The grim toll of 2020 affected us all, but consider this. As we processed the deaths of John Prine and Jerry Jeff Walker last April and October respectively, most of us grieved from a fan’s middle distance, reflecting on shows and recordings and legacy. We felt like we knew them, but we didn’t really know them. For Todd Snider, these were father figures and mentors, benefactors and friends.
In his very funny memoir from 2014, Snider tells the story about how a Jerry Jeff Walker performance in the middle 1980s in Texas showed him his life’s destiny. Snider was already itinerant at that point, estranged from his family, staying on a friend’s couch. But “it seemed to me right then, watching Jerry Jeff, that there were exactly three chords’ worth of difference between being a freeloader and a free spirit,” he wrote. The die was cast. Todd Snider wrote his first song.
There’s a lot more about how they met and how Todd and Jerry Jeff ran around together, indulged in various substances, fell out and reconciled, and stayed great friends until the end. If Walker showed Snider his way as a performer, storyteller and BS artist, Prine was a model of songcraft, professionalism and kindness. He also gave Snider a label home when he badly needed one, with Oh Boy Records, for a string of albums between 2000 and 2004, including the essential East Nashville Skyline.
Now those giants - those friends - are gone, and Snider sounds a bit bewildered talking about the void. “I don't know who I'll play this record for you know?” he told me. “Those are usually my two people I send it to. Like, that's my audience. And I was hoping they’d get to hear it.”
The record in question is First Agnostic Church of Hope And Wonder, and one can easily suppose that those flinty and easily bemused gentlemen would have smiled, laughed and possibly even danced through its 35 minutes of tripped-out beats, spare string spanks and stoned storytelling. They might have even enjoyed the songs paying posthumous homage to each of them. Walker gets the nod on the opening cut, “Turn Me Loose (I’ll Never Be The Same),” a surreal blues inspired by a phrase the self-made cowboy used to use. Prine’s song “Handsome John” is a more conventional eulogy, with a lovely, puzzle-snug rhyme scheme and a teary eye cast on the late songwriters unfailing ability to “see this world with dignity.”
“He was such a sweet man,” Todd says of Prine. “Almost like Santa Claus. I don’t have that kind of patience. Jerry Jeff was almost the exact opposite. He caused trouble everywhere he went until the day he died. That was fun too.”
Snider, who embodies the contradictory yin-yang of Prine and Walker energy, is one of the most enigmatic and brilliantly weird artists to ever call Nashville home. He’s a shambles and a sweetheart, a childlike 54-year-old who once called himself “a flamboyantly f****d up person”. That may have been true during some stretches of particularly hard substance abuse, but not to observers’ eyes recently. These days he seems to be riding gently on a diet of weed (so much weed) and love of his audience made fonder by 2020’s distance. Friends in the scene call him abundantly gentle and loyal. And he’s certainly among the most compelling solo acoustic performers to ever spend time on a stage, a hilarious barefoot raconteur of the first order and a singer of barbed truths that challenge his nation-spanning, class-spanning audience. The aura of chaos that sometimes seems to surround him may be one of his tall tales, because Hope and Wonder rolled toward release with strategically staggered singles, a social media publicity stunt (the “label” was supposedly yanking the album at the last minute over a business dispute), and a rough but authentic documentary. There’s method in Todd Snider’s madness.
Hope And Wonder is Snider’s 16th album and a breakthrough for the well-traveled troubadour. It sounds like nothing he’s ever done and like little else in Americana or folk music, a juicy headphone trip with messages of love, conscience, concern and wry dismissal of false prophets. We can run the checklist of elements of a great album and find most of them here: a fresh direction from a veteran artist, inspired collaborative personnel, a concept and an arc, songs that stand on their own, and a strong sense of place.
That place is 107 N. 11th Street at Five Points in East Nashville, lovingly known as The Big Purple Building. The story on its website says that it was built by Cowboy Jack Clement, but this needs to be run to ground and confirmed. What we know is that in recent years, the building has been a colorful artist co-op, and then Snider acquired it as a rehearsal space, recording studio, streaming stage and general headquarters. You can rent the room - wired for sound and video - out for a super fair deal and partake of its bohemian squalor in the heart of the old weird East Side. It’s on the cover of the new album because it’s where Snider and a small cohort set up to record last Fall.
The critical collaborator here is Robbie Crowell, one of the most ubiquitous and admired sidemen working in and out of contemporary Nashville. He’s a multi-instrumentalist whose kit includes drums, keyboards, bass and saxophone. He’s toured or recorded with Deer Tick, Bobby Bare (Jr. and Sr.), Kesha and Cracker. He’s a member of country band Midland. But for Snider’s project, their meeting of minds was about one thing: funky drumming. Snider had been finding a new zen in the 1960s and 70s fatback beats of Bernard Purdie and Clyde Stubblefield (the man behind the nine minute mastery of “Funky Drummer”) and he started thinking about marrying folk guitar and banjo to those feather-light, deeply syncopated grooves.
Crowell’s off-kilter patterns are throwbacks, expertly executed, but what’s novel is the sound. As the first beats emerge from the speakers on track one, I thought maybe the drums were programmed, with their spare and bone dry timbres. But no, it’s just how Snider’s gang set up the mics and drums and gear. Then the basic beats were layered up with shakers, cowbells, tambourines into a syncopated stew that’s among the most rhythmically sophisticated sessions I’ve ever heard in Nashville roots music. Todd plays his own bass lines too, with thumping grace. It’s bad, and that’s good.
Song two, “The Get Together” shares a title with the solo streaming sessions that Snider set up on Sunday mornings during the pandemic, something he grew to value during his longest stretch ever off the road. It’s about a cat who quits his job and seeks the answers to life’s biggest questions, with mixed results. “The Great Pacific Garbage Patch” shows Snider’s subversive genius for wrestling giant problems down to a size where humor can beget hope. And “Battle Hymn of the Album” tricks the listener. A funky invitation to “get down” takes a dark twist on its way to resurrecting the spirit of abolitionist John Brown.
The final three songs make a satirical triptych about the peculiar ways so many Americans try to make sense of life, money, death and the great beyond. Snider gets “kind of” in character here, he says. “I started thinking this was a preacher. And by the eighth song, he asks for money, he passes a basket.” In the ninth song, “Agnostic Preacher’s Lament,” Snider delivers one of his finest-ever monologues, as the preacher confesses to god that he’s been fleecing his flock and he wants a pass. “And the last song is supposed to imply that God did that for him, you know. (Then) he quits. It felt like it was Trumpian to be like, ‘you can't fire me, I quit.’ I don't know why - I thought this was a funny storyline. But the preacher gets caught, and prays for help, and gets it. And the point is that God is hilarious. That's the moral.”
Jerry Jeff and John Prine weren’t the only loved ones ripped out of Todd Snider’s life in recent months, by the way. Billy Joe Shaver, a hero and kindred spirit, died last October. In 2019, his close friend and bandmate in the Hard Working Americans Neal Casal took his own life. So apparently did his friend and collaborator Jeff Austin of the Yonder Mt String Band, at age 45, that same summer. It’s difficult to imagine such compounded losses. “It was a really hard, hard winter,” Snider says. “I'm 54 and a half and my dad died when he was 54 and a half,” he adds, without a conclusion.
Snider hasn’t lived much of the time as if longevity was his top priority, but this purple-hazed, funny, serious album is evidence he’s never been more alive.