By Richard Skanse
It’s mid-morning on Tuesday, July 18 — Day 2 of President Trump’s mildly ballyhooed “Made in America” week — and Todd Snider of the Hard Working Americans is hard at work doing what he does best. Or at least, well, most.
“I like to babble,” he admits with a chuckle some 40 minutes into our talk. Snider, on the phone from his home in Nashville, is as friendly and forthcoming as ever, quick to lightly apologize whenever his freewheeling thoughts get all jumbled in his brain en route to answering a question — but not in the manner of a guy who ever seems overly fussy about focus. As both a songwriter and a peerless raconteur onstage, Snider’s due diligence to stringing perfectly picked words together just right has earned him sincere nods of approval from some of his biggest heroes (including John Prine, Kris Kristofferson, Billy Joe Shaver, and the late Guy Clark); but in casual conversation — even on the clock doing press — he veers charmingly shuffled.
“I’m the Ramblin’ Jack Elliot of my time, the most willing interview ever,” he declares with pride, then checks himself. “No, maybe Steve Earle has me there … but at least I’m a close second.”
Unlike Earle, though, Snider’s never been much of an unrepentant, controversy baiting shit-stirrer, be it in interviews or onstage or record. Although he’s happily poked a playful stick or two at ripe-for-ribbing, bloated societal conventions, hot-air hypocrites, and bullies in his day (via songs like “Conservative, Christian, Right Wing Republican, Straight, White, American Males,” “You Got Away with It,” and “New York Banker”), as a self-proclaimed “peace queer,” Snider’s more of a “we’re-all-in-this-together”-minded hippie hugger than a street-fighting, rabble-rousing revolutionary. And while he’s spent much of his career as an acoustic guitar strumming singer-songwriter, his aesthetic and whole persona has long been more lovable misfit and stoner savant than earnest folkie. Some seek enlightenment along Woody Guthrie’s ribbon of highway, but Snider — song for song, as gifted a writer as any troubadour in his generation — decided early on that “Scamp” Walker’s ramblin’, scramblin’, driftin’ way of life was the path for him, if for no other reason than it probably sounded a helluva lot more fun. (In 2012, 18 years after his debut, Songs for the Daily Planet, Snider recorded an entire album of Jerry Jeff songs, Time as We Know It.)
Snider’s Walker tribute, helmed by Don Was, was released right around the same time as Agnostic Hymns & Stoner Fables, an endearingly scruffy, self-produced collection of his own songs recorded with friends including fellow Nashvillians Jason Isbell and Amanda Shires and B3 player Chad Staehly of the Denver rock band Great American Taxi. Snider would end up getting ordained to preside over Isbell and Shires’ wedding the following year, but it was Staehly who played matchmaker when Snider, creeping up on a sort of mid-life crisis, began itching for new set of musical wheels. The singer already had at least one knock-around alter ego (the infamous-in-his-own-mind “Elmo Buzz”), but he was looking for something more than just a beater for getting his occasional bar-band ya-ya’s out in and around Nashville; he wanted to play with a band of musicians who could kick his ass and whip him into melodic shape by literally blowing his songs apart and making him relearn his craft from the ground up. Staehly first hooked him up with bassist Dave Schools of the jam-band juggernaut Widespread Panic, and with fellow journeymen pros Neal Casal (guitarist for the Chris Robinson Brotherhood and Ryan Adams’ Cardinals) and drummer Duane Trucks rounding out the original quintet, the Hard Working Americans were born. The band’s 2014 self-titled debut, comprised entirely of thematically-linked covers by Snider favorites like Hayes Carll, Will Kimbrough, Drivin’ n’ Cryin’, and the Bottle Rockets, was a critical success, but the same year’s The First Waltz, capturing one of their earliest public performances, didn’t quite deliver on the next-best-thing-to-being-there wallop of an essential live album. Far better was 2016’s Rest in Chaos, the Hard Working Americans’ second studio set and first to showcase the band’s full power as something more than just a side gig for everyone involved. The only cover this time around was Guy Clark’s “The High Price of Inspiration” (with Clark himself sitting in on the session, mere days before his death at age 74); the rest of the songs were all Snider’s (some under the influence of yet another alter ego, one “Blind Lemon Pledge”) — written in the midst of a divorce and arguably one the most trying emotional and physical chapters of his life.
