Todd Snider is a folk singer-songwriter in the classic sense. Which is to say he’s a storyteller, using narrative, lyrical framing and quick turns of phrase to inspect and, often, poke fun at mundanity, humanity and injustice. Any hint of cynicism or preachiness is absolved with abundant humility—as Snider says, he shares his opinions in his songs not because they’re smart or particularly valuable, but because they rhyme.
Of course not every song in Snider’s extensive catalog (19 albums in 27 years) is simply a vessel for some big stinkin’ opinion, or otherwise laced with ironic or sardonic one-liners; there are plenty of tender songs, party hits, casual foot stompers and musical experiments that span genres and generations.
But Snider’s perspective, when he chooses to let it out, is contagious. Literally—you’ll hear people at shows telling the stories Snider’s weaved into songs right along with him, saying the jokes and laughing at ’em. It’d all be weird if Snider wasn’t strumming a guitar, but because he is, it’s got the feeling of a bunch of old friends telling jokes.
Snider’s musicianship is reminiscent of other great musical storytellers like John Prine, Jerry Jeff Walker, Arlo Guthrie, Bob Dylan and Ramblin’ Jack Elliott. In fact, Snider shared stages and collaborated with Prine and Walker, and he released several records early in his career on Prine’s Oh Boy Records.
But, of course, in what now feels like biggest fuckin’ already-forgotten, glossed-over shame of the pandemic, Prine died of COVID in 2020. In fact, a lot of people close to Snider, and in the folk world, died in the last two years or so: Prine, Walker, Jeff Austin (of Yonder Mountain String Band), Neil Casal (with whom Snider worked in Hard Working Americans) and more.
Time and some return to normalcy (Snider is back on the road for the second year in a row) will not heal all the wounds cut in the last few years. Maybe that’s OK, Snider says.
“I was lucky that I was at home. If I was on the road, I’d have handled it a lot different,” Snider says. “I don’t know that I’m gonna come all the way back from that. … I don’t know that we’re supposed to. I’m getting to that age where I’m supposed to be carrying around some grief.”
The folk-listening community misses those titans, too, and appears ready to pass the baton onto Snider, suddenly one of the scene’s most senior members. One need only look at the comments on videos of Snider’s live performances, or rewatch some of his Sunday morning pandemic livestreams to witness the hope the folk community has put in Snider to keep this kind of storytelling alive, both in his music and in other artists’.
“John [Prine] and Guy Clark, in particular, those two were real mentors with people,” Snider says. “My impression of it is that it’s sort of a family. When people are coming up behind me, it’s my duty not to be threatened by them, but to be a part of that family, to look out for them. It’s easier to relate now; like, when I first started out singing, I had tons of singers I didn’t like. By the time I got done touring for two years, anyone who’s driving as far as I am to make music, I like ’em. It’s us against the world.
“I see they’re addicted to this thing I got addicted to and you can see it. When they’re helpless, give ’em a couch to sleep on. Everybody gave me a million couches.”
On his latest record, First Agnostic Church of Hope and Wonder, Snider pays homage in two tracks to Austin, “Sail On, My Friend,” and Prine, “Handsome John,” a melancholy piano track with a line that modestly signals the virtue of both folk and Prine’s place in it: “With a plain spoken word and a simple melody, you can see this world with dignity.”
The tracks around these two on the new album mark somewhat of a departure for Snider—it still sounds like Snider, but the songs are dressed differently, merging in Parliament-style funk and featuring Snider playing many of the instruments himself. Snider always had eyes on doing this type of record—a folk-funk mash—but the pandemic provided the opportunity to actually do it.
“The new record, I was trying to do something I had never done before,” Snider says, calling the experience somewhat of a musical lark, as he’s been known to do.
You’ll hear the difference in the first 10 seconds of the album, on “Turn me Loose,” with its skittering percussion and roots blues guitar fills, and then again on “The Get Together,” with a funky call-and-response chorus. But there’s also plenty of Snider’s classic perspective and song-forming in “That Great Pacific Garbage Patch” and “Agnostic Preacher’s Lament.”
In the latter song, Snider assumes the role of agnostic preacher talking to maybe-god about the circular pitfalls of being an agnostic preacher—praying to a god that might not exist for guidance on how to mollify a crowd if that god doesn’t exist.
Goes Snider: “Everybody here wants there to be a heaven, or like an after thing and, don’t kill the messenger here, but everybody is also really hoping for this after thing to be better than this thing. Also there’s a lot of people here that none of us can get along with and we don’t want ’em at the after thing. … Mainly though everybody wants to succeed at everything they try, live forever and never die. That’s it in a nutshell really.”
It’s a song, partly, about hope, but with strings attached; hope for one very specific thing to exist, or else hope for guidance on how to explain it doesn’t. It’s a tone you’ll recognize from Snider, albeit with a different rhythm. Given all the shit we’ve eaten, all of us, in unique shapes and sizes, in the last five years, hope feels both precious and a little vain; as in, why is our shit gonna work out and someone else’s isn’t?
Sorting that out isn’t Snider’s intention, and, true to form, he sounds a little agnostic about hope itself.
“I always felt like because I didn’t have kids, I don’t have to care,” Snider says. “I don’t have to be invested in the future of mankind. But I like all the people I know, and they have kids.
“In my whole life, it just always seemed like current events just keep showing up on time,” he jokes. “Hope… sure, I might as well.”
Given that he’ll be by himself and without a band, Snider says many of the songs on the new album don’t translate very well to the shows he’ll be performing on tour this spring. (Snider played a lot of instruments on the record (lead and backup vocals, bass, guitars, banjo, piano, harmonica and more), with help from Robbie Crowell (percussion) and Tchad Blake (electric guitar, piano, metallophone, shaker flute, tuba and more).)
That’s not really a problem. Snider’s notorious for carving setlists based on audience feedback, mining deep into his catalog for what the audience wants to hear in the moment: “That makes for these wild setlists that I couldn’t come up with myself,” Snider says. “It’s always a bunch of different songs. … But yeah, I’ll make a setlist and then usually not use it.”
It’s another way the audience and Snider connect on stage. For all we get out of the experience, Snider says he receives back an ever-evolving appreciation from the community.
“Connecting with a big group of people, there’s something really electric about it,” Snider says. “There’s something I get from it, like a drug. And it changes. It just changes all the time.”
Snider is also planning to release an album in August with tracks recorded from the 76 live performances he had last year. Having completed the latest album, endured that tour, prepping the record for it, and planning to tour this year, Snider says he’ll take a beat next year. Best to catch him now; who knows what’ll happen between now and then?
Todd Snider plays at City Winery Philadelphia on April 8 and at the Sherman Theater in Stroudsburg, PA on April 21. Buy tickets here.