photo by Dean Budnick
Shortly after COVID-19 added the United States to the Great Pause of 2020, Todd Snider started a livestream series at 12 p.m. EST on Sundays called “What It Is” at his rehearsal space/studio known as The Purple Building. With a combination of originals, covers and stories the hourlong program mimicked the veteran folkie’s concert, even down to the singer-songwriter occasionally showing up buzzed by his morning “coffee” (aka cannabis).
As pandemic deaths accumulated, unsurprisingly the music world was affected. In Snider’s case his life was turned upside down on multiple occasions in 2020. A few months prior, he faced the deaths of friends Neal Casal and Jeff Austin. Then, he lost his loyal and beloved dog, Cowboy Jim, to start off the new year. That was followed by the shocking news of John Prine getting COVID and subsequently passing away due to the disease. Later, it was the death of another legendary friend Jerry Jeff Walker and less than a week later Billie Joe Shaver died.
While everyone found different methods to cope with the changes, sadness and isolation caused by coronavirus spreading around the world, Snider found solace in his weekly Sunday performances. Unable to carry out his usual role playing to live audiences, it gave him something to focus on each week.Embracing the format, he took the opportunity, under the program’s new name, “First Agnostic Church of Hope and Wonder,” to focus on his previous solo releases as well as Hard Working Americans’ Rest in Chaos for the final 12 weeks of 2020. The Americans featured Snider dipping his toes in the jamband waters in a group that included Dave Schools and Duane Trucks (Widespread Panic), Neal Casal, Chad Staehly (Great American Taxi), and Jesse Aycock.
Snider’s latest album, his 19th overall, takes its title from that version of the livestream. He describes the church as being presided over by “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.”
Recorded on off days from the weekly livestreams, the veteran singer-songwriter teamed up with multi-instrumentalist, producer, engineer and mixer Tchad Blake and drummer Robbie Cromwell (Midland) who provided the fatback rhythms that gives the material a gritty funky electro swamp rock edge. Songs on the new release act as tributes to Prine on “Handsome John”, Austin on “Sail On, My Friend” and Walker with a nod to Col. Bruce Hampton on “Turn Me Loose (I’ll Never Be the Same).”The first two numbers debuted on the livestream.
The new year will not only bring about a new album but also a renewed sense of opportunity for the roving troubadour who posted rescheduled concert dates beginning in June on his social media pages. After staying in a self-imposed lockdown with only his livestream and recording colleagues around, he’s ready to take his show beyond the confines of the Purple Building.
JPG: If I were marketing your new album, my description would be “Folk in the front. Free your mind, your ass will follow in the back.”
TS: It started with this idea of trying to make a unique sound. I think of The Highwaymen, I think of Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, and Waylon Jennings, all three of those guys found a really, really distinct way to make music that you hadn’t heard before, and you know it when it starts. There’s a few other cats that have done that but I have not. And it’s too late to do it at my age, but I’ll still do it. It’s a vocation. Try to come up with a new way to play music.
I started to realize that a lot of what I feel and have a hard time articulating to musicians is funky stuff. I learned that in this group that’s what I like. So, I found this guy, his name’s Robbie Crowell [of Midland], and I asked him if he had heard of fatback drum style. I had asked about seven other drummers and he was the first one to say, “Yeah.” He said it was the first thing he learned. He played me all these beats and songs, and I was like, “That’s what I’m about to do.” I had some poems going…I had one song about Jeff Austin that I thought was reggae, and then I had another song called “The Get Together.” I was trying to find this beat, and I found this thing called fatback and Robbie knew it. So, we started going down to this building I have, the Purple Building.
JPG: I’ve been watching nearly all of your livestreams each Sunday from the Purple Building for the past year. It’s the closest I’ve been to church services in years.
TS: That makes me feel so happy. Oh, that makes me feel good, man. Thanks. That thing has turned into a really fun way… a new sort of, I guess you’d call it, art form. It’s not quite making a record. It’s not quite a concert. It’s kind of like a radio visit except it’s filmed. The first one, you can tell that I’m really stoned and am not aware of… I thought I was going to sing a song on the computer. I’m an old man.
It once said 16,000 people were watching. So, the next time, I was nervous. I didn’t know what to do. Then, John Prine’s wife called right in the middle of that second one and I found out John was gone, and we went back to this place, and I just played his songs. I just did it until it felt two hours later.
I was like, “Okay. I talk at that camera. I sing these songs.”Now, I like it. I look forward to it. That long one made me relax more.
JPG: You did “Handsome John,” the tribute to your friend and mentor John Prine, during one of the livestreams.
TS: Yeah. The two more traditional songs on there – “Handsome John” and “Sail On, My Friend” — came right out as soon as he left. Usually my songs take a long time. These didn’t take as long. That one was real easy because of… I don’t know, it was like the [“Play a] Train Song.” It was just all ready… It was finished before I started.
