How Todd Snider Straightened His Life Out and Made One of His Best Albums
Todd Snider has been staying at his Airbnb in downtown New York for less than 24 hours, but the apartment is already filled with the 52-year-old singer-songwriter’s personal touches: weed, an acoustic guitar, a loose wad of cash on the coffee table, and a laptop opened to a YouTube search of “Sylvester Stallone country singer.”
Snider has entered this particular string of words to show his road manager a clip of “Drinkin’ Stein,” a song from Stallone and Dolly Parton’s 1984 country-music comedy Rhinestone.
“Budweiser, you created a monster,” Snider, in a faded yellow Nirvana t-shirt, sings out loud with a huge grin on his face, “and they call him, ‘Drinkinstein.’”
Snider is spending a few days resting in New York before he kicks off a full two years of solo-acoustic touring, a prospect, he admits, that feels daunting at this stage of his career. The singer has undergone a turbulent, at times dangerous, past five years in the wake of his 2014 divorce. Snider, who has long struggled with back pain, spent his recent years abusing painkillers and opiates — “anything you can get, all of it” — before kicking the habit over the last 12 months.
“I feel great today,” says the singer. “In a few days I won’t, and a painkiller would really help, but it would be better for me to just stretch and maybe smoke some weed and drink a lot of water.”
Snider’s new album, Cash Cabin Sessions, Vol. 3, is a sparse, acoustic collection of witty blues originals and nostalgic remembrances of old Nashville — recorded, as its title suggests, at Johnny Cash’s Tennessee cabin — that also marks a musical homecoming of sorts for Snider after a series of detours in garage rock and jam bands.
“I’ve always thought of myself as like a Ramblin’ Jack Elliott type of guy,” he says. “Even though I’ve never made a record like this before, I’ve always toured like that. I have always thought, ‘that’s what I do.” And if I do something else, it’s just something else: a jam band, a rock record, anytime I deviate from that, I think of it as a deviation.”
At the moment, Snider is mainly excited about attending a live studio taping of The View, his favorite show, while he’s in town. “I watch it every morning,” he says. “Those are my girls. I don’t have a favorite, I have a five-way tie for first. Richard Lewis is going to get it so that I can meet Joy Behar.”
Snider recently sat down with Rolling Stone for a long conversation about his new album, hitting rock bottom with pain pills, getting healthy, the promise of the new generation of Nashville songwriters, and much more.
This album feels like a return to the core of what you’re known for: witty, clever folk songs. Did you feel an urge to return to your roots after trying new things for the better part of this past decade?
I got a little burned out on the folk. I’m way into it now, but I felt like I wanted to learn new things. I got really into garage rock, early Sixties Kingsmen and the Sonics, and I just studied that like crazy. And then I tried to replicate it [on 2016’s Eastside Bulldog]. And then I got way into the Dead and all that, Widespread, Chris Robinson, and I got to explore that with my group Hard Working Americans. I felt like I learned a lot from both of those types of music. I learned some chords I didn’t know and went back to work.
Apart from a few chords, what else did you feel like you learned from those detours?
I picked up a ton from the jam band. It made acid all make sense. And that, to me, is a very melodic thing. Tripping is very melodic. And then with the Bulldog thing, when that started I was sort of anti-alphabet. The stuff I was reading was about how the language is the great mistake. It doesn’t work. And that led me back to “Louie Louie” and the stuff I grew up on. I forced myself to sing songs that just said “baby, baby, baby.” My mentor [Kent Finlay] would have rolled over in his grave, but I just had to do that. If I couldn’t yell “baby” for a few minutes, I don’t think I was ever going to try to sing another story.
You haven’t made a record like Cash Cabin since 2012’s Agnostic Hymns & Stoner Fables.
That record was kind of a blur to make. I was kind of a mess when I made it. I am kind of a mess a lot, though. When I’m making records, at least. By the time I make a record, that’s when another person might call a shrink. Like, “okay, let’s just tape this and move on.” Move on to the next problem. But those two albums are similar in subject, Agnostic and this new one. They do feel a little bit similar. This feels like the follow-up, much more than the other things I’ve done since. Those would be called punts, I guess. But I love both of those groups. Bulldogs is never the same people, it’s just whoever is home. But Hard Working Americans is a gang. I hope I will always be in that group, and that we’ll always play.
