East Nashville Livin
Written By: Mike Kieran
Todd Snider has spent much of his life wandering America’s dusty highways and endless train tracks. His songs combine the wanderlust of a beat poet with the honest narrative of a folk balladeer. Snider’s music is sweetly nostalgic, and at times sharply satirical. Over the years he’s been lauded, applauded, punched and held at gunpoint. Synthesis recently had a chance to ask him about his music and time on the road.
I’ve read some of the logs you kept while on the road. Do you only keep them on tour, or do you write them all the time?
I write a lot of things down. This guy wanted me to write a book, which is the second time that’s happened in my life, and I may do it.
Have many of your song and lyric ideas come out of the road logs?
Just the stuff that happens after the show or before, and just all that traveling that goes on, I feel like I do get to meet a lot of people and trip over a lot of things that rhyme, y’know.
It helps to just let those things out. I don’t know exactly how it works. I guess if I did, I’d have new songs all the time.
Have you got any live performances that stand out in your mind as rowdy or memorable?
I always remember if somebody punches me, ‘cuz I hate it when people punch me. It hurts every time. I can tell you I was punched in Los Angeles, Milwaukee…for being liberal. Musically one time we played a Fireman’s Ball in 1996 and for some reason I always think of that as the best music I ever got to play.
Do you remember what town that was in?
Reno, Nevada. We were on mushrooms, but I’ve heard recordings of it that were pretty good. It was a two-day run where we hadn’t slept, and somebody gave us these mushrooms. We were so tired, but we’d also played every night for the last 30 nights. There was this combination of all these things that were happening to the four of us for the first time in our lives: first case of road fatigue, first time to ever take drugs to defeat road fatigue, first time to try it onstage and it just all clicked. It never clicked again like that.
I heard a story about a gun getting pulled on you in a bar. What were the specifics?
I was with Billy Joe Shaver. He seems to always be around guns and alcohol. I was waiting for a phone call and I think I interrupted a drug deal. It was kind of a tough old bar. This guy put a gun in my face, a sawed-off shotgun. I thought, “What a dick, that’s rude!” Billy Joe talked me out of it somehow. As soon as the gun got in my face he said, “Todd, be quiet.” and I said, “OK.” And he started talking. I don’t remember everything he said, but we left. They told me to never come back to that bar but I did.
Your wife does the painting on the cover of The Devil You Know. Who is that guy, and what does he represent?
That’s a great question. Hang on, I’ll ask her. [A short conversation on the other end of the line] He represents The Devil. There’s a crooked halo on this guy. It was sort of trying to blur the lines between good and evil. It was supposed to symbolize that the guy that you think is a good guy isn’t necessarily that good of a guy, and the guy that you think is a bad guy isn’t necessarily that bad.
Do you have a favorite song off The Devil You Know?
I like “If Tomorrow Never Comes” and “You’re All That Matters.” Those are songs that are supposed to look in themselves. I wanted the record to start by saying, “We don’t know where we come from and we don’t know why we’re here and we don’t know where we’re going” and end with the same person saying, “I don’t care. I don’t need to know where I come from, where I’m going, and I don’t even need to know why I’m here.”
It starts off with one sentiment and works its way to another one. The thing I always find myself doing is, “We’re doomed, let’s dance.”
What are your musical influences?
Dylan and The Stones are like the two people that I love so much I don’t want to meet ‘em. It’d be like looking into the sun. My favorite people that I most emulate are John Prine, Jerry Jeff Walker, Kris Kristofferson and Billy Joe Shaver. When I was younger I used to go get the clothes that I saw them wear or try to act like them.
Do you have any personal heroes that aren’t musicians?
Bill Hicks is one of my biggest influences. Sometimes I fantasize about meeting him in Heaven and having him say, “Hey fuck man, thanks! You finished my job a little bit.”
I have a song called “The Kingsmen,” it feels like it’s very influenced by him. I know he wasn’t a songwriter, but sometimes I think of him when I’m working.
Do you have any advice for up-and-coming musicians?
One thing that Kris Kristofferson told me is that if you’re in it for the right reasons you just flat-out won’t fail. I’ve never been a good advice giver. I hate to give it, and I can’t stand to get it unless I ask for it.
Do you ever see yourself settling down in one place?
Maybe the house I’m in, ‘cuz we got married here. We talk about moving some nights when we’re feeling nostalgic and tipsy and other nights we say, “let’s never leave this beautiful home!” This house I’m in now I’ve been in it nine years, and I think it’s the longest I’ve ever lived anywhere in my life. It’s in East Nashville, Tenn. It’s a nice little hippy neighborhood. It’s like Austin in the ‘70s is what I hear.