Naturally, all of that drama happened right after the publication of Snider’s uproarious 2014 memoir, I Never Met a Story I Didn’t Like. But fans who might have had no idea exactly what all he was going through when writing and recording Rest in Chaos songs like “Roman Candles” and “Ascending Into Madness” can glean a lot by reading Nashville writer Daryl Sanders’ exceptionally inspired liner notes accompanying the Hard Working Americans’ just-released (Aug. 4) second live album. Aptly titled We’re All In This Together (after one of Snider’s two show-stealing, spoken-word “invocations” in front of a heady crowd in Birmingham, Alabama’s Iron City), it’s far and away the most thoroughly and righteously entertaining document of the Hard Working Americans at work (and play) to date. Although Snider keeps his stand-up worthy banter to a minimum (by design, this Todd’s on a whole different stage trip than the ones immortalized on his two essential “solo” live albums, 2003’s Near Truths and Hotel Rooms and 2011’s Live: The Storyteller), every word he sings and chants here is delivered with the conviction of a magnetic shaman possessed by the music in the room, and the band — Schools, Staehly, Casal, Trucks, and newer recruit Jesse Aycock on pedal steel — flat out rocks. Along with Sanders’ liner notes, the CD booklet really should have included an apology to the aforementioned Hayes Carll, because he ain’t ever getting his song “Stomp and Holler” back.
Suffice it to say, whatever it was Snider was looking for at the outset of his Hard Working Americans experiment — an escape, a renewed sense of artistic purpose and rekindled creative fire, a literal life line, or all of the above — on the evidence of We’re All In This Together, he’s found it in spades. And to hear him tell it, they’re just getting warmed up. Although lead guitarist Casal recently amicably departed the group due to time constraints with other projects on his plate, Snider and the rest of the HWA (with Casal’s replacement, Daniel Sproul) are already nearly finished with their third studio album, due early next year. In the following interview, Snider shares some details on that project, as well as some insight into how the band helped him get his groove back, why he’s always had an affinity for the jam scene (take a wild guess), what he listens to to stay inspired (or just to get his rocks off), and why he reckons the kids coming up behind him in the Americana songwriter field are more than a little alright.
Well, good morning, Todd — and happy “Made in America Week”!
[Laughs] Oh god, that’s right! My goodness. My goodness. Well, there you go … that’s funny.
It’s a pity that Trump couldn’t have waited a couple of weeks, though. It’s almost like the president of the United States had no idea that the Hard Working Americans had a new album dropping in August.
Yeah, I know! I feel a little short-sighted. We’re the hardest working Americans in show business! [Laughs] Anyway, thanks for doing this. Is this about that live record, or am I coming there or something?
Well I’m sure you’ll be back through Texas at some point [Sept. 21-23, in fact]. But no, this is about that live record. Which, right from the start here, I gotta say is my favorite thing I’ve heard from this band yet.
Oh, good! That just makes me happy to know that you like it at all …
I mean, even right down to the liner notes. I know a lot of fans probably won’t ever see them if they go the streaming or download route to hear the album instead of buying it on CD or vinyl, but I hope that guy Daryl Sanders who wrote them got paid well, because I thought they were fantastic.
Oh! You know what, I know him, and I will tell him you said that. And I think he was, actually; he’s kind of a band member. [Laughs]
He covers a lot of ground — the whole story of the band, along with a really good glimpse into what you’ve gone through over the last three or four years, especially during the writing of the last album — but in a really clever, funny way that nods to your own storytelling voice. In fact I actually thought it was you you wrote it at first.
That makes me happy. Yeah. You know, I’m in it, so I wasn’t sure at first; but I read it and thought, “Well shit, everybody likes this, so ..” But anyway, that makes me happy that you liked it. I actually only read through it one time … doesn’t it start out talking about George? [George Boedecker, the founder of the Crocs shoe company and the co-owner of the HWA’s label, Melvin Records] I love George, man. But yeah, that story in there … that’s what happened.
Like I said, he wrote the story in a manner that’s really funny, but reading between the lines and peeking behind the music, as it were — it sounds like you had a really rough couple of years there. Your book, which I presume was off to the printer before all of that started, kind of ends on a happy-go-lucky note. But knowing now what happened next — that’s a real winning the lottery and then getting hit by a bus kinda postscript.
