interview by Melissa Clarke, photos at OKC’s Tower Theatre by David Nowels
Todd Snider is set to release his Cash Cabin Vol. 3 (Aimless Records) at the end of this week. We had a fantastic chat with Todd about what prompted that recording, and some of his thoughts on the songs, Richard Lewis, Jason Isbell, Amanda Shires, Loretta Lynn, Johnny Cash, John Carter Cash, and being on tour with his sidekick pooch.
AH: You’ve said that the Cash Cabin Sessions started out as a recurring dream. Do you often have recurring dreams?
TS: Actually I keep having one right now where I am in Europe and I can’t quite get home. But I don’t dream a whole lot, so this was really special.
AH: What were the dreams that inspired this album?
TS: I had about 4 dreams, where in every one I would almost feel like I was waking up and seeing Johnny Cash. And then in the final one, he pointed and said: “ You’re missing it.” And that’s what made me go to the cabin.
And my first thought was that there might be a song, because that’s really all I do. And I guess that’s what came of it.
When I was young I didn’t need songs, but now I do. I guess I can just keep playing the old ones, and, I have enough to do a show, but, I don’t know why, I crave the songs now. If it smells like one, I just go chasing it.
AH: The centerpiece of this experience is your song “The Ghost of Johnny Cash,” where you mention Loretta Lynn dancing with the ghost of Johnny Cash. You’ve covered “Welfare Music,” by the Bottle Rockets, which references Loretta Lynn, and you’ve worked with her, doing duets over the years, how large does Loretta Lynn loom as an icon in your eyes?
TS: I wish she would go out with me but she thinks I’m too young. She did kiss me one time, and I’m not joking. I made up songs with her. She’s incredibly pretty. And funny. And then I got to go see her when she recorded one of the songs, and that was the way I first got to go to the cabin. John Carter Cash was the producer, and I had met John Carter at Awards ceremonies before but that was the first time we got to hang out and talk, when I was working there at Cash Cabin with Loretta.
Once I went to see the Cash Cabin — and it was a little bit overwhelming, the musicians were all famous too — after that is when I started having that dream. And then, I was with the Hard Working Americans, we went and spent the night out there, and we had what we called “stock water,” like electric Kool-Aid, and we were all trying to figure out what it all meant, life and everything. And that night I came up with the melody and one of the lines in the song called “Just Like Overnight.”
We worked on that song that night, and then later on John Carter came over and I was telling him the story of the dreams, and he asked me if I thought the place was haunted.
I said “I’m not really a ‘haunted’ person, but I’m not against it.” And then he told me the story about one night about 3 am he looked out the window and saw Loretta dancing around by herself.
AH: So Loretta Lynn was dancing at night outside the Cash Cabin? Really?
TS: Yes, she’s done that a bunch. She does that. That’s what she’s like. And he said she was outside, spinning around, and then she said: “I was out there dancing with your Dad,” to John Carter. That’s what she told him. It seems almost too cosmic to think about this. But we were over in the corner from my dream. In the dream, Johnny Cash had pointed over to this particular corner when he said “you’re missing it.” So we went over to the corner to look and see if there was anything there, and I told John Carter that story, when we were over in that corner looking around for whatever it might have been. And that’s when he told me the story about Loretta dancing out there. Right out that window.
So I went over into that corner, to look for whatever it was, and that’s where John Carter told me that story, and that’s where I got the song.
He told me that story, and I said there’s a song there, and he said right then: “yeah “The Ghost of Johnny Cash.”” I started working on it and I would check back in from time to time. We’ve become really good friends; that is the only song on that album I wrote with somebody else. He’s a good cat.
AH: The songs are so pretty and gentle, and on this album you play the banjo, and prior to this you have been doing rock music with the Hard Working Americans. What’s it like switching back and forth, between the styles?
TS: Thank you for noticing I played the banjo.
I have always gone back and forth, I really like hard rock and I really like folk. There is a really hard rock version of “The Ghost of Johnny Cash.”
AH: Does the reference to “Volume 3” in the album’s title Cash Cabin Sessions Vol. 3 mean that there are prequels?
TS: Yes we recorded three sessions at Cash Cabin. We recorded one version of the songs with the Hardworking Americans, and another as poetry. I am not sure what is going to come of those other recordings yet, but they exist.