JPG: You were just the instrument, the antenna.
TS: It’s like a gift. That song, it’s probably my favorite one, the two sad ones, but they’re not that sad.
JPG: You could say in tribute, makes it sound less sad. Your livestreams have become a regular Sunday ritual for me and, obviously, for thousands of others, but what did they do for you?
TS: It gave me a time to learn a bunch of other instruments and it gave me a place to go where I could record myself trying those other instruments. There was four of us, and we would just go down there all the time. I played the bass on this [on the new album]. I play all the stuff but drums and that’s just from having the practice at home as opposed to getting ready to play tonight. It’s also about a release thing. There’s a thing to it. I wouldn’t call it quite a concert but it feels like there’s a bit of a connection there.
JPG: Doing the livestreams every Sunday, were they cathartic for you? Everyone’s dealing with COVID in some way. Many were staying home, the loss of being out socially, loss of family members and friends and there were a lot of personal losses for you but also for fans of those musicians.
TS: Yeah, very much. Almost always I have to make myself stop before I go on too long. And, it’s the one day a week I get the… We’ve got the cameraman, the soundman, and my friend, Mark, and my tour manager, Brian, so four people. That’s been my COVID team. That’s the only people I’ve seen this year, really. And so, that gave us a pattern in what has been a strange fucking year.
JPG: Did it help you mentally get through these tough times? I was reading this article and the first question the guy asked you was something that I think about, which was how are you doing, because this writer and others worry about you. I’m watching your livestreams and I’m like, “Is Todd sad? Is he taking care of himself? Is he eating healthy? He looks like he was up all night. Todd, take your vitamins.”
TS: (slight laugh) Right. I see a lot of that. I don’t know what to say about that. Sometimes, I feel this sadness that maybe if Neal [Casal] and Jeff [Austin] had a break imposed on them, like some of the rest of us had had. If they could’ve made it to that break, they might’ve made it, but they had so many gigs on their plate, and just living like a sock in a dryer for decades.
I can’t get to checking out. I get misery but I can’t get there. It breaks my heart to think of the both of them, Jeff and Neal, where their heads were at when they did that.
I did have a moment when Jerry Jeff passed, I thought, “If I had been on the road when we lost John…” I had already lost Jeff and Neal and was about to go tour, do the very thing those fuckers died of. Then, John was lost. I had thought, “I’m glad I’m not on the road. I know how I would be handling this right now.” Then, when Jerry Jeff went, I said, “Oh my God! I feel like I wouldn’t have made it to hardly any of the shows.”
I feel a little bit lucky that the year knocked the shit out of me. This is the worst year of my life. I lost my dog, my friends…
JPG: The livestreams and those events are inextricably linked to the album. Were you recording the album and writing the songs at the same time you were doing the weekly livestreams. “Sail On, My Friend” sounded familiar. I believe you debuted it on a livestream.
TS: I did. That song I made up real fast. Then, when the shutdown happened, I had this one poem about the guy who quits his job and says, “Oh, shit. I quit my job.” I had that little poem, and we started the thing — I always call them MySpace Podcasts. I don’t know what the fuck they call them. But that thing gave me… I started making up songs… I’ve been coming up with songs. I don’t even know how to explain it.
Once we got comfortable and we realized we had a studio — I wasn’t really aware how much stuff we were piling up, and that we could record there — I made all the songs pretty much with just the lyrics. Then, I would go in with the lyrics and have Robbie play drums and I would sing, and that’s what we would track to begin with. I made up the lyrics all summer.
JPG: Basically, you were doing the show on Sunday and then recording on other days.
TS: [The Purple Building] was becoming a hangout. We also have a green screen down there. So, we were just having more and more fun down there. I called my friend Doug Lancio, who owns a studio, and he came down there and said, “Yeah, this is a studio.” I don’t know how to make it work but the kid that put it together for me does. So, we started cutting, and I loved it. The drummer, Robbie Crowell, taught me so much about drums and was so open about letting me be a part of it a little bit, in bringing cool grooves and showing me old songs with beats and stuff we could use.
JPG: The fatback rhythms and some other parts of the album remind me of R.L Burnside when his music was looped and mixed with other rhythmic elements as well as the Los Lobos side project, Latin Playboys.
TS: It’s funny. Tchad Blake. Latin Playboys. That’s what made me call him. (Blake was a member of the band that included Los Lobos’ David Hidalgo and Louie Pérez plus producer Mitchell Froom)
JPG: I was also thinking Blind Boys of Alabama in the way the backing vocals sounded.
TS: That’s me!
JPG: That’s you?
TS: Yeah. I was going to use girls and then I did it to show ‘em and I thought it was funny.
JPG: I liked it. It’s a good album. Different for you.
TS: Thank you, man. I thought so many times, if somebody ever likes them, it makes me feel good.
JPG: It’s unexpected, too, because you are by yourself during the livestreams and your last album, Cash Cabin Sessions, Vol. 3, was pretty much just you. So, I thought that if you put anything out, it would be more stripped-down like those things.