Yeah. It was an odd, odd time. I liked the record that we ended up getting out of it, though …
Rest in Chaos …
The one with my face on it? Yeah. And I still do, actually. Although I really like the new one. I’m just really into this band, you know? But I feel like I don’t do so much in it, so it’s like I’m more of a fan myself, really. I just don’t listen when the singer goes on.
You’re there for the solos.
I’m there for the jam! [Laughs]
Going back to Rest in Chaos, though … How important was this band, and that record, in pulling you through that period?
You know … it’s hard to … it’s hard to talk about without getting dramatic, but it was kind of a dramatic time. And it’s fair to say that, you know, because divorce and these things — people don’t make it through them sometimes. And it was more than just a divorce for me. And I mean, as I say this, it’s almost like I’m nervous to say, “Well, the cancer’s gone!” [Laughs] But I joined up with these guys, and I feel like that connection — especially with David, who’s our leader — it was one of those spots that you really couldn’t get out of without a friend. And at the same time, just in terms of my music life, I was really wanting to be a more melodic person, if that makes sense. So I had that to throw myself into with these guys as well, which was a nice distraction from my impending doom. [Laughs]
I know you had worked with Chad before, both on your own records and with his other band, Great American Taxi. And you were also a Widespread Panic fan. But how well did Dave and Neal and Duane know your music when the band first came together?
Um … probably not as well as somebody might assume, in jumping into a band. But it started with Chad encouraging me to call David, because I was telling him my songs were getting too talky, and that it might help me to get around someone who was really melodic. So the first thing we did was, I sent him 20 of my songs, and he put a band together, and the plan was I was going to go out to San Francisco and we were going to play the songs, but they were going to be unrecognizable to me — a lot like if you were a Dylan fan and you went to a Dylan show in ’88, and you were like, “Wait, so that’s ‘Tangled Up in Blue’?” [Laughs] And the point was, not necessarily for a show, but just for me to understand deconstruction and reconstruction and composition and time and tempo and all that kind of thing. And it really helped.
Anyway, we had such a good time doing it, we formed a band and we did a bunch of covers, because the first thing that we thought to do was take songs that we didn’t write, and see if we could make them sound different from themselves. It was almost like when that guy was waxing on and waxing off (in The Karate Kid) — “Before you hit anybody for real, let’s do this!” [Laughs] So we did that on the first record, and then we sort of turned loose on the Chaos record, which came with a bunch of baggage. And now we’ve got a bunch of new songs that I feel like are kind of the fruition of it all, coming in the winter time.
The other guys obviously all have pretty deep roots in the jam band scene. How tuned into that stuff were you before all this happened? Were you a card-carrying Deadhead, Phish-o-phile or Panic-fanatic, or whatever the fans call themselves?
I was. All three. Maybe in that order. No — I’d say Dead, Panic, Phish. And a stoner. Deep into stoner and psychedelic shit …
You don’t say!
And then there’s this community called the jamgrass community, which is, you know, where Yonder Mountain String Band and Old Crow Medicine Show … it’s this acoustic place where Americana and jam culture meet. It’s almost like this afterparty. And it’s based on drugs to a degree, I believe. Like Hayes Carll’s a friend with a lot of jammy people, because he’s a stoner. I don’t know if he’d want me telling you that, but …
The secret’s probably out on that one.
So anyway, I was into that. And then the Taxi and Leftover Salmon and Yonder guys, a lot of my friends … I was always drawn to the thought that, like if you go to those festivals, they’re picking and playing music onstage, and they’re playing music in the dressing rooms, too. And there’s not a lot of talk about careers backstage, just a whole lotta jamming — and a lot of smoking and drinking and girls, too. All the unprofessional stuff! I was always drawn to that — the muse-chasing shit. So, I like the jam community because it’s pretty ambition-less. And it’s the same with Americana; any time you’ve got, you know … “lazy” people jamming out.
When you’re onstage with the Hard Working Americans, either at a club or a festival, do the fans look or act much differently than the kind crowds that would typically be at a Todd Snider show?
Yeah. I don’t always know why they’re cheering and stuff … At my shows, they listen, and sometimes they argue or try to talk to me. At Hard Working Americans shows, it’s kind of like they’re all on acid and spinning around; it’s more of a religious-y thing, I think, than just me or the band entertaining … It’s more like, “entertain yourself!”
