by Sheldon Birnie
Todd Snider is an American stoner-folk-songwriting troubadour in every sense of the terms. For the past 20 years, he’s written 12 albums and performed to thousands of fans across the world. In anticipation of his Winnipeg Folk Festival performance, Stylus caught up with Snider at home in East Nashville for a phone conversation about his craft, his love of Jerry Jeff Walker, the Folk Fest, and the Nashville Predators.
Stylus: You’re coming to Winnipeg for the Folk Fest, and you’ve got a couple new records out. Why don’t we talk about those first? You just did a record of Jerry Jeff Walker tunes [Time As We Know It: The Songs of Jerry Jeff Walker]…
Todd Snider: Yeah, it was fun. It was, it felt like… The reason I did it was the last record, Agnostic Hymns & Stoner Fables, it felt like the end for me. I’ve said what I’ve got to say. I think I’ve made 12 records, so what is that, roughly 120 songs? That feels like enough, you know? So I figured I’m going to stop this part of my life, the making up songs part, and try to find some other things to do. So I felt like making the Jerry Jeff record was more like a present to myself, you know. I don’t think the world needs new versions of these songs. Jerry Jeff did them best. This was more like a going away party for myself. I’ve had a lot of fun making records. I’m not going to not make records, just maybe not as Todd Snider. I’m not going to do that no more. I’m going to tour and everything as long as I can. But I’ll probably focus more on my side band now. Or maybe try to write something else. Anyway, in my mind I’d just made up my last batch of songs and to celebrate that I threw a party and sang my favourite songs of my hero. And the guy who made me want to do it to begin with. It was a stoner party. And a drunk. But it came out good. The songs still sound good.
Stylus: What made you decide to stop? Was it a long time coming? Or when you were done the record did it just feel like the end of the road?
TS: I started to see it coming after The Devil You Know. So about three records back I could see this craving… Well, no, let me think… Maybe right around The Excitement Plan, after I was done that record and I felt these songs coming. I could just see that this thing I was trying to say my whole life, I feel like I’ve said it. That desire to be understood is lifted. I don’t care if I’m understood anymore.
Stylus: Maybe that Agnostic Hymns record really was a good way to go out. It sounds like it was a fun record to make.
TS: That was an even bigger party than the Jerry Jeff one. That wasn’t supposed to be that way. We just got into it over there at Eric [McConnell]’s for a few days. It seemed like the right thing at the time. I feel like parts of that record I’m singing to my entire life as a person who wrote and recorded, which I’ve been doing now for just coming on to 20 years. That was a good time, you know.
Stylus: Shifting gears here a little, you’re playing the WFF, which is kind of Winnipeg’s biggest party. Have you been up here before?
TS: I think maybe I have. I think I met Corb Lund there. And there was this other girl, she’s having a really good year… Fuck, I can’t remember her name, but I met her there too.
Stylus: What can we expect from you up here?
TS: Oh, let’s see. I try not have a plan or a goal when I go up. But I know I’ll probably have a good time. There’s lots of stages, right?
TS: I remember it. You get to meet lots of other singers. I’ll probably just… Well, I’m going to bring my band, the Burn Outs, so that’ll be fun. It’s just a little band, but we’re mighty.
Stylus: What do you think of when you think of Canada?
TS: Well… Man, I gotta think of that girl’s name… What is that guy, Bon Iver? Kathleen Edwards! Aren’t they boyfriend and girlfriend these days? I saw her name in a magazine and I was like, “I know her!” That was a decade ago it seems like, when I met her and Corb. So I think of the friends I’ve made. And Fred Eaglesmith.
Stylus: He’s playing in Winnipeg at the same time as the Folk Fest, but a different venue.
TS: Oh, so he’ll be in town? I hope I get to see him.
Stylus: One thing I’d like to know, and this is the fan in me coming out here, is a little backstory on your tune “Play a Train Song.” Robert Earl Keen just put that tune on his latest record [Ready for Confetti]. Can you tell me a little about that song, if you don’t mind? I just love it.
TS: That’s a song about a friend of mine named Skip Litz. This neighbourhood I live in, East Nashville, it’s sort of a musician’s neighbourhood, and it started about ten years ago. He was kind of the architect of all that. He was a roadie for Doctor Hook and the Medicine Show, then he ran sound down at this bar right in the middle of our neighbourhood. He sold dope. He’d do anything. He was the hub, the mayor. If you needed an amp, you called him. If you needed a drummer, you called him. He was like the pimp of everything. If you needed a human toe, like in The Big Lubowski, you called him. He had become a really close friend of mine. He lived right around the corner. We became like everyday, best friends for five years. I was the sidekick. The Barney to his Andy. The… well, I guess Fonzie didn’t have a sidekick. The Squiggy to his Lenny. I would ride with him. He had this old Cadillac, and he would park it… He was just cool. It was like out of movie or a cartoon to see this guy. In fact, just this morning my wife was going through a closet and she found this sign that we saved after he passed away. It was hanging in a bar here, and it says “No Smoking, Unless Your Name is Skip Litz.” So that’s how, I don’t know why, but he would park on the sidewalk. He just did what he wanted and it was known. He’d walk into a bar and yell “Play a Train Song” and the band would do it. It was a fun tradition around here. Sometimes the band would try to stand up to him and they’d realize that the whole crowd was going to go with him. I imagine if you’re from out of town you’d think he was just a drunk heckler, but you’d better play a train song or the crowd would start booing. So he was a cool guy. Then he found out he was going to die, then it was getting worse. There was a surgery here and there. Towards the last 8 months of his life, he asked if he could come travel with me, cuz that’s what he wanted to do. Then we went, I think we went like the beach in Florida and went swimming and shit and had a blast. Then we came home and I was supposed to go to Virginia, and we were having a little cook out the night before we were supposed to leave and I couldn’t get him on the phone. I went over there with our roommate and my wife and two of our friends to see where he was. For some reason we had a funny feeling about it. We went over there and he was laying on the couch. The television was all that white static stuff, you know, when the channels were gone. And he was laying there smiling, like whatever happened, he was probably watching something funny on TV and his heart just popped or something. But it looked like he was laughing. And he was stiff and cold as shit. I went over and shook him and knew right away, shit, it’s over. And so then, he was friends with all these songwriters around here. One of his riffs was, he’d say “You a songwriter? Well I’m a song, man. Just different. And better.” And when he died, boy, I wrote a song, but it wasn’t the only one. There’s about five or six songs about that guy.
Stylus: You’re a pretty outspoken advocate for marijuana users. Can you comment on the marijuana policy, in the States or in Canada? Or just generally?
TS: Foolish old men being foolish, I say. We’re right in line behind the gay community. There are probably more beleaguered members of our community, behind the gay community. The gay community is finally figured out, or at least smart ones are starting to tell the dumb ones that it’s not such a scary thing. And here we come up right behind them. All the way up. I don’t know if you guys will come with us or not. But you got some good shit going on right now. Isn’t your health care better than ours? And your hockey. And Neil Young…
Stylus: The Nashville Predators had a pretty good run this year…
TS: How about that? I was excited. Didn’t we make it through a round in the playoffs? Yeah, that was fun. We were watching some of that on the bus, trying to root for the home team. But we really didn’t know what the hell was going on.
Catch Todd Snider and the Burn Outs at the Winnipeg Folk Festival this year. You won’t regret it.