An Epiphone J-200, cable, and tuner are all Snider needs to grab the crowd. Photo: Max Flatow
Todd Snider is the closest thing we have to Johnny Cash these days. Not that his music sounds anything like Cash’s (because it doesn’t), and not because his songwriting yields gems of a similar lyrical style or cadence (because it doesn’t). Performing with a band or solo, large or small venue, entertaining dignitaries or criminals—Cash always owned the room because he was a storyteller. He wasn’t a blazing picker or the kind of singer who is celebrated for his technical ability, but when you gave Cash a guitar and a room, he’d intimately connect with the people in it and leave them wanting more. Ask anyone doing anything in front of an audience for a living—this is not an easy feat.
Todd Snider has been on the road doing the gypsy troubadour thing for nearly 20 years. While his audiences are full of folkies and singer-songwriter fans that listen to the likes of John Prine and Steve Earl, Snider’s shows attract the gamut, from country music fans to frat boys. Like Jon Stewart, he goes from silly and sarcastic to political and poignant in two seconds flat. Check out a Todd Snider show and you’ll get the feeling he’s flying a flag few other artists care to wave with conviction anymore—that of a critical observer who has something to say about the human condition as it plays out in America.
Snider is on to something. Not taking anything away from the musicians who stun us with their tones and technical prowess, but our brains need more than that sometimes. Johnny Cash taught us that people need to escape into a good story every now and then—with or without music.
Snider’s new live album, Todd Snider Live: The Storyteller, is the first recording that truly represents what he is out there doing across America almost every night—it commands your attention and takes you along for a ride. Before you know it, you’re examining truisms, understanding sketchy characters a little better, laughing your ass off and reaching for your guitar to pick up on Snider’s catchy rhythms that carry entire songs.
Snider is in the middle of a cross-country tour, as usual, but took some time to chat with Premier Guitar about the new live album, working with a different sound guy every night, and of course, his gear.
When people describe you, the word “storyteller” usually comes up right away.
Ramblin’ Jack Elliott and Jerry Jeff Walker were my main heroes when I was starting out. There’s a long tradition of storytelling in that vein. Then there’s Arlo Guthrie and all those guys, you know. I’ve studied them all and love their stories. They’re all true, too. [Laughs.]
There’s a way this stuff works, you see—I get free wine. But if I get about a half a bottle in me before a show, things do get a little loose in the turn. The storytelling is something I like to do as much as the singing and the performing. But some nights, the storytelling thing just doesn’t present itself well and that’s okay. I like to just sing and play, too.
You get lumped in with those three-name Texas guys a lot—Jerry Jeff Walker, Robert Earl Keen, Townes Van Zandt, Billy Joe Shaver, etc. You know the list. What do you think of that?
[Laughs. ] That’s funny because I love those guys. That also happens to be a new song I’m working on.
Well, it is now. You could make a five-minute fucking list-song about that! [Laughs. ] Yeah, Jerry Jeff… all those guys. Robert Earl means a lot to me. He doesn’t do the story thing quite as much, but you know, he’s just as important. It’s fun. I love it and it’s what we do. Hell, if I came out and they were throwing shit at me I’d find a way to like it. I know I could like that. I’m here for a certain reason but I’m not at all thinking about holding anyone’s attention. What is it they say about surfing? You just go out. You don’t get to tell the ocean what to do—I’m out there just to be in the water.
Tell us about your gear.
I play Epiphone J-200s—keeping one in normal tuning and one in open B. I use medium D’Addario strings and like it when the strings aren’t new, but aren’t dead yet.
I run my J-200s through the DI right to the house. I try not to put too much on it, maybe just a little reverb from the board if it’s a particularly dead room. I just like a big bright acoustic guitar and those big jumbos are all I need.
What is it about the Epiphone J-200?
I’ve always liked the way the J-200 sounded. The Stones used J-200s. Emmylou Harris plays a J-200. They sound great alone or with a group.
I go through ’em, too. They get smashed at the airport a lot but Epiphone is great. When the airport smashes another guitar, Epiphone sends me a new one right to the gig. And they set them up for me so well. I should probably go buy them a drink more often than I do.