Todd Snider's New LP: John Prine, Jerry Jeff Walker, Billy Joe Shaver - Rolling Stone
Home Music Music Features

Todd Snider’s New Concept Album Is a Funky, Funny Tribute to Recently Departed Friends

Due April 23rd, ‘First Agnostic Church of Hope and Wonder’ was inspired by the loss of several friends, including Snider’s mentor John Prine

todd snidertodd snider

Stacie Huckeba*

Todd Snider’s live shows are unparalleled experiences. The folk singer delivers hilarious, heartbreaking songs about his life, punctuating them with stories that can stretch as long as 18 minutes — about everything from the time he joined a Memphis cover band called K.K. Rider to the time he took mushrooms and immediately quit his high-school football team. “When people on the plane ask me what I do,” says Snider, “I say, ‘Pretty much just like “Alice’s Restaurant.”‘ I just talk. It’s a nervous tick.”

When the pandemic hit, the crowds went away, but Snider didn’t. Beginning in late March, he started broadcasting on Sunday mornings from the Purple Building, a clubhouse/rehearsal space in East Nashville. Sitting alone in front of a purple tapestry, Snider took requests, played covers like “Ring Them Bells” and “Mr. Bojangles,” and eventually performed his own albums in full. The most poignant show happened in April, after the death of John Prine, who had given Snider his first record deal and became a mentor; they’d even toured together in the last year of Prine’s life. “After John passed,” Snider says, “there was something about playing his songs for an hour or two … All of a sudden, I felt really comfortable doing that, where I just sort of talked to the camera. I’ve never done anything like that. It’s a different thing, because nobody interrupts me.”

Snider’s Purple Building broadcasts informed the sound of his new album, First Agnostic Church of Hope and Wonder, out April 23rd. Over funky, spare grooves, Snider meditates on how to find meaning in a world “divided by infinity … racially, religiously, physically, financially.” Elsewhere, he assumes the role of “a preacher who’s full of shit, and when everyone starts to realize it, he asks God to help — and God does, proving once and for all that God is hilarious.”

“It’s a concept album,” Snider says, “Like when Kiss did Songs from the Elder or when W.A.S.P. did The Crimson Idol.

Snider’s album was inspired by deep loss. In the course of six months, three of Snider’s songwriting heroes died: Prine, Billy Joe Shaver, and Jerry Jeff Walker. Snider wrote “Handsome John” about Prine. It’s a heartbreaking piano hymn in which he chronicles his relationship with the late singer, from the time he was hired to be Prine’s driver in the Eighties to watching Prine exit a concert stage in his signature manner just before he died. “In the last year of his life, he ended the shows with a song called ‘Lake Marie,’ and instead of walking off, he danced off, and I don’t mean mildly,” Snider wrote in the liner notes for the album. “I mean like a teenager. Or a swan. Or a hippie. To this day I see it as his last poem. Beyond words. Wisdom beyond words.”

Snider also lost two other friends recently: Jeff Austin, the mandolin player and co-founder of the Yonder Mountain String Band, who died unexpectedly at 45 in 2019, and guitarist Neal Casal, who played in Chris Robinson’s Brotherhood and Snider’s side project, the Hard Working Americans, who died at 50 the same year. “I hate that Jeff and Neil didn’t make it to this pandemic, because we were like the lifer club,” says Snider, before talking about how they all approached their lifestyles. “We don’t have Thanksgiving, we do this. We don’t do Sunday morning, we do Saturday night. This is how we live. And when people [die], it’s frightening for those of us who are still here.” Snider wrote “Sail On, My Friend” about Austin. Snider sings: “Let’s just say you broke a string/And raise a toast to your health/You don’t have to play or sing for anyone else but yourself.”

The record sounds unlike like anything Snider has ever made. “I had the idea for the sound first,” he said. “I wanted to do what I was calling funk in back and busking up front, with White Album-y shit scattered about. I had done a lot of listening to Parliament and James Brown, and lots of reggae music, too.” He wrote all the melodies on the bass, and kept the guitar minimal: “There’s no chords on this record. I just tracked the songs with my voice. Then I played the stuff like an overdub. I’m trying to be a musician, which isn’t really what I am. I’m more of a folk artist, with not as much musicianship. But I want to be someone who gets better as I get older.”

Snider is excited to sing live again. Today he announced a “Covid-willing” summer-fall tour (see the dates here.)  “I miss touring so much,” he says. “I’ve made so many records, I wanted to try to make one that’s new. It doesn’t matter if a 54-year-old guy comes up with some unique music as much as it does if you’re 21. But it’s still worth a shot.”

In This Article: Prine, Todd Snider


Powered by
Arrow Created with Sketch. Calendar Created with Sketch. Path Created with Sketch. Shape Created with Sketch. Plus Created with Sketch. minus Created with Sketch.