AH: In “The Blues on Banjo“ you refer to “paper clip operations” what is that about?
TS: If you look up “Operation Paperclip” you will see there was a time after WWII, where a lot of Nazi scientists who disappeared and they reappeared in Florida. And they reappeared as NASA.
AH: What? Really?
TS: Yeah! (laughs) I tried to hide a few things that people might want to go and look up. I’m glad you noticed that one. You’ll have to look it up for the rest of the story.
AH: In “The Blues on Banjo” you have a “Zippety-do-dah Motherf-ckers” and “you come to the Richard Lewis-like conclusion that there was absolutely no hope whatsoever.“ What’s your connection to Richard Lewis?
TS: I am a fan, and we’re friends. He’ll call and we have really long conversations, he’s a hero to me. He knows a lot about music. I’ve learned a lot about music from him. I don’t know if he’s going to like being in the song or not.
AH: Oh okay!
TS: Oh I’m kidding, he knows he’s in that song. I was thinking he might read this and laugh because he knows.
AH: In “The Blues on Banjo” you have another line: “We mistake desperate people for the devil all the time.” is a line that really rings true. It’s just so completely true.
TS: Thank you. A lot of people when they are desperate they do desperate things, then they do things that don’t end up coming off like they are themselves. That’s if you want to look at things in a forgiving sort of way.
That song is an example of the way that sometimes I’ll make a couple songs in one; because if feels like one topic might be too much for a whole song.
Like there’s this song about the blues, and I was also thinking I had poems about guns, and in this other one I had one about the television that was combined with the talking blues. So I mashed a couple things together.
John Prine said one time, when he was talking about the Missing Years, that sometimes you get so “on subject” that you just have to change it. I didn’t want to all of a sudden have a chorus about how guns are bad.
AH: You have two songs on your album that are about really current events. “A Timeless Response to Current Events,” where you call out “some bullshit,” and “Talking Reality Television Blues,” which is a history of tv, video, leading up to the fact that “reality was killed by a reality star.”
TS: It’s an interesting time to be alive, I think. If I was going to comment really on our president, I would say that our system is built to withstand anyone. And then I also would say all entertainers are strippers to a degree, but it’s easier to say this. My favorite current artist right now is Colin Kaepernick and I think his version of the National Anthem is probably the most important song in the last couple decades. And that would be my way of talking about the President.
AH: You had “Talking Seattle Grunge Rock Blues” and now you have “Talking Reality Television Blues” where you do a philosophical meta analysis about songwriting itself.
TS: That song comes out before the rest of the album. The first talking blues song came out in 1926 by Christopher Bouchillon and it was called “The Talking Blues,” and then there was Woody Guthrie. It’s the deal where you rhyme two lines and then you can do whatever. I’ve only recorded a couple of them but I’ve written more and I’ve done them a ton.
AH: Jason Isbell in on a track “Like a Force of Nature” what’s it like working with him?
TS: I consider him the top songwriter right now, and I really enjoy watching him and Amanda Shires. I feel like they have changed our town for the better in a big broad way for me and for everybody else. And it’s been particularly fun because when I met them he was just about to make Southeastern. It was a real honor to get to hear those songs before everyone else did and I felt like I was in on something special. And then to have that be proven was great.
AH: And then you presided over their wedding! Is this a second calling for you?
TS: I would do gay weddings in the future. And I would do it again if it were for somebody I was as close to as them. Those two are so incredibly talented, she is a talented songwriter too. I could see getting them to produce me someday. They both came over and there was another version of the song “Like a Force of Nature” that was produced by Jason that will probably come out soon.
AH: I want to ask you about your dog onstage?
TS: Yeah he comes on the road a lot. And if he’s on the road, he tends to wander out there. Maybe not right at the beginning. But we don’t get very far from each other. So usually he can see me. And then he doesn’t mind the crowd. He gets a little “Jagger-y” sometimes, he gets out there and works the front. One time somebody gave him a bone or something and he looked at me like “oh, I get it now!” He just stays with me. I can walk down the streets of Manhattan with that guy off a leash and he won’t go anywhere. I didn’t train him either, that’s just his style. He’s a good friend, man, he’s sleeping right next to me right now.
AH: Thank you so much for talking with me.
TS: Thank you for letting me say those things.
Check out Todd Snider tour dates and grab the album immediately.