Todd Snider – From Busboy to Americana Icon, Free Loader to Free Spirit
By Lisa Lynn Morgan
Todd Snider could be described as Americana music’s Jack Kerouac, only groovier and with a better sense of humor. Born with a belly full of wanderlust, Snider is a busking storyteller at heart, who has finessed his craft under the tutelage of Jerry Jeff Walker, John Prine, Billy Joe Shaver, and more. His lightning speed wit and adept word smithing are the symptoms of genius, but his innate, self-effacing demeanor reflect he might be uncomfortable being called one.
The roots of Snider’s artistic life happened organically. It’s as if he just wandered smack dab into the middle of the Americana Songbook Hall of Fame in the making. While the opportunities may have been serendipitous, Snider’s singular commitment to the life and spongelike apprenticeship are at the heart of a career that has spanned almost 30 years.
“I never had a ‘Plan A’ in life,” he says. “I was working as a busboy, so I made up a song about being a busboy. I played it at the bar I worked at, and everybody liked it, so I played the open mic there. The first time I went, the guy in charge of it said I was a natural and could live at his house. So, I lived at his house. As soon as I played one show, I thought, ‘I could do this!’ Or at least, I could make my way to New Orleans and busk. I didn’t have any real goals other than just hanging around. I was really interested in just being free.”
That guy was Kent Finlay, and the place was Cheatham Street Warehouse in Texas, a now historic venue that hosted Guy Clark, Townes Van Zandt, George Strait and Ace in the Hole Band, Stevie Ray Vaughan and others before they became household names. Snider still checks in on Finlay’s widow.
“Jerry Jeff (Walker) and John Prine knew me from the front row, because I went to a lot of shows in the 80s. When John went down to Memphis to cut demos for The Missing Years, the producer knew how much I loved him, so he hired me to drive him around. I played a show the second night of that job, and John showed up.”
Snider and Prine remained close from that point forward. Prine picked up Snider on his label after he was released from a contract with MCA due to some personal struggles. Both Prine and Jerry Jeff Walker took Snider under their wing, but Snider sees Walker was likely the most influential on a personal level.
“I had opened for Jerry Jeff after my first record came out, but I hadn’t met him yet. Eventually we were booked at the same festival, so I introduced myself and told him that I knew everything about him. He laughed at me. We actually had a trivia contest over it, and I won. We became really fast friends after that. I beat him at it a few more times over the years.”
“John and I went and got drunk a couple times together, but he was more of a professional mentor. I was on his label, so he would tell me things like, ‘Throw that song away.’ Jerry Jeff was more…well… Jerry Jeff would tell me to throw my songs out too. I guess they both taught me a lot. They were both very generous with the information they had about songs, records, and travel. Ramblin’ Jack Elliot was Jerry Jeff’s mentor and was really good about teaching you how to live where you don’t have everyday friends, traveling from town to town. It’s a life that drives some people crazy. I could tell before I could sing that I was cut out for it.”
“Now a days, every once in a while, I see something in someone’s eyes that makes me think I need to help them, and I do if I can. I think they (Prine and Walker) felt that same thing with me.”
Both Jerry Jeff Walker and John Prine died in 2020, as did mentor and friend, Billy Joe Shaver. It was crushing for Snider.
“Jerry Jeff and I talked a lot, right to the end. I was his philosophical son, and he knew it. John was also good to me. But Jerry Jeff was like a way of life. For them, it wasn’t just about singing, it was also about traveling. It’s a vocation – a way of life, not just a performance. You give your whole life to it. I was already a hitchhiker – already sleeping on sofas. I was a free-loader, and Jerry Jeff was a free spirit. Once I got a guitar, I became a free spirit.”
Snider’s songs, with very few exceptions, have that “free spirit” woven into them, making audiences and listeners laugh at things they might not otherwise consider funny.
“I owe a lot of that to John, Jerry Jeff, and Billy Joe. All three of them died in one year. Those were the guys I went to most. It’s part of the troubadour thing. If you’re using the guitar as a means to make yourself feel better, to keep yourself travelling, telling stories location to location, singing to ease your own frustrations, it always has a little bit of humor. Someone always cries at the birthday party, and someone always laughs at the funeral, and it belongs in the song. Well, I don’t know if it belongs in there, but I like to leave it in. Ramblin Jack Elliot invented it.”
Snider also had the opportunity to write with Loretta Lynn.
“She’s one of my favorite people. She’s really funny, and really pretty. We made up three songs together. She’s been good to me. She went to get me out of jail one time. I guess there was an awards show I showed up too drunk, maybe not drunk, but something else, and she really helped me out after that. Someone broke into my house one time, she helped me out after that too. She is just a thoughtful person. For some reason, we can make each other laugh. I love her. I would do anything for her.”
A lot of things have come full circle for this professional town surfer. Born and raised in Oregon, he never expected to return to be inducted into the Oregon Music Hall of Fame.
“That was strange. I never thought I was doing anything that would ultimately be considered honorable in their eyes. It never seemed like it was a positive path. I came from a conservative neighborhood, so this livelihood was kind of like being a stripper or a biker, especially because I wasn’t writing big hit songs. I was surprised that an organization would honor what I did.”
His parents didn’t expect it either.
“My parents were concerned about me. They didn’t like what I did for living. My dad lived just long enough to see me sign to MCA Records and get an advance. He said, ‘Wow, I did not think that was going to happen.’ It’s always bothered my mom. She didn’t like the drugs, the alcohol, being on the wrong side of midnight, or the reckless women that were a part of it. When I turned 50, I started slowing down a little bit. It didn’t turn into a total disaster…I guess it still could… she kind of just looks at it like a job now. It actually did turn into a job – we have employees and things. But it was always supposed to be a busking kind of thing. I don’t think anybody, including myself, ever got out of that mindset. She gets it now.”
“I don’t’ really drink anymore. I smoke weed. I quit drinking 8-9 years ago. I had to or I wasn’t going to make it. I slowed down. I went through an LSD phase after I quit drinking – that drug pretty much tells you when you’re done with it. When John and Jerry Jeff died, I fought things the way I’ve always fought them, but I didn’t let it get totally away from me.”
Snider’s latest album, First Agnostic Church of Hope and Wonder, was released in 2021. It came out following a series of live stream shows under the same name which he performed every Sunday during the lock down. A live album is in the works and is a compilation of 80 live shows recorded since post-Covid touring. It should be out in the Fall followed up by another tour.
“I’ve been touring since things opened back up and we could. I haven’t been home. I’d like to tour around America a couple more times before I get to old to do this.”
If Snider continues to follow the lead of his mentor’s mentor, Ramblin Jack Elliot, he won’t be too old to “do this” for another 30 plus years. Ramblin Jack is scheduled to play Pappy & Harriet’s August 6, 2022. He is 90 years old.
Todd Snider will pull into Pappy & Harriet’s, in Pioneertown, Wednesday, May 18th. Doors open at 6:30 pm and the show is set to start at 7:30. This will be his first time in our desert. You likely won’t want him to leave.
Photos by: Stacie Huckeba