Not Killing The Rich with Todd Snider

By: Dennis Cook

Todd Snider
It’s the root of all evil, I agree
And I suppose the blossom would be my kind of poverty
But I know how mad I’m gettin’
Just knowing how much more you’ve got than me
I’m thinking
“Let’s keep me from killing this guy, takin’ his shit.”

Money is a hell of a thing. No matter how much one tries not to care, it’s the grease that makes the world turn ‘round, the coin for our daily bread, not to mention our nights on the town and miles of highway that fill our tanks. While sometimes an atmosphere that we all swim in but don’t discuss, money is front and center in our public discourse in 2012. The disparity between the haves and have-nots has gotten so bad that the subject simply must be addressed openly, taking different forms in the 2012 presidential race, Occupy Wall Street Movement, and elsewhere, but always part of the general chatter this year. And it’s likely to remain so for a good long time.

At first spin, Agnostic Hymns & Stoner Fables (released March 6 on Aimless Records), the latest album from East Nashville troubadour deluxe Todd Snider, seems a slab consciously crafted to address the anger and frustration of the “99-percent,” but talk to Snider – as we did and you’ll get to eavesdrop on below – and what’s clear is he didn’t set out to do ANYTHING. This is just Snider wetting his index finger and picking up on the prevailing cultural breeze. He’s done it before in the war/bullying insights of 2008’s Peace Queer, and there’s a big scoop of truth in nearly every tune he’s composed. But it wasn’t his intention to write a manifesto for the disaffected or poke Right Wingers in the snout. If those things happen it’s a happy happenstance. Todd’s just a folk singer trying to figure all this stuff out for himself and distract some of us from our woes in the process.

New Album
However, there’s a crackling electricity and full band sound to his new album that sets it apart, and sets the stage for his current round of touring (including a slate of California shows starting on Thursday, March 22 in Santa Cruz), which finds the usually solo Snider playing a lot of electric guitar and tapping into his inner rocker. The core touring band is comprised of Snider on guitar and lead vocals with the rhythm team of Eric McConnell (bass) and Paul Griffith (drums), who both played on the new album. Chad Staehly of Great American Taxi also plays keys on the album and will be joining the touring unit at times, and the studio band on Agnostic Hymns is rounded out by Amanda Shires, a singer-songwriter in her own right who brings a delightfully wild energy on violin and backing vocals to the proceedings that recalls Scarlet Rivera’s stint with Bob Dylan.

Whether intentional or not though, Agnostic Hymns & Stoner Fables is cathartic as all get out, a steam valve for all the hot, bothered, emotional flutter between rich and poor, the empowered and the powerless, the Bible thumpers and religious naysayers. This song cycle does what art does at its best – offer fresh perspectives and alternative ways of approaching situations – while providing some small balm for the sobering reality that good things continue to happen to bad people no matter how much folks pray and moan.

Todd Snider by Max Flatow
JamBase: This is a wonderfully pissed off record, though it’s not as if there’s not plenty of kindling out there for such fires.

Todd Snider: I sort of made it in a blur. Even for all the time I worked on these songs, I wasn’t looking up. Maybe the best way to say it is the way I made these songs was pretty chaotic. So, it was hard for me when I turned it in and people started saying it’s about the economy and that I sounded so pissed. At the time we were making it we were just rockin’ and staying up late. I’d been working on the words for a long time but I hadn’t been sharing them with too many people.

JamBase: The opening cut “In The Beginning” resonates on so many levels by interweaving humanity’s early days with religion’s almost immediate control mechanism.

Todd Snider: I’d heard that Napoleon said, “Religion was invented to keep the poor from killing the rich.” It stuck with me, and then it became part of a story I told at this bar I’m a regular at in Nashville. “[The Ballad of the] Kingsmen” was another song that started that way. Get a few too many drinks into me and I’d start telling these stories. The song was originally called “Stoner Fable” and I had another song called “Agnostic Hymn,” but then I decided to call the record that and made up new titles for the songs.

I think it works as a header for this collection, but perhaps you’ve always written agnostic hymns and stoner fables.

Todd Snider
That’s what I’ve heard said. When Eric saw the title he said, “That’s what all your songs are.”

This record is about losing faith, or maybe more accurately how hard it is to have faith in much of anything these days – social structures, a benevolent deity, family roles. It’s hard ontological ground to walk around on. One wonders what shoes to wear.

