Interview: Todd Snider gets funky and sings for John Prine and other late friends on album

Dave Paulson
Nashville Tennessean
Todd Snider

There's a striking sentence in the liner notes for Todd Snider's new album, "First Agnostic Church of Hope and Wonder."

Actually, there are dozens of such sentences, and that shouldn't surprise you if you're familiar with the East Nashville musician's acclaimed songwriting, which brilliantly blends poignance and irreverent humor like many of his musical heroes.

Still, not long ago, Snider thought he might be through writing songs, as he felt "there wasn't anything to say." But to his surprise, the resulting clarity brought a spark of inspiration. 

"As soon as I realized there was no point in doing what I was doing," Snider writes, "I felt like I could finally start in earnest."

"I tried to take what they call a busman's holiday," he tells the Tennessean. "Where you take a break from songwriting so you can song write...I felt like I was trying to study other types (of music). I tried to make up garage rock songs and then jam band songs. And in my own mind, I was taking a break from the alphabet."

Still with us? Good, because from there, Snider's work entered a wild new dimension. On the new album, he ended up creating his own brand of funk ("with busking up front"), inspired by Parliament and James Brown. He decided he'd play bass, and keep guitar chords to minimum.

He wrote a song about the massive vortex of trash that swirls in the Pacific Ocean. He found 12 different words to rhyme with "choir" on a song dubbed "Stoner Yodel Number One." And by taking on the character of a preacher, he felt free to spike his songs with blunt messages ("Never Let a Day Go By").

But "First Agnostic Church of Hope and Wonder" is also the product of loss. Three of Snider's musical heroes — John Prine, Jerry Jeff Walker and Billy Joe Shaver — passed away last year, and he lost close musician friends Jeff Austin and Neal Casal in 2019. Their presence is felt throughout the album, most prominently on "Handsome John," a tribute to Prine.

We gave Snider a call to talk about writing that song (and the rest of the album), the recording studio he put together in the "Purple Building" in East Nashville's Five Points, and how he finally got used to streaming live performances during the pandemic. 

On 'Handsome John'

"There was nobody better than Handsome John," Snider sings on his tribute to Prine. 

"Oh boy, talk about your real McCoy/ Here comes the singing mailman from Maywood, Illinois."

"I'm still nervous to see what Fiona thinks," Snider says, referring to Prine's wife and manager. "It came out really, really fast. And the chorus, it was almost there before, I can't even remember it coming."

Another line should hit home with many of Prine's admirers: "The last time I saw him, he danced off to 'Lake Marie'/ When I realized I was crying out in tears of victory."

That's the way a lot of audiences last laid eyes on Prine before his death last April. In his final years, the songwriting legend ended his shows by putting down his guitar and dancing triumphantly to his song "Lake Marie," gradually bounding off stage. 

"I just remember feeling like, 'I know this guy, this is a decision,'" Snider recalls of that moment. "'This is the last poem of the night. And everyone's hearing it. Everyone can hear what he's saying.'"

"I've been thinking about it since, because it's like, younger people dance for more of a sexual reason and (for) older people, it's more of a spiritual reason. Younger people dance because they're excited about how pretty they feel. Older people are just over giving a (expletive) about what they look like. And then I keep thinking it's almost like when you go to see The (Grateful) Dead...watching young people dance like old people. It's like, they stop dancing with each other and they start dancing with gratitude. I'm getting goosebumps now, because Colonel Bruce (Hampton) would have said, 'Now that's how you dance. There's no chance God missed that one.'"

Finding the funk, one note at a time

On the new album, Snider "was trying to hold myself to one chord if I could." The move might have been inspired by his friend Vince Herman of Leftover Salmon. 

"One time I was playing with Vince, and we were both just making single notes on the guitar," Snider recalls. "It was live. And I was like, 'What are we doing?' and he was like, 'We're making music, brother.' It was an eye opening thing. And then Neal (Casal) and I talked about that later, like, 'You can play just one note, you just have to turn it way up (laughs).' And then you once you commit, you can't strum, or you're gonna take everyone's head off."

Building a studio in a 'Purple Building'

If you pass through East Nashville's Five Points neighborhood, you can't miss the Purple Building, where Snider and his crew recorded the album, and where they also stage regular livestreamed performances.

Todd Snider will release his critically acclaimed 2004 album 'East Nashville Skyline' on vinyl Nov. 15.

"We took over that building a while ago and started piling gear in there," Snider says. "And then I have really arthritic hands, so there's this fear of, 'How long will I be able to go play?' So we started collecting film equipment and stuff thinking someday we're gonna try to maybe have to play here, and see if we can put it on the computer."

Then the pandemic canceled everyone's touring plans, and "someday" suddenly arrived. After a few weeks of livestreaming, Snider says, "We were like well, 'How much more s--- do we need before we're a studio? And then we went and got all that crap."

The Purple Building became Snider's one-stop creative hub: they'd record during the week and stream a performance on Sundays. He enjoys playing virtual concerts, but it was a process.

"The first time I did it, I wasn't sure what it was gonna be. I was I thought it was gonna be like a radio visit, and I was going to do two songs. I was pretty like, high. And then the second time, they told me how many people would see it, and I like felt like I showed up too ready or something. That was the worst one, the second one. And then then right when that second one was over, Fiona (Prine) called and said John was gone. The next day, I went back there and did his songs for two hours, and over the course of two hours, I not only got that those songs out of my system, but I kind of got into the whole streaming (thing)…No one yells at me, and now I really get into it. I miss being yelled at, though. I should be yelled at again."

The mystery of 'Turn Me Loose'

Of course Snider's a massive fan of Jerry Jeff Walker's music — "If you know guitar, you know my songs are just changed-up little versions of his songs," he once told an audience. But even the things the late outlaw legend said in passing between songs set Snider's imagination ablaze, and two such quotes inspired lyrics on the new album. The opening track, "Turn Me Loose (I'll Never Be the Same)" gets its title from something Walker yells to his band on one of his live albums. Shortly before Walker's passing, Snider finally found out where that phrase came from. 

"I knew he was sick. I didn't know how close he was. And so I got a chance to ask him about both of those (quotes). That ended up being what I took into the songs. I guess, instead of having a song about him...I said, 'Why did you yell turn me loose, I'll never be the same?' And he said he was hanging out with rodeo people all the time at that time. And he said when they're in the chute, they yell it. It's like 'Geronimo 'or 'Eureka.'"

"First Agnostic Church of Hope and Wonder" is out now, and Snider will perform at Nashville's Ryman Auditorium on September 24.