Do you ever feel like, “I could just walk offstage and they wouldn’t even notice?”
Yeah! And I like that! I say very little. Most of the show — half of it, at least — I’m just standing there watching. And I love that. It feels churchy to me; it feels grateful to me. It feels like if there’s some thing or someone that made all this, and they were watching, they’d be like, “Well, those people are grateful, those people are happy.” People don’t dance in frustration. I mean, maybe if you’re doing it professionally you might, but if you’re just outside dancing to music, you’re kinda happy. Or you’re grateful. You know? I don’t know. But after so many years on the road, you start to look for stuff like that.
Speaking of feeling “happy,” or maybe about spinning around on acid — in the liner notes for the new live record, there’s a couple of graphs that allude to the “Blind Lemon Pledge pledge” that you asked everyone to make going into Rest in Chaos. And also something about a sort of manifesto you wrote at the time that was supposed to be a game. Can you clarify what any of that was about? What was the pledge and what were the rules of the game?
Oh, I thought it was genius! I worked on it for years. But to take the pledge, you say, “If a mule came along, I would run away with the world because I’m tired of working … and the game begins.” And to play the game, that means that you will go some place you don’t usually go, hook up with someone you don’t know, go some other place, and humiliate yourselves, together. And that’s how you “win” and make the world better. And save the world, actually.
It’s based on this thing I wrote … Daryl (Sanders) read it, and he thinks we should put the game out. David thinks we should put the game out, too. But I gave the game to my manager and two businessmen, and they were going to play it, and they said, “We never could understand exactly what we were supposed to do.”
Well, that’s life!
Right! But like, the instructions … they were were like, “We don’t get how you play.” But then my nephew and his friends took it, and they played it, and they went to New Orleans and had the time of their life and they’re convinced that they won.
But really, it’s all just based on absurdity. It’s kind of … well, it’s not good. [Laughs] It tries to explain too much, and it’s being explained by a person who really doesn’t know this information — me — and who’s just kind of lost in this long poem. In my mind I was making up a poem, and it got to be about 70 pages, and then 3,000, and I think people in my life started to see that I was just using it as an escape, you know? And I didn’t know this, but I think the band was like, “Do we let this go on? Do we pretend that we’re not just mining this for songs now?” [Laughs] But … I’m glad they did, because there’s some songs in there that wouldn’t exist if it wasn’t for me thinking that I was making up a game.
Your whole Blind Lemon Pledge trip is described as sort of an escape from yourself, with the song “Ascending into Madness,” which has the line “rest in chaos” in it, supposedly meant to be Blind Lemon’s requiem to Todd Snider. At the end of the little story in the notes, though, it’s suggested that that the old Todd kind of returns, which implies that you’re at peace with just being you again. Or coming around to it. Putting that nice little parable aside, though, to what extent, if any, do these different personas you’ve adopted actually color your songwriting? Does calling yourself Blind Lemon Pledge or Elmo Buzz open different creative doors for you, or is it all just fun bullshit, because obviously, it’s always you?
Probably a lot of both. But in my mind … I guess it started when I had just done a record called The Devil You Know (2006), and I was trying to follow it up, and I felt like I had too many songs. And at the same time … you know, I’m not, in general, a confident person; if anybody asked me, “Would you describe yourself as confident?” God no! That’s not something people would ever call me. So I was dealing with that, and then I went through this whole thing with my family that sort of knocked me off my square a little bit, and I got this idea that songwriting wasn’t necessarily that good for me. But then I came up with Elmo Buzz, and Elmo became this way to …
Let somebody “else” do it for you?
[Laughs] I don’t know. In hindsight, it all sounds so silly. And in hindsight it feels like it’s kind of over now. But at the time, the Elmo thing … yeah. So (as Elmo) I made that Bulldog record; it came out last year, but I actually made that record a long, long time ago. [Note: The “Elmo” album, Eastside Bulldog, was released last year under Snider’s name, but most of the tracks first surfaced online back in 2011 as an EP titled Shit Sandwich credited to “Elmo Buzz and Eastside Bulldogs.”] And then that made me feel like I could do something completely different again with like a jam band, or whatever.
