Todd Snider: A Ghost in the Catalogue

Article by Sean Neumann

The album’s title nods to the fact that Snider recorded it at Johnny Cash’s old Tennessee hideaway and recording studio, a place still hosting top musicians, and run by Cash’s son, John Carter Cash. Snider first visited in 2015 to watch Loretta Lynn record a couple of songs they’d written together. While there, he had a dream that began to recur. 

In the dream, Snider is asleep on the floor in a certain part of the studio, only to be awakened by the Man in Black himself. Cash’s son later told Snider this was the spot where his dad had died, on a bed set up in the studio during the legendary musician’s last days. It wasn’t long after this that Snider returned to record some material for his band Hard Working Americans, a supergroup featuring members of the Chris Robinson Brotherhood and Widespread Panic. And then last autumn, Snider recorded ten spare, acoustic tunes at Cash Cabin Studio. The tracks are heartfelt, moving, funny, and political, with attention given to the craft of songwriting itself, and the songwriter’s life.

On “The Ghost of Johnny Cash,” Snider strums Cash’s beloved, century-old Martin guitar, and sings about Loretta Lynn dancing with Cash’s ghost outside the cabin at night.

Though words like “hippie” and “stoner” have been applied to Snider—a guy who does like his weed, doesn’t carry a wallet, has played in jam bands, and enjoys conversational tangents—he is anything but a slacker when it comes to songwriting. He’s intense, dedicated, studious, and aims high. He says he doesn’t trust a lyric unless it’s been around for a year. Reviewers of this new album have been hailing its songcraft mastery.

The renowned music critic Robert Christgau gave Cash Cabin Sessions an “A,” and wrote on Vice’s music site, Noisey: “You’d never know from its offhand feel how practiced this material is. That’s one reason it’s so replayable…. The other, of course, is that the words are good.”

No Depression put it this way: “Snider is a force of nature. He’s a brilliant songwriter who’s always searching for the next chord, the next story, the next joke, the next idea, the next experience he can turn into song.” Rolling Stone adds, “His lyrics are razor sharp, unsparing, hilarious, and surprisingly tender…. The most provocative moments are topical, when Snider takes scalpels to modern cultural cancers and musical histories both.”

And Folk Radio magazine delivered a rave: “Gripping from start to finish…piercing, precise. Snider’s sterling acoustic guitar work is arguably tighter than ever…. [The album’s] heard as if you are face-to-face with the man, sipping or smoking on something fine, reclining on his porch-side or slumped, quietly contemplating it all in some backroom bar.” 

The review conjures a songwriter “spitting blue-collar grit like Springsteen, careening with the same charm of Kristofferson and with the slick wit of [John] Prine, [Randy] Newman, and [Loudon] Wainwright.”

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Snider’s productivity and focus are well-known to fellow musicians and others in the music industry, who aren’t fooled by the toker’s drawl. He’s recorded 14 original albums since 1993, released both live and cover albums, appeared on compilations, and made records with other bands. He’s also written a rollicking, laugh-out-loud memoir, I Never Met a Story I Didn’t Like: Mostly True Tall Tales, published in 2014. If he’s not songwriting or recording, he’s touring. He’s played thousands of shows, and the total would be even higher if health and drug issues hadn’t sidelined him at points. 

Sean Neumann is a Chicago-based journalist and musician who spends much of the year touring with his bands. His writing on politics, sports, and television has appeared in Rolling Stone, ESPN, VICE, and more. Follow him on Twitter @neumannthehuman

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