Both, actually. For his new album, the songwriter was simultaneously challenged and inspired, and he not only recorded in the same building that Johnny Cash once inhabited, he also got to play one of the Man In Black’s guitars. (Tour dates, info, merch and more at Snider’s official website.)
BY JOHN B. MOORE
It’s been a about seven years since Todd Snider last put out a folk record.
That’s not to say he was taking it easy. During that time, he put out a garage rock album (Eastside Bulldog) two records with his jam band, the Hard Working Americans (self-titled and Rest in Chaos) and has spent an almost implausible amount of time on the road. But, Cash Cabin Sessions, Vol. 3 is his first venture back to the folk music he started out making in the mid-1990s.
Recorded inside a cabin that used to belong to Johnny Cash, Snider admits that the spirit of the Man in Black was definitely present through much of the recording, just as it is rumored to have been there when Loretta Lynn recorded at that same site (Snider’s new record even houses a song called ‘The Ghost of Johnny Cash”).
Just weeks before he heads out on the road for a stretch of solo shows, Snider took some time recently to talk about the new record, playing Cash’s guitar and the future of the Hard Working Americans.
Blurt: Beyond simply being a solo album, this new record sounds a lot different than the music you were making with Hard Working Americans or even your last solo LP. Was that a conscious decision to go back to the folk/Americana route with this one?
Snider: Yeah, more folk, I guess. That last record (Eastside Bulldog) was really an anomaly. I made it eight years before I put it out and, well, I never thought I would put it out. I like it; it’s the one I listen to because I like that old garage music, but I’ve always thought of myself as a folk singer, a Ramblin’ Jack Elliot type singer and even when I do the jam band stuff or The Bulldogs, I do it to learn more about being a folk singer. I think of my day job as a folk singer.
Blurt: So, is The Hard Working Americans still something you still plan on pursuing?
Snider: Yeah. We don’t have any shows on the books. I know Dave (Schools, bassist. Also, member of Widespread Panic) wanted a break. Him and I have been on the road the longest of anyone and he’s got a wife he loves and that he hasn’t seem much of. We still talk all the time. Even Neal (Casal, guitar) who left for a little bit. I still talk to him. I think if we played together again, we’d have three guitar players. If we play again, I don’t know why I said it like that. We’ll play again… then again, I can see me or Dave dropping in the next year.
Blurt: Oh man, don’t say that.
Snider: Eh, that ain’t nothing to be afraid of.
Blurt: In the liner notes to the Cash Cabin Sessions, it talks about the dreams, plural, that you had about Johnny Cash and it talks about Loretta Lynn recording there and seeing his ghost – that’s also a song on this album. When you were recording the record, did you feel the Johnny Cash vibe in the room. I know this sounds New Age-y, but did you ever feel his presence?
Snider: Oh, we sure did. There was like three separate long sessions and it was more the other people there (that felt it). Everybody kept having moments. I had a moment there – there are still some more songs to come out of these sessions – and some of the songs to come were lyrics that Johnny Cash left behind that I got to do music to. One night I was working on one of those and I really honestly felt like I had a decision to make between two pieces of music and I never felt more like the room was trying to vote. It was really pressing, and it felt like the kitchen was saying “this version, this version, this version.” And other people were saying they felt stuff like that. And also, not in a ghostly way, I would go for long walks in the woods and it’s a lot, it’s like Graceland. There’re lamas. I was thinking I’m a singer, I can’t imagine well if I don’t finish the tour these lamas don’t eat. That’s why I rent. It’s just the pressure. I just call it immaculate grace; nothing ever happens out there for the wrong reason.
Blurt: So, you recorded there, and Loretta recorded there. Is it used quite a bit? Is it a studio that a lot of people record at?
Snider: No, just me and Loretta and that cat Jamey Johnson. And that’s it. The Hard Working Americans spent the night up there tripping balls. And Dave has used it for a record he was working on. I don’t think you can just call there and book it. I go to go because I got to know Loretta.
Blurt: You also got to use one of Johnny Cash’s old Martin guitars.
Snider: Yeah. What I say is “I can’t prove it’s the guitar he’s holding when he flips off the photographer, but it’s definitely that kind.” He had more than one though. It’s over a hundred years old and it sounds wonderful.
Blurt: Was that intimidating at all, knowing that he played this guitar and likely wrote some of his songs on that same guitar?
Snider: Right. There’s a moment when I was with my buddy and I started playing the “Ring of Fire” line and I say, “This might be the guitar that he wrote that lick on.” It’s weird. It was also very comforting. There’s something about the way John (Johnny’s son) and those guys who run it – I just felt really comfortable out there.
Blurt: You play banjo on, appropriately enough, “The Blues On Bajo.” Is this your first time playing banjo on a record?
Snider: I think I’ve played the banjo sometimes, but I don’t really know how to. I made up that song about the blues and they say you can’t play the blues on banjo, so I said, “Let’s try it!” And on the first take we got it. I don’t even know if it was tuned, but now I have to go and practice the things I did so I can play it live.
Blurt: You’re not really known as a political artist, though you’ve occasionally covered it on and off in some of your lyrics more subtly. But you cover off on politics on a few songs here, especially the last one, “A Timeless Response to Current Events” and on “Talking Reality Television Blues”. Is it hard to avoid writing about politics given where we are right now in our country?
Snider: Yeah and especially being a folk singer. That’s on the table right beside romance. And the guys I grew up enjoying, it seemed like they weren’t afraid to let that out of their heart if it was coming. I don’t have anything to teach anyone. I just share my opinions because they rhyme. If you change your opinions because of my opinions that’s not what this was about. This was about getting a few beers and listening to some singing and if that happens, well that’s what you decided to do. I didn’t come here to do that. I share my opinions because the job says your supposed to.
Blurt: I think I read that you had actually written some of these songs, or even recorded some, with the Hard Working Americans.
Snider: Volume 2, I’m hoping will be out in the next year or so and it’s got a few those songs on it.
Blurt: How old are the songs that are on this new record?
Snider: It usually takes me a couple of years to finish songs. I work on them all the time, but I also change them all of the time. Most of these songs I was working on when Rest in Chaos (Hard Working American’s 2016 album) was really new. Right now, I already have 14 other what I’d call Cars on Blocks – things that will turn into songs. And they really can change a lot. I’ll try all of the words over all of the music. I really enjoy tinkering with them.
Blurt: Has that changed much, how you write songs, since your first record in 1994?
Snider: I like to think so. The way that I made up the new record is the way a guy named Kent Finlay taught me. When I made up the Bulldog record, that was the first time I had a side project and it was supposed to sound like The Kingsmen and we did all those songs in one night; and I was trying to say “baby” as much as I could. When Hard Working Americans came together, I had this song where I took each line to the song and made it to be its own thing. It didn’t have to be linear. This record is more of the old way that I write music. I’d still like to write some music with the Hard Working Americans that is similar to the way George Clinton or James Brown wrote. I’ve been studying the way they made songs and I’d like to try that some way.
Blurt: You’re about to tour with this record. Is it just you on the stage or do you take others out with you?
Snider: No, just the dog. And he’s on the stage with me. Sometime if he doesn’t like the song or the harmonica is too high, he’ll take off, but these shows are very much patterned after what Ramblin’ Jack Elliott does. He was a huge influence on Jerry Jeff (Walker) and Arlo (Guthrie) and all those people too.