So, it’s me, but it doesn’t feel like the same … And in my mind, honestly, I feel like the thing that “I” do [normally], I haven’t done that for a long time. I don’t expect people to know all of my records, but after I made The Devil You Know, I made one called Peace Queer and another one called The Excitement Plan, and I also made Eastside Bulldog. I mean I made all three of those at once, and called them one thing at first, but it had to be broken into three pieces. And even in the middle of that, one of those batches was me pretending to be somebody else. So to me that was sort of the end of me being or doing my “thing,” you know? And then later when the band came together, I felt like I had gotten some more canvas to work with, or a whole new muse. It felt like a new thing, so I started making up songs a different way …
But what about …?
Oh! Right before that, I had also made up that Agnostic Hymns record, kind of in a blackout drunk. I just wasn’t into it.
Really? A lot of your fans and critics seemed to dig it.
I like it when I hear it now, and there’s a song on there called “Too Soon to Tell” that I liked, but … I wouldn’t want to be that person that made that album again.
Anyway, so back to Rest in Chaos … I kind of came up with that whole album in that new way I had found. But then right at the end I made up a song called “It Runs Together” the old way, and I felt like that was the beginning of sort of getting back into it again. And now, just recently, like at the last few shows, I feel like … knock on wood, you know, but I feel like I’m kind of coming out of it. These new songs, when I listen to them, I feel like the old Kent Finlay’s son made them up: Me. [Note: Finlay, the late owner of Cheatham Street Warehouse in San Marcos, Texas, was one of Snider’s earliest songwriting mentors and champions.] Now, I don’t think they’re as good as the first songs I made up, but they’re still songs, and I’m 50, and I’ll take them! And maybe they are good, maybe they will make somebody feel less alone. Or make someone dance or some shit that they weren’t going to do.
Are these songs for a Todd Snider record, or a Hard Working Americans record?
It’s a Hard Working Americans record, but it feels like it’s all kind of one thing now. On the tour that the live record is from, that’s when I felt like I finally had the courage to show up and say, “OK, I’ll sing for this group.” You know, I’ve been doing it for about two and a half years, but that whole time I was calling myself something different, and taking LSD, getting it done through like a busman’s holiday. Like, “It’s not my gig.” But now I feel like I’m trying to re-approach it like … I don’t know. [Laughs] It’s hard to talk about! It’s easy to talk about at length, and hard to make sense about.
Basically, it sounds like all those different sides of you are finally coming together as one.
I like to think that. Well, except that Elmo Buzz died in a knife fight about two months ago …
Wait, what? Oh no.
Yeah. It was tragic! The only thing cool was, there was tons of chicks around and apparently they were really good looking. But, he’s dead. It was a one-car wreck … very confusing, but he’s dead. And then that Lemon guy hasn’t been heard from in a long time, either.
Of course, I say that coyly, or whatever the word is. And in some ways, it is all a joke. But in some ways it’s not. Mostly it was to be fun and party with my friends. But in some other ways it was a way to make up songs that didn’t make sense, a way to make up a song where I cared more about the melody than the words, and I just let Kent Finlay hit me with that ruler as many times as he wanted and didn’t worry about it. It was all just a way of letting myself make up a song, telling myself, “Hey, Ozzy Osbourne’s great at doing it this way, why not me?” I mean, I like coming from a school of songwriting where “Bobby McGee” is the touchstone or the North Star, but that doesn’t mean that’s the only way to do it. I really like listening to different things. I like jazz, I like metal, I like … everything.
What are you into right now, just as a music fan?
Let’s see … last night I watched a Beatles movie about their touring days. But before that I was listening to a lot of Parliament/Funkadelic. And before that I went through an Oasis thing ; in the early spring I pulled out (What’s the Story) Morning Glory? and couldn’t put it away. I hadn’t heard it in forever. And then somehow I fell into this Parliament thing, and that’s what I’ve been doing for like the last month.
Has anything new caught your attention recently?
I stay hip to the whole East Nashville scene. There’s this chick, Rorey Carroll — I like to tell myself I discovered her, but I didn’t. But she’s starting to do good, and I listen to her songs a lot. And then there’s this other kid, Aaron Lee Tasjan, whose arm I’d like to break, because he’s so good. But I’d just do anything for both of them. And I really like Hayes and Jason Isbell and Justin Townes Earle and the Staple guy. And the girls, too — the Kacey girl, and the Margo, I met both of them the other night. I kind of wish I was 20, because the 30-year-olds now are just really poster-on-the-wall worthy in my mind. I really admire the generation behind mine; I see it as a magic time.