Apart from being a musical detour, did playing in a band like Hard Working Americans feel like a personal escape as well? Was it helpful to feel more anonymous?
Yeah, because I wasn’t the leader. It was a lot like taking a few years off but still. . .like if someone said you can come to work but it doesn’t fucking matter. I could show up a minute before the show and just do it. I was tripping a lot, almost always on some LSD or some kind of shroomy kind of thing. I can’t do that when I play alone. I’ve tried it and it just doesn’t work. You’ve gotta play guitar. I once got my hands stuck and I couldn’t see my hand anymore, so I had to keep the same chord going for like a half-hour. I would love to say nobody noticed, but they did.
Did the timing of joining Hard Working Americans coincide with your divorce?
It happened right after. I don’t think they played a role in each other, but those guys really helped a lot. That wasn’t easy.
Having that support system must have been a real added benefit during that period.
If I had been on the road solo, I don’t know if I would have made it. There’s so much drugs on the road. Once you open the door to the opiate thing, there’s just a lot of ways to get it. I was really glad I ran into Dave Schools and those guys when I did. But I remember at one point, I played Exile on Main St. all the way through, and I realized, “I’m okay. I’m back.” I can’t tell you how many times I’ve listened to that record. That was hard to do without my ex. You have this person in your life, and this record in your life. But I remember I was sitting in Phoenix, and I was listening to the whole thing, and I didn’t have to turn it off: “I’m alright.” I was ready to make some new memories with that record.
“It’s embarrassing, but actually, it’s not. It’s just the way of life. I’m not the first. Won’t be the last. I wouldn’t trade the music life for anything. Even at rock bottom, I love it.”
When was that?
That was about a year ago. But right after, I had a seizure right before a show. That was embarrassing. I just didn’t take as good a care of myself as people do. And that had to stop. There’s a comedian named Richard Lewis, he’s on the new album, and he’s a friend of mine and he just kind of ridiculed me: “Come on, dude.” Between him and the band and everybody, I finally just, you know, just went back to work.
Did Richard Lewis reach out to you?
Towards the end, there was an awards show that I blew. I think Jim Keltner might have been there, or maybe Don Was. Anyway, they called Richard, and he called me. He reached out. That’s how I know him, because someone told him I was flailing. He started calling and I was on drugs, he’d be like, “I can tell.” He’d just make fun of me, and I was embarrassed. I didn’t quit for a whole other year after that. It all just blew up at some festival that we didn’t even play. That was the beginning of the end.
I remember around this time, in 2016, seeing an announcement when you had to cancel some shows that was very forthright with your struggles with back pain and pain killers.
Yeah, that was it. I just went down into that hole. It was just a hard time, so I took hard drugs, and got through it, and now it’s over. It didn’t feel like addiction. It didn’t feel like depression. People would say I was depressed and I’d be like, “no, I’m happy. It’s just, that sucked.” And so I got fucked up and sang blindly for a few years. I’ve done it before. It’s like the third time. “Every day at a time…” I don’t do that.
That type of mindset isn’t for you?
The AA Thing? I did it once or twice. I’ve been to rehab a bunch of times. It works for a lot of people. I don’t know if I could honestly say I ever tried it well enough to see if it was going to work for me. I’d usually smoke a J after I got out of those things. Some people say that’s not drugs. That’s all I do now. When I smoke weed people act like I’m sober: “Alright, Todd’s taking care of himself.”
You were saying that the beginning of the end for you was a festival you didn’t end up playing. Did that feel like rock bottom?
That’s when I was like, “Okay.” The show got cancelled. I ended up having to go to the hospital. The gig the day before and the day after were fucking great. It’s embarrassing, but actually, it’s not. It’s just the way of life. I’m not the first. Won’t be the last. I wouldn’t trade the music life for anything. Even at rock bottom, I love it. I love that night we didn’t play. I had a good time. I did. I had a lot of laughs, even in the ambulance.
