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Todd Snider: Stoner Fables A Gypsy Songman

He may identify with stoners, slackers and barflies but Todd Snider doesn’t seem to embody their lack of activity.

The singer-songwriter has released two albums this year. March’s Agnostic Hymns & Stoner Fables is filled with his acerbic observations of life in this century. His deepest lyrical jabs come at the expense of those in the cushy positions of power (“New York Banker” and a cover of Jimmy Buffett’s “West Nashville Grand Ballroom Gown”). The subject matter easily aligns with the ongoing frustrations demonstrated by the Occupy Movement but even a cursory listen to Snider’s work throughout the years shows that it’s just his latest tales of everyday people. Musically, the songs have a loose, bash-it-out personality.

Then seven weeks later, he honored his original musical hero with the tribute album Time As We Know It: The Songs of Jerry Jeff Walker. Produced by Don Was (Bob Dylan, Rolling Stones, the 14 tracks feature other admirers including Kix Brooks of platinum-selling country act Brooks & Dunn, Elizabeth Cook and Amy LaVere. Walker’s mix of humor and poignancy give a strong indication of where Snider received his musical education.

I catch Snider on an off day from his current tour. Driving through Los Alamos, California he balances conversation with sightseeing.

JPG: You’re a busy, busy man in 2012. Two albums have come out in a little over a month’s time. When we talked in the past, I know you mentioned John Prine and Billy Joe Shaver a lot. You may have mentioned Jerry Jeff Walker but I didn’t realize you were into him enough to put out a tribute album. How did that come about?

TS: I would say he was the one that led me to the others. So, I have a certain affinity for him. But also, when I saw him play alone when I was 19, and from that moment forward decided that I wanted to be like him. He was what I would call a Gypsy Songman. At the time, I was just a Gypsy and I thought adding ‘Songman’ to it would really be fuckin’ cool.

I followed him around and watched him play guitar and learned to play guitar from just sitting in the front of his concerts. One of the things he did, first concert I saw him do it, I noticed that the guitar work that he was doing didn’t look impossible. I heard people say that about R.E.M. I was in the front row watching him and thought, ‘That doesn’t look that hard. It looks more like he’s just putting himself out there not like he’s some virtuoso…’ So, I don’t know, maybe that was part of what inspired me, made me think, ‘Maybe I could be a singer.’ And then I followed him around and learned all his songs. And then John [Prine] was next and Billy Joe [Shaver] and Kris [Kristofferson]. I guess, that’s my main four.

For some reason I always considered Jerry Jeff as the free-spirit leader of his guise, and he created a lot of…he was such a great Gypsy Songman type. I think Guy Clark and Townes Van Zandt knew each other because of him. I think Guy Clark started writing songs because of him. I know Keith Sykes got his break because of him. So many people’s first song was a Jerry Jeff song. He was always out there trying to find all the true troubadours. I just always thought he was a center there.

I could go on about him. Everyone thinks that [the Byrds’] Sweethearts of the Rodeo is supposedly the first Americana record but his first record – Jerry Jeff Walker which is out of print — really is if you listen to it. You can see that’s where the Outlaw [Country] thing comes from. And Willie [Nelson] and Waylon [Jennings] even acknowledge that. That record was a really important record that people have forgotten.

JPG: I read that you consider yourself an Evangelical Agnostic. In the story you said something about there’s not a church for that, where people get together and hit tambourines. But I was thinking that others, who are like yourself, actually do just by being a part of one of your concerts.

TS: (laughs) Right on. I oughtta get a church church like Al Green. That guy is a grifter extraordinaire. I think he has more fun taking quarters out of the pew than he does doing concerts. Maybe I should. Yeah, well, I appreciate that.

You got my mind thinking. I think I’m going to start an Agnostic Church and stay at home. Actually, I’d miss traveling. It’s tough on the knees but it’s a lot of fun.

JPG: I could imagine, just from my years of traveling. Now as far your latest album, Agnostic Hymns & Stoner Fables it pulls no punches. I mean, lines like “To think that we would still need religion/To keep the poor from killing the rich” on “In the Beginning” or “Good things happen to bad people” from “New York Banker” and “They say that living well is the best revenge/I say bullshit, the best revenge is to win” from “Too Soon to Tell.” Was a lot of it written in the past year or so when the frustration with economy and the system led to movements such as Occupy Wall Street?

TS: It took about two-and-a-half years. My songs are weird…once they get…well they’re not any weirder than anybody else’s, but for me once they get started, it seems like it takes a long time. So, it seems like over the course of a few years, 10 or 11 things will start to seem like they’re gonna get finished. They go through bouts of changes. I never really know how people are going to receive it. Sometimes, I don’t know what’s making me say the stuff I say. I think it’s a personal argument that I get in that usually…most of it feels real personal to me, like real personal arguments with different people in my life and things like that.

And then, it makes me happy when it comes out and someone says, ‘Oh, he’s mad at the economy.’ I don’t know if it’s all about the economy, man. I wish I knew more about it but I just never cared that much about money. I like stories and I like to be…I don’t know I like to go to bars and sing people songs about themselves. For real. I like it when there’s somebody I can sing it to later and go, ‘Listen to this song I made up about you.’

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