” Snider sings on “In Between Jobs,” a bluesy paean to unemployment that ends with an unexpected threat of violence. Class anger simmers just beneath the song’s surface, yet like most of his downwardly mobile characters, Snider’s cannier than you think.
At times, Snider’s humor allows him to make some pretty pointed jokes. “Come here, kid / let me hitch up your britches / and while we’re at it / let’s fix that hat,” he sings on the acoustic “Precious Little Miracles” before suggesting disadvantaged urban poor take up community theater. One of the album’s sharpest compositions, it makes an interesting companion to the lone cover, Jimmy Buffet’s “West Nashville Grand Ballroom Gown,” which tells the story of an upper-class Southerner who rejects her heritage. Snider reinvents the song as a country blues stomp, doing away with Buffet’s professional sheen.
From the jilted lover in “Too Soon to Tell” to the Arkansan high school teacher in “New York Banker”—the true story of how Goldman-Sachs defrauded investors with Abacus Bonds—Snider’s characters take struggle, heartache, and a sense of cosmic, political, and personal injustice for granted. “We’re afraid to die / every goddamn one of us / I swear to God / it’s like You’re making fun of us,” he sings on the former, while the latter sums up one of the album’s themes: “Good things happen to bad people.” Without glossing over any political realities, Snider depicts a universe in which faith offers few answers, instead demanding we ask more questions.
By now, Snider’s cultivated the voice for this material. He started recording in 1994, and his self-reinvention over the latter half of his career testifies to his perseverance. Since making a pair of watershed albums, East Nashville Skyline and The Devil You Know, in 2004 and 2006, respectively, he’s had us rooting for chronic failures, fuckups, and other victims of American capitalism. One of the new album’s strengths is the way Snider’s familiar persona—a combination of sly humor and aw-shucks folksiness—lends itself to material which is always more considered than it seems.
The Rumpus: Your new album has more of a rock than a folk sound, and you’re using a lot of electric instruments. What made you decide to take that approach to these songs?
Todd Snider: Even as I was working on the songs, I knew that it was going to be an electric affair. I had just done the acoustic thing, and I wanted to try this kind of thing. I was hoping I was ready as a guitar player to do it.
Rumpus: Did you write the songs mostly on electric or acoustic guitar?
Snider: I made them up on an acoustic guitar that I got last year. Sometimes when I write, I don’t even have a guitar. So no, I hadn’t picked up the electric guitar; I just had it in my mind I wanted to have an electric guitar and a violin when we went into the studio.
Rumpus: Were there any particular influences on the sound?
Snider: I was thinking of Muddy Waters and Django Reinhardt, that kind of gypsy shit and Southern bluesy shit. For a few days before we started recording, we sat around and got drunk at [bassist and producer] Eric [McConnell]’s house and talked about what we were going to do; we were talking about being sloppier than we’d been before. Tonight’s the Night, that Neil Young record, came up, because that seemed like one where he deliberately allowed himself to be sloppy. Dylan’s got a few records like that. I know we’re just a little Americana group, and it’s like a high school football team talking about the pros when I talk about those guys. But Lou Reed made some records like that, and those are the records I like. They don’t seem labored over. I like The Eagles, but I don’t think I could ever get into making the kind of record where you just sat around working on it until everything was perfectly pitched and timed.
Rumpus: Can you talk about the music you listened to growing up and who your influences were?
Snider: The Doors, was probably my first one, which is very far from what I do now. Jimmy Buffet, too. I came from a jock-y place, so not much music got into there without being called homo or gay. My main one was Lynyrd Skynyrd, and also Creedence Clearwater Revival, but for some reason, those other two pointed to a life that was not the life I grew up in, so I really gravitated toward that. I thought I could be a singer in a band. I would have been a roadie; I would have been anything that had to do with music. But I couldn’t get any bands into my lyrics. And then I saw Jerry Jeff Walker play by himself, with an acoustic guitar. By that time, I was about 20, and I said, I’m going to do that.
Rumpus: What made you decide to settle in East Nashville, and how long have you been there?
Snider: I went from Oregon to Santa Rosa, California and then to Austin, and then from Austin I went to Memphis. I lived there for four or five years, and that’s where I got a record contract; my first band was from there. And then I moved to Atlanta with a girl and stayed there for about two years. And then I went back to Memphis. And then I met a girl in a drug rehab in ’97. I was living on a little farm between Memphis and Nashville. She was a painter. She was from New York, and she went into Nashville and got a deal where they were selling her art at this gallery, so she needed to be at that gallery every day. One day I was on the road, and she decided we needed to get a house. She got us this house in East Nashville, and I trusted that I’d like it. I came home, and I loved it. It’s been 12 years I’ve been at that house, and I wouldn’t leave it for the world. They say East Nashville is a place to go when you first get to town. I just like to stay over there. It’s all got all these great musicians and great bars. It’s a very carefree lifestyle. It’s not country music at all. It’s sort of artsy. I’ve heard it’s like Austin in the ‘70s.
Rumpus: Has the way you write songs has evolved over the years, or have you always approached songwriting the same way?
