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Interview: Ramblin’ Down the Road with Todd Snider

Interview: Ramblin’ Down the Road with Todd Snider

Snider's dog, Cowboy Jim, accompanies him onstage from time to time. Photo: Stacie Huckeba

Anyone ever tell you that wear your guitars almost as low as Slash?

[Laughs.] No, that’s a first! [Laughs.] I guess I’m a rock ’n’ roller deep down. I’ve got long arms and people are always telling me I’m lanky, so it makes sense.

But you’re a rhythm guy.

I’ve been playing seriously for 16 years—what I call seriously anyway—and I’ve never really worked at playing lead. I can do a little, because I know scales and things here and there, but I practice the rhythm guitar parts that end up on the record. I’m usually learning some rhythm guitar part or trying to make one up—like a riff you can hang a song on, or a chord progression you can base a whole song on. I’ve always worked on that, and tried to be a good rhythm player who can play that stuff in time, and be effective.

I have another band I play lead in—the Bull Dogs. It’s not embarrassing, I wouldn’t say, but I don’t think players in Nashville are sitting around thinking they could call me for a sub gig. [Laughs. ]

Talk about the role of your guitars when you’re writing.

I play every day for a good three hours or so, working on songs and singing them. If I get some lyrics, I’ll make up a bunch of different kinds of music. But songs come at you all kinds of different ways. Maybe it’s a chord progression—I’ve got this one chord progression that I’ve had for 12 years but I’m just now getting to the point where I’m comfortable with the words for it. And then I’ve got another song I made up about a week ago, where a whole bunch of words just flowed right out of me, but I haven’t begun to think about the music for that song yet.

For my side band, the Bull Dogs, I try to come up with… umm… I’ll just call it what it is… I try to come up with Stones-type riffs. And that’s fun, especially when I feel like I’ve been working a lot on my own songs. It’s fun to sit around and try to make up a Bull Dog riff.

What advice do you have for guys trying to tell stories with their guitars?

Three things. Robert DeNiro told me it was really uncool to drop names, but I’m gonna do it anyway. Kris Kristofferson said if you’re in the whole troubadour thing for the right reason, there’s not a chance you will fail.

I’d also say the same thing I tell my nephew—don’t get caught up too much in the gear. I’m not saying you don’t want to sound good. What I’m saying is don’t be the capo or strap collector who tells everybody at the bar he’s a songwriter. You know the type—he goes down to the bar and criticizes everybody, mostly just pontificating on songwriting, and then tells everybody that later in the year he’s gonna get serious and do some real songwriting. People tend to not want to buy drinks for that guy.

And the third thing is that I am probably the last guy you need to be asking for advice on this subject.

What’s it like on the road, doing what you do?

I’ve learned to be ready for anything. One time the electricity went out in the theater with 10 minutes until show time, so we sat and played a capella for about three songs before we said okay, seriously, we need an electrician.

You have those nights for some reason or another, where you’re sitting there playing and you can’t hear yourself at all—so the only way you can keep your singing in pitch is when you hear the front row singing along, hoping they’re loud enough to give you something to sing to. Your voice is just going out into the world and you can’t hear it so you’ve gotta wait for them to fix it. I’ve just learned to sit there and enjoy that. I always think its funny when you go out and see young kids perform, have an issue, and start yelling at the monitor guy. That’s how you know when somebody hasn’t been out on the road very long—it’s a young guy thing to do. They’ll kick the monitor, the real cool guys, you know—kicking it like they’re mad at it. “Yeah, that way the young girls know it’s not my fault I’m playing bad.” [Laughs.]

What’s the biggest difference between where you’re at and who you are now, compared to when you started out?

I’m humbler. Looking back, I wonder if my first couple of albums got a little preachy at times. I’m older now, creakier and older—I think I’m turning into Fred Sanford out on the road.

You’ve been compared to comedians Mitch Hedberg and Bill Hicks. Did they influence your songwriting or performing?

George Carlin, too. I like Bill Hicks and George Carlin and think of those guys as writers. They didn’t do fart jokes or shit jokes. I’ve always thought of Steve Earl and Bill Hicks as being very similar guys. I felt such a kinship with Mitch Hedberg the first time I saw him and even wondered if he had ever seen me. I’m by no means saying he copied anything I did, not at all. Hell, as soon as I saw him I started copying him. It wasn’t too much of a stretch! [Laughs] He was great—just a stoned guy who writes. I get that. It’s very similar.

I actually get to meet comedians a lot, and it always makes me think about how they would make such good country writers, with all due respect to country songwriters. It feels like a similar thought thing to me, like thinking in verses. If you’re doing it for more than just making people laugh, well that’s very much like songwriting. I should mention Lenny Bruce, too. A brilliant guy who really influenced me.

So what’s next for you?

Well, I’m excited about the live album. Oh, and next year when Jerry Jeff turns 70, I’m putting out an album of about 15 of his songs. I’ve already recorded about half of them.

I’m also working on an album of agnostic hymns and I’ll be opening a church—The Agnostic Church of Hope and Wonder. It’s kind of based on … umm… look, I went and saw Al Green, you know. He does the church thing and it seemed like he’s a little more addicted to the grift than he is Jesus. [Laughs.] I’m not against Jesus, but I like grifty shit and thought, “man, I gotta get in on that action.”

Weren’t you named the rightful heir to the title of Chief Poet of the Church of Buffett Orthodox a while back?

[Laughs] Hey, that’s right! I heard that a long time ago. I wonder, is there still a Church of Buffett Orthodox? There’s gotta be grift in that!
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