"I've always avoided the notion that I'm smart because I know three chords and somehow managed not to get a real job," says Todd Snider. "I mean, I smoke more dope before 9 a.m. than most people do in a whole day." And yet Snider has spent two decades writing sharp, sad and often hilarious roots-folk songs about economic injustice and religious hypocrisy, featuring a variety of down-and-out characters – broke stoners, trailer-park slackers, idiot criminals. His new album, Agnostic Hymns and Stoner Fables, is one of the best musical responses yet to the Great Recession, including a song about Wall Street crapulence that former Obama Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel suggested he write. Snider, who's currently in the middle of a nationwide tour, checked in with Rolling Stone before a gig in Santa Cruz, California and talked about the economy, his "jock Republican Christian" roots and that time he almost got shot.
Hey man, what are you up to?
I'm standing on a cliff right now, in Santa Cruz.
Why are you standing on a cliff in Santa Cruz?
Well, we just smoked a joint the size of a Sharpie. You should see where I am, man. It's all happening. This town is my favorite to play in, because of all the cliffs. And because it's hippie country, USA.
How's the tour going? You've done the solo-troubadour thing for most of your career, but you have a full band now.
I'm getting into electric guitar. What I learned when I was young was to make my show different every time I went to, say, St. Louis. But now I'm trying to do it so it's different every time I go to St. Louis, and also different tomorrow night than tonight. Sometimes I wake up with a plan, and sometimes I wing it.
At every show you give a speech where you warn the crowd that your songs have political opinions, and that you might ramble on between tunes for up to 18 minutes. What's the story behind that?
Some people get really offended by the things I say, so it's a nice disclaimer. I've only been hit once. It was in Milwaukee, not that long ago. He never said why he hit me. It could have been my shirt.
And he waited in line to do it! That's why I don't sit at a table to sign shit at my shows anymore.
Your new album has a song called "New York Banker," where the chorus is, "Good things happen to bad people." Is it true Rahm Emanuel gave you the idea for that song?
Yeah. Before this show in Chicago, I was working on a song about the military industrial complex or some shit. Rahm, who's a fan, came backstage, and I was telling him about it. He said that bankers were a bigger threat to normal people than the military, and that if Woody Guthrie was looking for a song, he'd probably be going after those bankers. And I said, "Well, I'll give it a try."
You write really well about poor people. Where do you feel that comes from?
I guess I got it from Jerry Jeff Walker – he always sung about where he was. I got one of those neighborhoods [in East Nashville, Tennessee] that's pretty half and half. My liquor store isn't the safest liquor store. I'm not saying I'm poor. I come from a jock Republican Christian family, but I've always known what I was – a leftie. My family doesn't listen to this shit, but if they did they'd disagree with all of it. Maybe I say these things on the off chance that someone like them would hear it.
I get that you spend a fair amount of time with outcasts and down-and-out folks, like that guy you sing about on "Digger Dave's Crazy Woman Blues" from the new album.
Well, I know why I know Digger Dave, and it wouldn't make anybody's mom proud.
Why do you know him?
I met him in Homer, Alaska about 12 years ago. I'm sitting out on my deck at the hotel and I see a moose. So I want to follow the moose and I put on this purple scarf that my wife got me, and I'm walking after this moose and this guy says, "Nice scarf, faggot." Then I'm down by the ocean and I see these three fishing huts, and they're kind of run by this guy Digger Dave and a few of his…what do you call them? Acolytes?
I could smell the drugs. I stick my head in and it looks the Mansons are in there. I went in and played some Prine. The guy who called me a faggot was in there, but I broke his heart – I got him with the Prine. So then I spent the day there, and later I got Digger Dave into my show. I go back to Homer, Alaska all the time. Two trips ago, Dave was in prison. Then the last trip I saw him and asked how he ended up in jail. And he told me the story that ended up in the song.
Did he get a songwriting credit?
Yeah! I think he thought he was gonna get a little more money than he actually is getting. He left like a 38-minute phone message that I wish he'd let me put it out.
I love that song "Highland St. Incident" [from 2006's Devil You Know]. It's the one about the cracked-out guys who sound like they're the world's worst thieves. What drug are they on in the song? Is it meth?
I think it's crack. That's what it smelled like to me.
Oh. That was a true story?
Yeah, that took me a long time to write. It took me a long time to get over, too, because they hit me.
Those dudes robbed you?
Well, I didn't have nothing to rob. I was playing in Memphis and I went out to get some cigs, barefoot. I walked right by these guys, and I noticed one of them had pulled a bandana over his face. One said, "Get behind the dumpster, bitch," and then he hit me as hard as he could in the temple with his gun. My only chance was to run right at them, because they had my back to the wall. I could see the street down the alley, so I started running towards that light. I ran into the bar and up to the bartender, and I said, "I've been shot!" We all looked me over and decided I actually hadn't been shot.
And then you wrote a song where you made up their backstory.
I tried to make up a song about what a drag the experience was for me, but I never got it. Then I thought about what a drag this must have been for them, you know? And all of a sudden it worked.
Where do you feel like your sense of humor comes from?
What is it that John C. Reilly said in Walk Hard? "I got a lot of pain in me, Darlene"? I guess I'm trying to find funny answers to serious questions.