I love it. I think it’s a really, really good, special thing. It makes me happy. I would like to be young (too), but I mean, I don’t care if they know I hate them for their youth and their talent. I like them for their music. All of them.
As you get older … do you ever have those moments where you listen to Blonde on Blonde, and you’re like, “Dammit, this asshole is only 25 years old here …”
Oh, constantly. Constantly! It was just a different time, though. He was like 20 when he wrote “Blowing in the Wind.” And the Stones were, I don’t know … I guess it was just a different world. But yeah, I do. I do.
As a songwriter, it’s gotta be hard not to develop a complex over that. I mean those albums were all made before I was born, and I sometimes have to make a conscious effort not to think about how, “I’m twice as old as Dylan or Keith Richards were when they made these …”
Yeah. But I’ve always felt like how, in the same way that … you know, they still do plays, but nobody’s looking for Shakespeare anymore; everybody knows he’s not coming. So, I think rock ’n’ roll had its moment. And I even think this thing we do … I even used to talk to Guy Clark about it, saying like, me and my generation … well, I would say the generation behind mine gives me hope for it, but there was a thing where country music happened — what was it, in the ’40s, the ’50s? And then rock ’n’ roll happened. And then Kris and Willie and Guy came here, and that happened. But it’s not like they sprung a well that would be eternal; it was a moment in time. In fact, I would compare the guy who came up with Facebook to Guy Clark before I would compare myself to him. That’s more the equivalent I think. In those days, the smartest, best of the best were going into songwriting. But they’re not now. In the same way that the great actors of today aren’t dying to be in the theater. But there’s still some idiots, there’s guys like me who are. [Laughs] But it’s an old venue if you ask me; it’s a tired old thing. Still worth it, though! You can go do it, go get into it, jump up and down at a gig, and it’s kind of like the Dead … I don’t know. It’s still tribal or whatever.
Speaking of Guy Clark … I didn’t realize that the Hard Working Americans’ recording of his song “High Price of Inspiration” was his last session. He’s on the track himself. Do you remember that day very well?
Yeah, I do. Knowing him, just having his phone number, that was about the coolest thing I could have brought into that band. Everybody in the band, I went up in stature because I knew Guy Clark and John Prine. And then everybody wanted to meet them. And it was actually David who, in the middle of the process of making Rest in Chaos, he played me that Guy Clark song, and said, “This is you, this reminds me of you, this is what we’re doing. We’re allowing this, and I want to record it.” And I was like, “OK.” So I called Guy, told him we were recording it, and he came down and just … the band was pretty enamored. I remember Rory came by, Elizabeth Cook came, Aaron Lee came … it was a very pay the respects, kiss the ring kind of thing.
Guy meant a lot to me. He was a real leader in the folk world, I thought; almost every young singer … someone should write a book about his basement, because everybody’s got a story about being invited there, and it’s sort of where you’d get told what’s up, you know? I’ve been scolded in that basement a couple of times; I know Hayes has, I know Jack Ingram has, I know Robert Earl has. That guy, he meant a fuck load to me. He wasn’t just a songwriter … he played the role, in this town, in my day, that I heard that Johnny Cash and Cowboy Jack Clements had played in his day. There was Cowboy’s Arms and Spa and there was Johnny’s house, and you know, when Johnny invited you over to the house, it was kind of a thing. You felt like you had been initiated into a club, even though when you got to the house, he might tell you what he thought was wrong with you. Guy was that way, too, and I loved him for that.
Anyway, to make a short story long, he came to the session, and then I think I saw him one more time, and I could tell that he was going to go. But I kind of felt like he was ready, too.
Did you ever get to meet Johnny Cash?
I did. Very briefly. My first album came out, and I got to go backstage at a Highwaymen show and meet them. And then one time about five or six years before that, I waited out in front of a studio to meet him, but I didn’t get to meet him that time. But the Hard Working Americans album we just did — the studio one coming out in the winter — we actually recorded it out at the Cash cabin, and it was a whole lot of family fun. Well, Manson family, but still family! We had a real throw down out there, a real creepy time!
When was this?
