Todd Snider pivots back to folk on his solo tour, which comes to the Vilar on Oct. 11
Special to the Daily
As of late, Todd Snider has been garage-rocking and singing in Hard Working Americans, the superband including members of Widespread Panic and the Chris Robinson Brotherhood. But he’s always remained a folk singer at heart.
That’s evident on his new album, “Cash Cabin Songs Vol. 3,” a single LP he recorded in Johnny Cash’s Tennessee cabin — there are no volumes one or two — that’s filled with various forms of folk.
“I even have a talking blues song on this record,” Snider said. “I’ve always thought of myself as a folk singer. That’s never changed, even in the band. I wasn’t playing guitar or anything. I was just the singer.”
Snider will be playing at the Vilar Performing Arts Center on Oct. 11 – his birthday – as part of the Underground Sound series. Given Buddy Guy’s hilariously fun birthday concert at the Vilar this summer, concert-goers will be in for a treat beyond just the music. The show starts at 7:30 p.m.
Snider’s folk lineage goes back to his earliest influences, including Jerry Jeff Walker. He saw Walker playing in an Austin club and watching him perform made him realize he didn’t need a band to be a musician. He’s also been influenced by John Prine, Guy Clark, Townes Van Zandt, Steve Earle, Lyle Lovett and Ramblin’ Jack Elliott.
“It feels like this is a family I ended up joining,” he said.
Snider made his name and wiseguy reputation within that folk family in 1994 with his tongue-in-cheek hit “Talkin’ Seattle Grunge Rock Blues” and the wryly autobiographical “Alright Guy,” both of which appeared on his debut album that year, “Songs for the Daily Planet.” That album was released on the MCA-distributed label run by Jimmy Buffett.
After working for MCA on a couple more albums, Snider moved to John Prine’s Oh-Boy Records, back to major label Universal, to indie stalwart Sugar Hill which currently hosts a small group of folk and acoustic artists. He started Aimless, his own label, in 2011.
He’s now got 19 albums that include 2012’s tribute album “Time as We Know It: The Songs of Jerry Jeff Walker” and his original-filled “Agnostic Hymns & Stoner Fables” that landed on many best-of-the-year. It also prompted Rolling Stone to call him “one of the sharpest, funniest storytellers in rock.”
Then came his two-album foray with Hard Working Americans and his 2016 garage rock excursion, “Eastside Bulldog.”
So why go back to folk?
“It’s just the songs, I think,” he said. “A lot of it was I’d been playing with the band and learning so much about guitar, even though I wasn’t playing guitar. When these songs came, the closer I got to finishing them, the more they seemed folkie. I recorded them with the band and they just sounded folkie.”
But, he said, it’s better folk than he could have played before stepping outside his comfort zone.
“I’ve gotten a lot better at guitar,” Snider said. “I’ve finally got an ability to play not just chords and strum. I wouldn’t say it’s great guitar playing, but it’s good for me.”
Switching genres has also helped him learn about his songwriting process.
“I don’t know how many more of these (folk-centric albums) I have in me,” he said. “Lyrics are the hardest things to come by. I don’t know how many sets of lyrics you get.”
The lyrics on “Cash Cabin Vol. 3” are as incisive and entertaining as any that Snider has written, telling a swear-its-true story of Loretta Lynn dancing on “The Ghost of Johnny Cash,” and detailing the songwriter’s life on “Working On A Song.” “Talking Reality Television Blues” takes a tour through television history, from Milton Berle to Michael Jackson’s moonwalk, from MTV’s “The Real World” to “The Apprentice.”
That song comes right out of the folk tradition, from Woody Guthrie through Bob Dylan — the title sounds a lot like something Dylan would write circa 1965. “A Timeless Response to Current Events” and “The Blues on Banjo” also channel Guthrie and Dylan: pointedly topical songs that Snider said aren’t aimed at convincing anyone of anything.
“I definitely don’t think that learning to play guitar makes your opinion better than someone else’s,” he said. “It does give you a place to put them. For me, a lot of it has always been getting it off your chest. It lets me get it off my chest.”
For most of the rest of 2019, Snider will be getting things off his chest in clubs and theaters across the country on a solo tour.
“It’s quite a bit simpler. It’s just me and three people on the road as opposed to like 10 or 12,” he said.
That me-and-my-guitar approach makes for a free-flowing show. Snider will try to work in some of the new songs, but most of the night will be “whatever somebody yells for,” with a broad sampling from each of his records.
“I don’t have a collective ‘Free Bird,’” he joked, referencing the concert trope of fans yelling for the 9-minute Lynyrd Skynyrd song.
And he’ll be happy that he’s able to play the show. Snider suffers from arthritis in his neck and back — he was hurting when we talked — but there’s no way he’s not going to go out and play for people.
“Some nights it hurts, but I wouldn’t know what I would do without touring,” he said. “I’m grateful for every show I get to do now. I don’t take it for granted. Some days the show is the only thing that gets the pain away. You’re running on adrenaline for those two or three hours around the show and the pain goes (away). I’ve had other musicians, like Willie Nelson, tell me that the show is the most healthy three hours of the day.”