You were taking a lot of pills to help cope with your back pain?
Yeah. Today, it’s gotten a lot better from exercising. I have to do sit ups. But it would be so much easier to just shoot morphine into my hip in the morning. I wish you could do that and live. And I wish that if you just woke up and shot morphine in your hip that it didn’t mean you were also going to be gambling before noon and all that, but it just does. If I’d get on drugs for a long time, I’d go after the muse, and you just skip the gig, because you’re in a card game that you think is going to be a song, and you think everyone’s going to be really proud of you. And then no story comes from those three days when you’ve vanished, and everyone is just unhappy that you were gone. And you don’t have a song to show for it, or a story, or anything.
It doesn’t feel like these new songs are very connected to the period of time you’ve been talking about.
That’s right. I was more thinking about songs. There’s a lot of songs about songs on this album. Lots of singing about singing. There were lots of songs that were like, “she divorced me, and now…” but those didn’t make it. There were lots of those. “Oh, I’m so down because of a girl.” I don’t like those songs.
Is there a new song that makes you feel the best?
The one on the banjo [“The Blues on Banjo”]. But also “Like a Force of Nature.” That song felt like all the songs I had thrown out [about divorce] were reaching for that one, and then I finally got it. I thought, “I can live with that. I’ll say that that way.”
This album feels like an honest reckoning with the times we’re living in. It makes a lot of sense for the narrator in “The Blues in Banjo” to flirt with conspiracy theories, 9/11 truther theories.
That’s what a lot of people are doing. I get very into the ideas: the military industrial complex and the prison industrial complex. I don’t think those are conspiracies, just the natural flow of power. On this new album, I was hoping not to sound like I’d come to conclusions or had any ideas. It’s an interesting new time. I am one of those people who thinks that face value politics are probably more of a show. They say if you’re not angry, you’re not paying attention. I’m kind of not.
You’re not angry, or you’re not paying attention?
Both. But I struggle, because I want to say, “oh, Trump doesn’t make any difference.” But his racial shit on TV makes it hard to say that. If I was sitting with him, all I’d say is, “I thought you were going to hire all the best people. You said that over and over again. You fired half of them and they’re all clowns.” But see, I don’t like to get pulled into that as much, unless you start talking about the way that young black men are being treated. That’s something we can really do something about. If you’re having an event for that, I’ll go.
Johnny Cash, Loretta Lynn, and Cowboy Jack Clement all show up on this album. What prompted that type of reflecting on old Nashville?
Part of that was me coming back around to where I’m from: Kristofferson and all that. And Nashville has been turning over, and I was sort of part of that. I married the guys [Jason Isbell and Amanda Shires] who are leading the charge. I have spent my whole life dedicated to hoping that happens, that that moment happens. And so that song about Cowboy Jack, “Cowboy Jack Clement’s Waltz,” do you know the Kristofferson song [“The Pilgrim: Chapter 33”] where he goes, “this song started off about Johnny Cash…”? I almost did, “this song started out about Jason Isbell, Hayes Carll, Justin Townes Earle, Sturgill Simpson, Amanda Shires, and Elizabeth Cook.” At the end of that song, I sing “but there’s still a little bit of shaking going on.” To me, that was the whole point. Like, “hey, the guard is changing.” It’s really cool to watch that thing not spoil itself.
What’s the longest period you’ve ever gone without doing your solo folk shows?
Maybe half a year. Not long. Because I have to. Somebody will show up and say, “you owe somebody this amount of money,” and then I have to go play shows. I never got too far from it. It got really hard on my hands there for a while, and I hope it doesn’t happen again. I’m just an arthritic old guy. But I was also just ready for some companionship there for a while. And some jamming. This year I want to try to make all of my shows. If I do that, it’ll be the first time. But last year, I only missed them because I got sick. But today, I look healthy enough. That’s my motto: “I look fine enough.” I don’t tour like bands do. I’m on the same tour I was always on. It’s just one long Daily Planet tour, you know? I went on that one, and then I never came home.
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