Just a couple months ago. Like a month ago. And we’re still working on it. Like, David’s over here right now setting up mics, and tomorrow I’m going to re-sing one more song. And then we’ll start mixing. The whole record’s kind of based on … I went over there (to the Cash cabin) to see Loretta Lynn record a song that I made up with her, and then I kept having these dreams about the place. And I also started hanging out with John Carter, so we started making up this song about this dream I kept having, and it morphed into the band coming in to see what was going on. We all thought that if we took shrooms and spent the night, then this idea for this song would become something. And it kinda did … it became an album. That song that we were talking about didn’t really show up again until the middle, but it all kind of popped open and we just stayed.
Is there a name for the record yet?
I think we might call it The Ghost of Johnny Cash. John Carter kind of joined us on it; I consider him kind of a member now. And he kind of co-produced a lot of it, or at least he took over a few days. [Laughs] It’s a leaderless ship; it’s like, whoever had an idea runs with it, and he was just there.
I can’t wait to hear that. But in the meantime, I told you at the outset how much I’ve been enjoying We’re All In This Together. It really is one of those live records — and I think this is a rarer thing these days that it was back in the ’70s — where if someone needed a crash course in the Hard Working Americans, you could direct them to this and it’s all there.
That really makes me happy. And you know what’s funny, I felt like that, too. When I heard the live record, I was like, “OK, that’s our thing. I wonder if we should even go back to the studio at all …” I mean, I like studios and writing songs and all that, and like I said we’ve already made another studio record, but boy … part of me is like, we should probably just drop that record and just go out and start playing all those songs live, because they’re going to be so much better when we get them out there. You know, the Dead made a record of live all new stuff. That’s what we should do, write all new stuff and just start doing it at gigs.
Neil Young did that a few times, too.
Yeah, he did, that’s right. What was it, Rust Never Sleeps?
Yeah, and Time Fades Away before that.
Oh yeah! That’s what I meant. I’ve always admired that. So I could see us becoming that.
Apart from the whole band just sounding really on across the whole record, what really sold it for me on the first spin are your two “invocations.” You’ve said that part of the idea behind the Hard Working Americans was that you wanted to be able to get onstage and not have to be so “talky,” but that was always my favorite part of your “solo” shows. Even when it’s rehearsed and not exactly off-the-cuff, I think that’s always been one of your greatest strengths as a live performer. And the two invocations here — the sort of “intro” near the beginning, where you incorporate the words from Bo Diddley’s “Who Do You Love,” and the whole “title track” where you kind of tell the story of the band in the middle of that really killer groove … it’s absolutely hypnotic.
Oh man, thank you. And it’s funny how that kind of found its place inside this band. I mean, it wasn’t a part of this band in the beginning; this is our second live record, and I didn’t do any of that stuff on the first one. But the fact that I can do it now is part of what makes me feel like I’m being nursed back to health by these people. I mean, that’s even what I talk about onstage — the bullshit is about that. It’s like, “Hey, these guys are helping me find my voice again …”
It’s funny though that you still call it “bullshit.”
Because it is! And I don’t mean … You know, it wasn’t just divorce that knocked it out there for me for a while. I also really think that if you’re genuine about studying the language, if you’re genuine about the idea that poetry is what you love, then you’ll eventually come to the conclusion that it’s all jive, or that it’s as bullshit as anything else is bullshit, or even that language is bullshit. Alphabets? They’re bullshit. “Sham-a-lama-ding-dong, wop-bop-a-lu-bob …” — man, that’s the message! But then it’s like, once you realize that, how do you get back to work?
See … honestly, the older you get, you have to make a bigger and bigger deal out of it, just to do this stupid thing. To make up a two and half-minute poem, you gotta tell yourself you’re doing some bullshit fucking alchemy.
But it is a kind of alchemy. At least when you do it right. In that first invocation, by the time you start riffing off of “Who Do You Love,” it’s like a spell.
[Laughs] It reminds me of Dan Aykroyd. Remember The Blues Brothers? It was like David went, “OK, I like your Arlo Guthrie trick, with the storytelling and all that, it’s terrific — but I need you to study Dan Aykroyd.” That’s not what really happened, but that’s like what eventually happened. It was like the microphone turned into a bullhorn. So it’s different really, than when I do it on my own; when I do it at one of my shows, it’s more of a “brain” thing; but when I do it with the Hard Working Americans, it’s a lot more like, I am going to humiliate myself …
One time before a show, I heard David giving the band “talk.” It was a really intricate thing with the setlist and all this other direction, and I thought I was missing it. But he gave me some acid and was like, “You just go out, get some air, and come back and see if you can jack this up!” I mean, he’s got an alchemy he’s looking for, too.
