Wading into post-reality with Todd Snider
Todd Snider has been thinking a little bit about television lately. The Tennessee-based singer-songwriter and famed storyteller is known for singing about, among other things, beer runs, overzealous police, the music of other singers, living on the road, the embarrassing futility of chasing trends, the thrill of excess, and the general absurdity of the way life unfolds these days. Snider is a folky-entertainer-stoner-troubadour. He makes it look like he’s a babbling baked dude with an acoustic guitar and a harmonica, rambling off the cuff. But there’s a lot of pondering that goes into his routine.
Snider just released a new record, The Cash Cabin Sessions Vol. 3, which is, in fact, the first volume of a batch of recordings he made at Johnny Cash’s rustic studio site outside of Nashville. The record, his 18th since 1994, features guest appearances by artists like Jason Isbell and Amanda Shires. It’s part of Snider’s ongoing toggling between projects that draw on a freeform jam-band aesthetic or a rowdy bar-band vibe, and then back to the folk-singer routine that is Snider’s default setting. Snider, who plays a solo show at the Ramkat in Winston-Salem this week, is definitely back in folk-mode here. He’s tapped into a spirit of protest and outrage that’s nicely leavened by his wit and sense of the ridiculous.
I spoke with Snider by phone from New York City last week where he was scheduled to play a show. One of the first singles from the new record, a song called “Talking Reality Television Blues,” is a perfect Snider-ian blend of word-crammed insight, far-out perspective and comedy. It’s a classic talking blues, in the fashion of Woody Guthrie and Bob Dylan, but it races through the history of television and our obsession with it. The song, which swirls together Milton Berle, Michael Jackson, MTV’s The Real World, alternative facts and Donald Trump (“an old man with a comb-over”), is about how reality T.V. has essentially colonized reality. The formulation goes something like this: if video killed the radio star, then reality T.V. killed reality. It’s a grim equation, one that suggests we’re living in some flickering post-real zombie-world afterlife.
In our conversation, I mention to Snider, 52, that he seems to have a view that everything has gone to hell and fallen to pieces, but at the same time many of his songs suggest that this is how the world has always stumbled along, not quite making any sense, but not quite imploding either. Snider makes a T.V. metaphor in response: “It’s like there are two specific shows that come on, and I watch both of them,” he said.
It takes me a second to realize that he’s not talking about actual television shows, just about different ways of framing the story of what’s going on around us.
Television pops up briefly in another song on the new record. The song, “Just Like Overnight,” is a wistful rumination on the double nature of time — about how things seem to both take forever, to never change, and then also, conversely, to completely get transformed in the blink of an eye.
“Hell, I remember when you used to have to walk all the way over just to turn the channel on that goddamn T.V.,” goes one line. The song is more nostalgic-sad than cranky, on the whole, but Snider describes his current mindset with another T.V. reference.
“I am definitely moving into a Fred Sanford phase,” Snider said. (If you’re under 35, look it up.)
Another track on the new album, a song called “The Blues on Banjo,” is a raw skeletal country blues played on banjo, with Snider howling out a swooping word-drunk paranoid rant about profiteering by the military-industrial complex. It’s seemingly bleak, with a bit about how easy it is to see that there’s little hope for any portion of our civilization, and then Snider and his vocal guests transform the tune into a jubilant gospel-tinged shout about how politicians, devoid of any ideas, are “sending out their thoughts and their prayers” in response to gun violence.
Elsewhere Snider points to greed and the profit motive as being at the heart of our current troubles. “If peace paid, we’d have it made by now,” he sings on “Framed.”
The Cash Cabin Sessions Vol. 3 also includes a few songs about music-makers, singers, Nashville characters, and people trying to make sense of celebrity culture. It’s classic Snider terrain. One song involves a dream about Loretta Lynn dancing with Johnny Cash. Another is an ode to Cowboy Jack Clement. Another is about a guy who was one of Elvis’s roadies.
The state of the world and the country seem to be weighing on Snider. His inclination is to chuckle and shake his head about hypocrisy, stupidity and heartlessness. But sometimes there’s strong venom underneath Snider’s glassy-eyed good nature.
“When you allow some good men to die for your freedom, only later to recall them as having fought for your flag … that’s some bullshit,” he sings on “A Timeless Response to Current Events.”
His comedic bent and his slightly apocalyptic perspective come from the same place.
“Humor always felt like a natural part of doom to me — especially chaos and loss,” Snider said.
John Adamian lives in Winston-Salem, and his writing has appeared in Wired, The Believer, Relix, Arthur, Modern Farmer, the Hartford Courant and numerous other publications.
See Todd Snider at the Ramkat, 170 W. 9th St., Winston-Salem, on Saturday, March 23, 336-754-9714 or theramkat.com