TS: Right. I did one called Eastside Bulldog where I knew that it was going to be so different that I almost was going to put a “You can get your money back” sticker on there. This one, I felt like, maybe, I was stepping far out there a little too…but I didn’t because I did that with Bulldog. Even, the Hard Working Americans, I was stepping outside of myself to make some music. I think of these songs as the follow-up to that.
There’s a record I made (Agnostic Hymns & Stoner Fables) where I draw a picture of myself on the cover, and I haven’t made up a record of my own songs since. It was the first time. The last record that I made like that, I felt like I just was out of ideas. I needed to learn more music. So, that’s kind of what I did.
JPG: There’s this quote from a recent Rolling Stone article where you go, “I’ve made so many records, I want 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 as you’re 21, but it’s still worth a shot.” And I thought it’s sad but it’s kind of freeing in a way because I had a COVID moment of wondering, since I’m around your age, do I just continue into the sunset or reinvent? It seems like that’s what you did.
TS: It’s funny you say that. I feel like a lot of men our age are getting at that crossroad. Yeah, a lot of the songs, I can hear myself rooting myself on, I guess…It was a tough year.
JPG: Creativity is one way of focusing and making your way through it.
TS: Yeah, and it’s funny that I would’ve thought that the music that came out would’ve been real sad and that didn’t happen. I really dig being alive.
JPG: Did you focus on, “I don’t want this to be sad because everyone’s sad?”
TS: A little, yeah. In my mind, saying folk up front or busking up front and funk in the back, I was thinking, “I don’t like lyrics…” I’m not as into lyrics as I used to be. I was mostly just thinking, “some gibberish and a tear, gibberish and a tear,” that was the pattern. It actually does make sense but it sounds like gibberish.
JPG: It wasn’t gibberish but “Talking Reality Television Blues” from your last album, Cash Cabin Sessions, Vol. 3, seemed stream of consciousness the way you did it. Then, there’s the Tom Jones version of that song that came out last January, which sounds really dark and foreboding.
TS: That made me so happy when I heard that. It popped up on my computer that he had a new song, “Talking Reality TV Blues,” and no part of me thought it was going to be my song. I thought, “Wow, isn’t that crazy?” Then, I was like, “Yeah, I guess it makes sense. Sure. I want to hear what his version is.” Then, the music comes on, I’m like, “Oh, this is going to be cool,” and he started singing my words. And then I went, “Oh, shit.”
JPG: No one had told you about it?
TS: No, nobody said. I still don’t know how he found it.
JPG: The other thing with the livestreams and their association with the new album is that the sessions were originally called “What It Is.” Then, you changed it to “The First Agnostic Church of Hope and Wonder, which is the name of the new album. How did that come about?
TS: For a long time I’ve said that. Maybe I was going to put it in a song — The First Agnostic Church of Hope and Wonder. We hope there’s a God and wonder if there is. That’s just a riff. I call that a riff. That would be a series of notes to a musician.Just that sitting there in my head, waiting for its moment.
Then, the thing starts, and we did it on Sunday mornings because we were looking for a place that it wouldn’t be hogged up. Once I got doing it in the morning, I thought, this is almost funner than at night. Concerts would be great with coffee and weed, right? Get up in the morning, have some coffee, and go see Arlo Guthrie. That would be great!
Everyone starts calling it a church on the computer, so I think I said, “We’re going to make a record called the “First Agnostic Church of Hope and Wonder,” and that’s how the whole thing started.
Then, we decided that we were going to do each album I had ever done [on the livestream] one after another, and that’s all going to come out next year. And that show was called the “First Agnostic Church of Hope and Wonder.” Now, it’s called “The Get Together” because of the song on the album. That’s our church commercial.
It’s funny because my brother is a Christian rock booking agent, and he loves it. He’s not offended by it at all. I haven’t had any weird backlash from that. We called it that because…everybody’s agnostic. You can be a Christian and you’re still an agnostic. In fact, if you tell me that you believe in something, you’ve just admitted to me that you don’t know for sure. “You believe that happened? You don’t know for sure that it happened. Okay, well, that’s faith. That’s much different.” The real answer, the big answer, is “I don’t know.” And it’s the hardest one to say. Nobody wants to say it to their kid and nobody wants to hear it. But the big answer to the big question is “I don’t know.” And the shit we have done and put ourselves through trying to bury our head in the sand and pretend that’s not the truth. My God!
We’re going to keep doing them. You know what else? It’s so funny.
We have a TV show. None of us look like we’d be able to run any of that stuff. And all of a sudden, it’s like, Bam! They go, “It’s five minutes,” and they count down, and this light goes on, and I start talking. Our intention at least now is to keep them going even when we go back on the road. It would be on Sundays. We’ll do the 11 o’clock morning show. Take the night off wherever we are.