Cash Is King: A Conversation With Singer/Songwriter Todd Snider

He may be staring down the barrel of a two-year tour and a few hundred-thousand more miles on his body’s odometer, but 52-year-old singer/songwriter Todd Snider is a seemingly happy man.

With a brand new album delivered, sold out shows on the books, and more stories to tell, life is good. The prospect of spending more time on the road isn’t daunting at all. As a matter of a fact, it’s welcomed.

“As we get older, there are some of us who just love it,” said an upbeat Snider in a phone interview of his penchant toward touring and the hypnotizing whir of tires running on pavement, taking him to a new destination each night. “I prefer it to home.”

It’s been 25 years since his brand of Americana/folk/alt-country music debuted in the form of “Songs For The Daily Planet,” the first of 18 albums that have since brought comparisons to some of the best singer/songwriters, including Steve Earle, John Prine and Bob Dylan.

Snider is in the midst of an extensive acoustic tour in support of his latest album, “Cash Cabin Sessions, Vol. 3,” an album recorded at the historic Cash Cabin Studio, and central Iowans can get a taste of it and more when he performs at Wooly’s in Des Moines this Friday, April 26.

ListenIowa caught up to Snider last week just prior to his performance at the famous Ryman Auditorium in Memphis, Tennessee, where he talked about his new album, Loretta Lynn’s late night dancing, and writing a song about writing a song.

It has to be a good feeling knowing that, after all these years in the game, people still care this much.
When I started, I didn’t think I’d be able to keep doing it my whole life. I wanted to. I remember when I was young, my dad asked if I was going to be OK with playing a little bar when I was 70 years old. And in my mind, I was thinking, “OK? I would be thrilled.”

Do you think people, country music fans in particular, are hungry for something real after years of getting sugar-coated, manufactured music?
Yeah, I think we’re living in a time of that. Those guys in Florida Georgia Line, they work just as hard as me. They’re my brothers. They’re strippers just like me. But, on another level, the way they were doing that was, other people were making the songs, and the songs were geared at a certain type of person, whereas I’m coming at you, then along comes a person like Sturgill Simpson; then comes this young guy, Chris Stapleton; then this young girl, Casey Musgraves; and Jason Isbell — there’s this wave of people. Steve Earle would call it an “integrity scare,” this wave of people who are pouring their hearts out, ala, Townes Van Zandt. They’re having luck at George Strait’s game by using Towne Van Zandt’s tricks. It’s fun to watch as a fan of music. That “list of country shit” sound, like, “I like boots and trucks and guns” that is written by six people, it seems like it’s going away. It’s kind of a weird suburban wave.

What’s your take on rapper Lil Nas X getting on the country music charts with “Old Town Road”? It has caused quite a stir in the country music community.
I love it. I haven’t heard the song, but anytime I hear about something like that, I like it when people do things that set off a firestorm. I like it when Roseanne Barr grabs her nuts before she sings the National Anthem and everybody freaks out about it. Or Courtney Love throws lipstick at Madonna. Anytime something like that happens, I’m into it. (laughs)

You’ve got a gig at Ryman Auditorium coming up.
Yeah, this Saturday, and I’m looking forward to that. It’s like my hometown show. You know that picture of Johnny Cash flipping off the camera? That was taken there, and I also got to use the guitar in that picture on this new record. It’s over 100 years old.

You must have asked VERY nicely to be able to do that.
Yeah, John Carter Cash offered! He and I really hit it off. We got to go out there to the Cash Cabin and listen to Loretta Lynn record a song that I wrote (2015), and then I just kept going back out there and getting to know him. And one day he pulled the guitar out and said, “You want to try this?” And I was like, “Yeah!” (laughs) There’s a vault of guitars there, and one day, he just got to the point where he trusted us and opened it up.

Just being in that studio had to be special in itself.
When you walk in there, the master recordings are there, the Carter family’s instruments are there; it’s an amazing house. It’s got a real spiritual, cosmic-y kind of feeling in it. It’s like Graceland. It’s the opposite of tacky. If I moved into Graceland, I’d keep it exactly the way it is.

And now your own album, “Cash Cabin Sessions Vol. 3,” was recorded there.
After I went to Loretta’s session, I had this dream that I woke up in the studio, and Johnny Cash had woken me up. I had that dream a few times, and the last time I had it, he pointed to a corner of the studio and said, “You’re missing it.” So I told the band the story, and our leader, Dave, suggested we spend the night out there so we could find what I was missing. We went out there, all of us ate some acid, and ended up making the song called “Just Like Overnight.” And then John Carter told me the story that night about how Loretta dances out there. She dances in the backyard at times. She’s a very free-spirited person to begin with, but it’s still fascinating. I think they recorded that whole night, which would probably be funny to listen to now.

I’d pay to see that outtake.
(laughs) We had a séance that night, too. A shaman came. The band was there for a week, and then I was there a week alone, but that week the band was there, man, that was an adventure. That’s Vol. II.

Did you actually get to see Loretta dancing?
John Carter did. He was asleep in the house and woke up to the sound of really loud music outside. He looked out the window, and she was down there in the grass spinning around like a young person. Isn’t that amazing? It was 3 a.m. in the morning. The next morning he asked her what she was doing, and she said, “I was talking to your dad.” And then the next night she did it again.

“Working On A Song” is a great tune, and you’d think the concept of writing a song about writing a song is a concept that someone would have used already, but it hasn’t, at least not like this.
Well, thank you. When I was in my 20s and lived in Texas, I started singing this song called “Where Will I Go Now That I’m Gone,” but I never felt like it was done. Then a few years later when I was in Memphis, I kept working on it, but never turned it in. And then I worked on it with Kix Brooks once. A lot of times when you get together and work on a song with someone, you bring your unfinished stuff to see if you can get it done. On tour, I tend to grab a guitar on the bus, and that song would come up every now and then. It’s been a punk song, it’s been a country song, it’s been every kind of song you can imagine, and then about two years ago I was in a hotel tinkering with the song and got the idea that I could do a song about that song. And then it only took like a year. But now I’m like, “Is the other one done? Did I finish it, or did I make up a song about it?” (laughs)

Kind of a situation in which the song was part of you for so long that, once you finally got it completed, you almost didn’t want to.
Yeah, that’s funny, I just did a long interview yesterday with Penthouse and they were asking me that same thing.

Good to know I’m in the same league as Penthouse. Long-time reader.
(laughs) Me, too. I was king of disappointed that they sent some guy. (laughs)

But as you were saying ….
Yeah, I’ve been working on songs for 30 years, and I still love them, and chase them all the time, but I also think that at some point it should lead to shutting up if it’s genuine. If you’re genuinely working on songs to suss out your problems, eventually you’d stop — at least I’d hope. When I put out a record, I always say that I kind of hope I don’t do another one, but then I start getting a pile of songs and start thinking on how to produce it; it’s like a drug.

You really tapped into the Cash sound on “The Ghost of Johnny Cash.”
Thank you. The music part I made up out in woods that night we took acid together as a band back there. We needed a song to try to go with the story that John Carter Cash told me, so I went home and worked on it and then the band recorded it as kind of a hard rock song. But the day we went into the studio, we recorded it a bunch of different ways. We searched for it all day. We went into a bunch of different grooves, then went into the minor chord thing, then the arpeggiated thing, and were like “That’s how that song goes!” We were waiting for it to tell us what to do.

Todd Snider In Concert
Where: Wooly’s, Des Moines
When: Friday, April 26, 8 p.m.
Tickets: SOLD OUT