Todd Snider: A Ghost in the Catalogue

Article by Sean Neumann

“For [Snider], the clever part of songwriting, that’s the easy part,” fellow songwriter Bobby Bare Jr. once observed to The Austin Chronicle. “That’s the natural part of his talent. But what makes him better than everybody else is how hard he works at the craft of those clever ideas. That’s what great songwriters do. They work hard on what they stumble upon.”

That Folk Radio reviewer is not the only critic to mention Snider in the same breath as some of our songwriting elites. And the East Nashville mainstay has also influenced and helped pave the way for younger, Grammy-winning country stars like Jason Isbell and Kacey Musgraves. On Cash Cabin, Isbell provides harmonies on a terrific track called “Like a Force of Nature.” Isbell and his wife, 37-year-old songwriter and violinist Amanda Shires, also contribute backup vocals on two of the political songs, “The Blues on Banjo” and “A Timeless Response to Current Events.” Rootsy, pointed, and conversational, “Blues” calls out NRA-beholden politicians and border-wall hysteria, while “Timeless” takes on phony, divisive patriotism.

Like Snider, Isbell and Shires have decided ignoring politics isn’t an option, not in the current climate. Younger Nashville musicians of a progressive bent can look to Snider for an example of a veteran musician who’s found a way to give compelling voice to his political convictions without sacrificing musicianship—like a latter-day Woody Guthrie. 

He’s keeping a close eye on what’s going on, politically and culturally. When we meet on his tour bus, he’s got the TV tuned to CNN, makes reference to the politics of Meghan McCain, and criticizes the “prison-industrial complex.” 

But of course what most often catches the attention of fans and musicians (count comedian Richard Lewis among the former; Lewis, a Snider friend, gets a mention on this new album) is his musical prowess and creativity—his deft way with a song. Snider took up the craft of songwriting in his late teens, when music put a hex on him. That hex is still as strong as ever. An hour before his sold-out show in Grand Rapids, he can’t quit thinking about that damn elusive song, the one whose final form he seems doomed to forever chase. 

“It’s the worst problem I’ve ever had,” Snider says, shaking his head again. “That’s the thing. You just keep looking for it. I don’t even know what it is.”

Todd Snider in Concert

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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