Snider: I get them every kind of way you can imagine. But I was working on them a certain way for my first three records, and then I started spending a lot of time with John Prine. I have days where I hate all of it, and then I have days where I like all of it. But working and studying under John and having that connection to him, I know it changed the way I saw the world, and sometimes I think it changed the way I wrote my songs, too.
Rumpus: Were you hanging out with Prine around the time you made East Nashville Skyline?
Snider: Yeah. He came in about Happy to Be Here, and that was the beginning of the idea of trying to find my own way, where I wasn’t totally copying him or any of those other great heroes. I had studied under Prine for a few years, and then I met Eric, who’s on the bus right now; he’s in the band, but he’s got this studio where they made that Loretta Lynn and Jack White record. Usually when you make a record you have to write the songs, and you go tell the record company, “I’ve got those songs”; and they say “Can we hear them?” and you play them; and they say “Okay,” and then they pay the studio. East Nashville Skyline was the first record where I just went to the studio, and I said, “I don’t want to go through that process. What if we record, and if they hate it, they hate it, and I’ll figure out a way to pay you?” When I look back on that era, John was in my life and Eric McConnell, he was in my life and sort of stayed, so if something good happened, it was probably those two.
Rumpus: Did you make the new record the same way, at the same studio?
Snider: Yeah, though I let the songs cook a little longer before we went in, and then when we went in, we put a cast together. Eric figured out who he thought would fit. It was kind of a drunken brawl, by design. I don’t think you could have had kids or been sober or anything to participate. There was a lot of drugs involved, actually. We wanted to make some chaotic, messy shit. I didn’t want anybody chickening out, like a lot of musicians do, even some of the weirdest, greatest ones. I didn’t want anybody going home. I was like, we’re signing on for a week, for a big, messy drunken week. Nobody gets to go home. So we found this group of people that were up for it, like Paul [Griffith], the drummer. Everybody kind of produced the record. Everybody came up with their own parts. We never talked about anything. We just got fucked up and wrote. That sounds terrible. My mother, when she reads this, she’s going to say, “oh, son, you make me so proud.” I hate to say it, but it’s not the stupidest thing in the world. You read about records you like, and they made them like that. It’s really not that different than a jock lifting weights. I had to take drugs, Mom, I was working on my album.
Rumpus: There’s a story about Captain Beefheart locking his musicians in the studio and making them take drugs and psychologically abusing them until the album was finished, so you’re in good company.
Snider: I think I’ve read about that. I like that. I’m not interested in fitting in or getting together with a group of people to try to figure out how to be liked. That doesn’t seem like a fun adventure. That seems like joining a frat. I never understood the professional recording studio thing. That seems oxymoronish to me. Maybe if you’re making gospel music or something that needs to be pristine, but not for the kind of music I like.
Rumpus: Are a lot of the musicians on the record from East Nashville?
Snider: Sure, the whole tour bus is from East Nashville. I can walk from my house to the homes of all the people on the bus right now, and the touring band is basically the band on the record, but then we brought [violinist] Molly [Thomas] instead of Amanda [Shires] on tour. Amanda did the record. Yeah, that neighborhood’s just getting cooler and cooler. There’s so many good bands now. There’s a band called the Turbo Fruits I really like. Everybody’s moving there, too. Tim Easton just moved there. It’s becoming quite a little art community.
Rumpus: What are you listening to now?
Snider: I’m kind of going through a metal phase. I never have done it, I never got it, but then this kid made this 10 hour documentary on the history of metal, and I’d just had an operation on this tooth that I had lost. I sat there and watched this whole fucking thing, and now I love Black Sabbath. I don’t know how I missed Black Sabbath. Iron Maiden, I still don’t need. My favorite’s King Diamond, though. That guy’s badass. I’m not sure if it’s high art or high comedy, but I don’t think it matters. I’ve also been listening to a lot of forties shit.
Rumpus: One of the things I really appreciate about your songs is how funny they are, like “Just Like Old Times,” which is also very touching. How intentional is the humor in your music?
Snider: I don’t try, but it doesn’t bother me when it happens. Actually, “Just Like Old Times,” the people that song’s about, they didn’t like it till they saw a crowd liking it. There’s a moment in the song where the cops let them go, and when I sang that part, the crowd cheered. The people, the girl especially, were shocked that they were being rooted for. She hadn’t wanted me talking about her at first.
Rumpus: In general, how do the people in your songs react when they hear your songs?
Snider: I’ve had people get mad, but most people like them. I’ve found that especially if I’m telling a story onstage, almost 100% of the time, I can lie. It seems like anytime I’ve heard someone say, “Hey, I saw that person, and I asked if that story was true,” my friends embellish, too. Although the stories are mostly true. There are teeny bits of shit that aren’t true, but they’re mostly true.
Trogg was mad I said he weighed so much. There’s a guy named Trogg I talk about on a live record, and I said he weighed 300 some pounds. He was a little upset about that. He heard it from his son. His son brought the record home from school. I hadn’t talked to him in years.