That’s kind of how it went for me [laughs]. I don’t know what happened with this one. I don’t know where this shit came from…well, I guess I probably do. Some of it is real personal, family related issues, but nothing is a real straight line trip. A lot of the lines came one at a time on this record and were then assembled over a long period of time. I’ll be walking around, say going to the same bar every day, and I see something evocative or descriptive or vulnerable or something funny or a thought like, “I wish you’d called me,” I’ll write it down. I might see some tennis shoes hanging from a line and write that down. And these bits end up on my wall at home and wait until different pieces fit together. Some of the words may have spent a day or two in other songs.

You’re making musical stone soup.

Kind of, maybe more lyric salad.

No matter what part of the cultural and political spectrum in America you look at, folks are engaged in questions of spirituality, money, employment and power. But you didn’t come at this subject matter with the intention of writing a screed. The material seems to have come and found you not the other way around.

One thing I hear people grumbling about, especially at my local bar, is the connection between rich people and God. It makes things very confusing for people. I guess it was Karl Rove’s idea from way back that Christianity and Republicans were a team. When people have this conversation, it seems like the 1-percent is really tied to church.

Well, in a lip-service way that doesn’t incorporate the core teachings of the New Testament about poverty and charity in any substantive way.

There you go. There it is. There’s a big swath of the suburbs in this country where these two camps – the Republicans and Christians – have become the easiest clubs to join and take shelter in. If you’re afraid of the world, you’ll find out quickly that you can join the church and no one really gives a shit if you’re a good person or not. And you can join the Republican Party and they don’t care much either. They want you and your numbers. It’s a mentality of fear, where people join these two groups in some pockets and are so crazy afraid they’ve meshed together despite real core differences. It’s like:

We’re the Animal Savers and you’re the Puppy Kickers. Let’s join forces! Doesn’t anybody want to talk about this? No! Just look how much bigger we are together! Look how much better we can bully people together! What a team we’d be!

People join both of these things to feel safe…or to tell their boss at work that they go to church, maybe even his church. I don’t know if all this is connected to the record but it might be [laughs].

There is a cognitive dissonance to these relationships. And beyond the safety in numbers factor, there’s the comforting feeling of a hermetically sealed philosophy that makes the stupid, cruel, random universe make sense. People – on both ends of the political spectrum – surround themselves with input that serves only to confirm their pre-existing ideas and feelings, and this positioning makes it easier to see anyone who disagrees with you as the enemy.

It’s embarrassing we still behave this way.

Tell me, as a fairly liberal, open-minded fellow, how is it you still live in Tennessee in the heart of Southern Bible Belt-ery?

My house probably. My wife and I have talked about moving to Santa Cruz or Folly Beach in South Carolina - they’re almost the same places to me. We got this house [in East Nashville] so long ago, and we’ve done so much in it – got engaged in it, got married in it, lost dogs in it. Every time we look at other places, we think, “How are we ever going to replace this” So, I think we’re gonna be here. In fact, we’re about to knock down some more walls so we better fuckin’ stay here!

Todd Snider and his Best Gal
So, what do you think about the Occupy Wall Street movement?

I’m definitely a liberal and I get it and I’m for it. It would be nice to have some light shed on the differences between the very wealthy and everyone else. And I’m for almost anything that involves music, pot and hacky sack, though I don’t know if there’s much of that at this [OWS] thing, which is a negative to me. On the other hand, I wish they were a little more organized and had clearer ideas. There’s a part of me that thinks, “You look a lil’ Tea Party out there.” I get the idea, but I don’t know if camping in front of city halls is gonna do much, though it’s nice.

And with music [in such social movements], I have a weird attitude about it. I often think the best you can get out of it is Saturday night, 90 minutes, $22 dollars…or an album. It’s hard for me to not see it at face value after being in it for so long. When I was younger, I thought Bob Marley did things. Now, it’s hard for me to even ask this question. I’m certain I’m not doing anything. My contribution to this world as a folk singer is distraction from your doom…and that only lasts as long as a little record or a concert. I say a bunch of shit – political shit – but the main motivation I have to say those things is I’m a folk singer and I want songs. It’s a pretty selfish and un-noble thing at its core, but that’s not to say I don’t care about people. I don’t go to any of these movements, and at least I’m not trying to pass myself off as someone you need or can learn from. I’m neither of those things. Maybe Dylan is…

…but even he, the Grand Master of such things, long ago stepped away from any leadership role in ANY movement. He’s only comfortable calling himself a musician.

It’s a three-chord grift and maybe always will be.

But this does tie into the general loss of faith going around, present company very much included.

I heard someone the other day say, “They ask you if the glass if half empty or half full. What difference does it make? There’s a tiny hole in the bottom of that motherfucker and it’s draining and will, at some point, be empty. Period.” [laughs]. I don’t mind it. Once you admit you’re doomed that’s when the real dancing starts.

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[Published on: 3/21/12]

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