Todd Snider isn't your typical country singer-songwriter. The guy smokes a ton of weed (something he doesn't try to hide) and rambles on in interviews and during live performances, often embellishing stories with half-truths and exaggerations. He's very funny and might have missed his calling as a comic if it weren't for the fact that he's such a consummate songwriter. His new album, Agnostic Hymns & Stoner Fables is a terrific collection of folk-y tunes about topics ranging from the world's creation ("In the Beginning") to bitter break-ups ("The Very Last Time"). Snider phoned in from his Nashville home to talk about the album.
What initially compelled you to start writing songs?
I had this idea that I could be a lyricist like Jim Morrison, but I just couldn't make that go anywhere. I tried to make up poems that didn't make sense. I just couldn't do it. Then I saw Jerry Jeff Walker and he was singing about his life and playing a few chords. I didn't even know that was an option. I just knew that it wasn't what Eddie Van Halen was doing on TV. I started trying to copy him.
Was it difficult?
Pretty easy, I guess. I started making a living quickly. I was always satisfied with the bread I got and the shows I got to do. It doesn't take much to make me happy.
You were signed to MCA Records for a minute and presumably received a big publicity push. What was that experience like?
Really good. There are still people I talk to all the time. That was all orchestrated by a guy named Bob Mercer who just passed away. I never had any business being with all those great people. I was a folk singer but I was Bob Mercer's pet. We used to smoke dope like crazy and sit around and listen to records. He was the president of fuckin' whatever. I never even know. He was always the president of some mother fuckin' thing and he never left my life. After I made one record with MCA and there was no excusing how much money I lost them, he helped me get with [singer-songwriter John] Prine and guided me through there. After that, then I went back and did the best of and he guided me through that. He was the first person I sent poems to. Now, he's gone and it's harder to guide the ship. But we still do okay. My whole team was put together by him.
You've become known for your ability to telling funny stories during your live shows. When did you start doing that?
I think it was the very first time I ever got on stage for an open mic. I get nervous and I rattle. Even in these interviews, I get nervous and I overtalk. It's my fight-or-flight response. I got mugged one time and the guy pushed me in the alley and hit me in face with a gun. I looked back at him and I said, "What is this, your first day on the job? I'm a folk singer. I don't have any money." And I laughed. I remember thinking that was my fight-or-flight instinct. Mostly it's just a bunch of nervous shit.
Have you gotten better at the banter?
I've had lessons in both making up songs and talking between songs from Prine and [singer-songwriter Jimmy] Buffett. I mostly do what I do because of those guys. I learned a lot from Jerry Jeff [Walker], too. A little bit of work goes into it but not a whole lot.
Do the stories change?
They change but not on purpose. It's mostly from drinking or getting stoned. They change but for the most part they're true. On any given night depending on how early I got out of my hotel for the show, I could be bullshitting it. Not in a conscious way but in a natural way. Same thing if you saw me down at [the East Nashville club] Drifters. I would probably recount some story and it might be change to my advantage. Maybe it was five guys who cornered us instead of two.
You were born in Portland, Oregon but have lived in Nashville for several years now. To what extent do you fit in?
On the East side I fit in really good. I like the country music side of town and I have friends who work over there. Everybody in my neighborhood knows who [singer-songwriter] Will Kimbrough is and listens to him in my neighborhood. Or [singer-songwriter] Tommy Womack. And then, of course, if John Prine comes to town, we just shut down. There are guys from Dylan's band who live here. All the cool songwriters live here. We just made a movie about it a couple of weeks ago. I'm excited to see it. These guys from New York came with cameras and plied us with drugs at a cookout.
Is Jack White part of that culture?
He's a hero and I've seen him a couple of times around here.
Do any other Nashville-based country singers embrace stoner culture?
I don't think so. Maybe [singer] Tim Carroll. But no, especially if I'm thought of as a country singer. I've got to be like the Wavy Gravy of it.
Do any other Nashville-based country singers claim to be agnostic?
I wouldn't say any claim it. They might be it.
The opening track on your new album is a retelling of the creation myth. What inspired it?
I was in a bar and I had heard this quote one time how Napoleon had said religion was invented to keep the poor from killing the rich. That rang in my head for a long time. I started to formulate a song for that and I had the last line first and I worked on it a long time.
What keeps you going?
I like to make up poems. I like to travel. I would go home if everybody else went home but I cannot see myself stopping. I saw [the Black Crowes'] Chris Robinson and he did 200 shows last year. It's just fucking fun to make music. I even do it under an assumed name when I'm in town. I go as Elmo Buzz. With Elmo Buzz, I can only do play in a place that holds 50 people. Elmo Buzz and the Big Dogs is the band. We only play twice a year. We have [singer-songwriter] Elizabeth Cook and [keyboardist] Bobby Keys in the band. We mostly do covers and Tim Carroll songs. We don't leave our side of town. Band rule. We might make a record but we're never going to tour and we don't play for money.