In song and spirit, Todd Snider is what you call a rambling man. A one-time teenage runaway, he took to music as a way to make hitching rides and crashing couches easier. “If you can play a few songs it seems like you can go a lot of places,” said Snider from the vantage of years and miles. “I like singing but I mostly like the lifestyle, traveling constantly and feeling like part of the night.” For Snider, that lifestyle does not abide keys, watches, cell phones or the routine wearing of shoes.
Snider received his education in troubadour living from legendary mentors Jerry Jeff Walker, John Prine and Guy Clark. “Guy Clark laid out the rules: no pandering, no begging, if it’s not about chasing the muse, then you’re embarrassing us. I once asked a crowd how they were doing and he invited me out to his house to tell me to knock it off.”
Snider is a prolific songwriter who draws from the personal, the political and points between. “The first thing is getting the nerve to get your heart open and show everyone what’s in there. It can be embarrassing, but I tell myself that not all the songs have to be good, and that makes it easier,” said Snider, who views songs as a sacred necessity. “They’re three-minute distractions from our doom.”
Snider’s latest batch of doom distractors is the “The Cash Cabin Sessions, Vol. 3.” The album was recorded in and named for the storied log cabin studio built by Johnny Cash. A series of dream visitations from Cash, who died in the cabin, convinced Snider to record there. The experience proved profound. “That cabin is electric. No one’s ever made any music in there for any other reason than the love of it.” The love is evident and Snider, who played all instruments on the record, braids humor and heart in songs that conjure ghosts and dress down the state of the union.
Snider is equal parts storyteller and songwriter. His live performances include anecdotes from his trials and travels: his failed attempts at jockdom, getting swindled by a NASCAR impersonator, admiring Slash’s belly chain and being saved from the brink by a banana. Snider spun some of these yarns into his 2014 book, the riot of a read, “I Never Met A Story I Didn’t Like: Mostly True Tales.” For Snider, the primary benefit of publication is the legitimacy it affords him when making small talk on airplanes. “If I say to people that I’m a folk singer, they look at me side-eyed, but when I say I’m an author they think I went to school. I can wear elbow patches on a sport coat and come off like an intellectual. Only for strangers, though.”
Pre-authordom and elbow patches, Snider came south to Key West as a guest of another of his mentors, and the island’s most famous ambassador, Jimmy Buffett. “That’s my main brag, I went down there with him. I got to hear all the legends about Louie’s Backyard. I know a couple stories I can’t tell,” he said, laughing. One story suitable for publication involves Hunter S. Thompson driving his speedboat into Buffett’s front yard. Snider was signed for a time to Buffett’s Margaritaville record label. “When I finished my second record Jimmy gave me the keys to his house in Key West. He’s got a song called ‘Gypsies In the Palace’ and we were. My band came down and we all just roared.” For Snider, Key West remains as fine a town as any for a wayward musician. “If you are a rapscallion or a busker type person, the troubadour capital of America is Key West. Driving down Duval, there are 12 jobs on one street every single night. What paradise. If someone’s living down there, you don’t ask them why.”
Snider brought his brand of busking to the island in 2016 with a pair of sold-out shows at The Studios of Key West and COAST Stock Island. In a tip of his hat to Buffett, Snider concluded the show with a rendition of “God’s Own Drunk.”
These days, Snider hangs that hat in his lakeside home in Tennessee. The bucolic setting has calmed, if not cured, his wild ways. “Every time a car pulls up and says ‘get in,’ I don’t. I used to. I just got tired.” He has taken to flower gardening, his old hitchhiking thumbs turning green. “I stuck flowers I liked in the ground. I still don’t know their names, but I’m good. I play music for them.” Snider moved lakeside following his divorce a few years ago. January finds him one month shy of his final alimony payment. “I’m working on a song about it. It’s called ‘Starting Now, It’s Over.’ Think of all the expensive fertilizer I can buy now,” he deadpans.
As fortifying as flower gardening and lake gazing can be, too much time at home makes Snider lonesome for the road. “I get restless after awhile and start chain smoking weed and waiting for the bus.” After 30-some years of traveling and playing, there’s no retiring the ramble and no place like the next stop. “I don’t have a goal. I’m just out there for the free weed and the good times. I’m just happy to be somewhere.”
Hear Todd Snider when Key West becomes that somewhere at 8 p.m. on Tuesday, Jan. 21 at the Key West Theater.