You mean, give the frontman acid and tell him to just “go out there and do your thing”?
Yeah. “Try to see if you can shake us!” [Laughs] It’s like he gives the rest of them this intense plan, and then he sabotages it. But it turns into this beautiful thing… I’ve been there, man; I’ve been touched by it.
Well, between his self-sabotage alchemy and your bullshit jive alchemy, it makes for a helluva great show. And one of the best live albums I’ve heard in years. Speaking of, do you have any all-time favorite live albums?
Let me think. If I had to pick a favorite live record, it would probably be Get Yer Ya Ya’s Out. But there’s also Dead ’72 and the Allmans’ At the Fillmore. Oh, and Before the Flood, and Live Rust is pretty great. Boy … that is tough! I just really dig live records. And my tour manager does, too. In fact, on the bus, we kind of just listen to live music exclusively. Even if it’s Ozzy Osbourne, we’ll listen to a bootleg.
You mentioning Before the Flood takes me back to what you said about how, in the beginning with Hard Working Americans, you had the guys take a bunch of your songs and deconstruct them so that they were unrecognizable to you — just like Dylan reinvents his songs every night onstage. As a Dylan fan, did you always appreciate that, or did it ever drive you nuts?
No, I always liked that. And I always kind of tried to do it like he did, tried to find ways to make my songs new for myself. But I think in the last few years I’ve done it in a more conscious, linear way, and that’s what I think he does, too. It’s a lot of fun. And it never bothered me as a fan at a Dylan show. In fact it was something I was always excited for: How’s “Tangled Up in Blue” going to sound tonight?” I opened for him once, and it seemed like people were on the verge of booing at some points, because it was so different. He’d be singing and you’d hear him say “Like a rolling stone …,” and you could almost hear the crowd going, “Really? That’s what this is?” But I was in the crowd going, “I love this guy!” I really do. Him and Willie are my favorite people.
Do you like his “Sinatra” records?
You know, I haven’t even given them a chance. God, isn’t that terrible? I was so into Modern Times, though … I’ll put that and Love and Theft up against anything else he’s ever done … [Snider cuts himself off, momentarily distracted by some company that’s just arrived at his place.] Oh, man … it’s Elizabeth Cook’s birthday! The Hard Working Americans are here, Elizabeth Cook is here, Aaron Lee is coming … It’s going to be an old-fashioned … what was that movie? Heartworn Highways? It’s going to get a little heartworn out here today!
Well man, I’ll let you get to it. But speaking of birthdays, I know you celebrated turning 50 last October with a big show at the Ryman Auditorium. How did that go?
It was fun. It’s so surreal to keep getting older, though. I didn’t think I would. And I do … you know, I think it’s mentioned in the those liner notes, but I had a sort of seizure-y attack not too far back, after a Hard Working Americans show at a festival, and I still don’t feel like I’ve totally come back from that yet. So when I turned 50, I was like, “OK, I’m kind of an old man now. I’m definitely easing into the Fred Sanford years.” Which I’ve always looked forward to anyway, but at the same time … you know how some people say, “I’m 50 and I still feel terrific!”? I’m like, “What?” Because I don’t at all. [Laughs] I definitely feel like I’ve stayed too long at the fair!
Last question, promise. A few years back, you got ordained and married your friends Jason Isbell and Amanda Shires. Is that a service you’d ever be open to doing again?
Yeah, I would. Especially, like I’ve always said, if it was for gay people — for some reason I would really like to do something like that. But with Jason and Amanda, I’m glad they did that for me. They made it so I could be a reverend or whatever, and I’m just particularly enamored with those two. I call them Johnny and June. I remember, when she came into my life, she seemed like this little kid. And then she told me that her boyfriend looked up to me and he wanted to meet me. And so he came to meet me, and like an hour later, they were my parents. [Laughs] And I’ve looked up to him ever since, and he’s worried about me ever since. He’s one of the best “older” brothers I’ve ever had. I love that fucker.