There’s this song Todd Snider’s been working on for 30 years now. Call it the white whale of his songwriting career: a crafty, elusive creature, with size, connected to the depths. The search for it—the quest to get the song right—drives him on. It drove him while starting out, when mostly all he had was a dream, and lots to learn, and naysayers to ignore, and nothing gigs in half-empty bars to play. And it kept driving him on through mid-career drug problems, health problems, and relationship problems.
Fifty-two years old now, with shaggy blond hair he might accent with a beard and floppy hat like Neil Young used to wear, Snider has bright, animated blue eyes. He holds your gaze when he talks, telling stories that make you laugh or think. And sometimes, discussing his work, he seems to reengage with the essence of a song right on the spot.
But talking about this one, the song that’s eluded him all these years? Snider shakes his head a little and stares off to the side.
He wrote the first version when he was 22, and called it “Where Will I Go Now That I’m Gone?” Three decades later, it’s a tune that still makes him stare into the distance. Like it’s out there somewhere, the secret to making the song work the way he wants it to. Like if he keeps looking for it, traveling here and there—he’s done a ton of rambling, in the finest folk-troubadour tradition—maybe, just maybe, it’ll appear.
We’re seated at a small kitchenette table inside his tour bus, which is parked behind the historic Wealthy Theatre in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Snider’s faraway look, as he reflects on that just-out-of-reach, spurring-him-on song, comes after a lively 90 minutes of talking to me about politics, drugs, his family, his fans, and life on the road.
That’s the thing with folk singers, Snider says. You don’t even need to ask them a question to start getting answers. But when he gets to talking about music, the focus of his life, he slows down and has an air of searching for something, like a guy on a beach with a metal detector, sweeping the sand, believing he might find an object of value in the very next moment.
A laid-back individual who favors jeans and sneakers, and sometimes performs barefoot, Snider—his fair hair and casual manner suggestive of the late Tom Petty—gets into a marveling mode, even a reverential one, when speaking of times when songwriting can feel magical.
“When you’re letting these sounds that come out of nowhere start guiding your decisions,” he says, “it feels like, Oh my God, there’s a ghost here.”
Speaking of connections to the beyond, a tether through the ether linking the living and those who have passed, there’s a song called “The Ghost of Johnny Cash” on Snider’s new album, Cash Cabin Sessions, Vol. 3, released this spring to much critical praise.