Todd Snider on Returning to the Devil’s Backbone Tavern, Cash Cabin Vol. III, and Life Imitating Jerry Jeff Walker
The singer will return to his old Hill Country haunt for shows on February 13th, 14th, and 15th; Photo by Dave Nowels
Like a Todd Snider song, Todd Snider in conversation can slip effortlessly between being sad and funny. He can inject the F-word in just the right form to make you belly laugh while he’s describing a tragic event. Just as easily, he can sigh in the middle of the punchline to remind you the funny story he’s telling today at one point had a very real struggle behind it.
“I’m ninety-eight percent Irie Ites, two percent Liza Minelli turd,” he tells me, this time making himself laugh. He’s invoked the Rastafarian term for positivity while pondering whether he’s managed to heed the advice given to him decades ago by a bartender in the Texas Hill Country.
The Bartender’s name was Miss Vergie, and she worked behind the bar at the Devil’s Backbone Tavern, a roadside beer joint in the shrubby ranch land southwest of Austin. “Life’s too short to worry,” she told him. “Life’s too long to wait.” They’re words Snider immortalized in the sing-along chorus of “The Ballad of the Devil’s Backbone Tavern” from his 2000 album Happy to Be Here.
It’s all part of a story most of Snider’s fans know well. After high school, Todd found himself bumming on a couch in San Marcos, Texas. There, he was introduced to the music of Jerry Jeff Walker and instantly connected with Walker’s troubadour lifestyle. He learned to play a little bit of guitar, started writing, and before long was performing on Friday nights in the corner at the Devil’s Backbone while Miss Vergie poured him free beers.
This month, Todd will return to the Devil’s Backbone Tavern for the first time in over 30 years to perform three shows on Valentine’s Day weekend with his long-time friend Jack Ingram. Todd speaks with me over the phone about his pending return to his old stomping grounds and his 2019 album Cash Cabin Vol. III from the road in Georgia. He’s in a parking lot he’s acutely aware he’s been in before.
“(Yesterday) I was walking through the parking lot of this hotel and I could see my dog,” Todd remembers. “I’ve run through this parking lot with my dog – ten times, probably.” He also recalls an argument he had in this spot with a friend, and a time long ago when his band got rowdy here.
Todd calls the memories he’s left imprinted on the place “ghosts,” and in the case of his dog, the ghost is especially fresh. His dog Cowboy Jim died in January after a lifetime spent on the road earning adoration for his appearances on-stage, where he’d frequently nap at his master’s bare feet. He had undergone lengthy treatment for Leukemia, showing a puppy-like spirit until the very end. Todd is grateful that the end of his life was happy.
“He had a great life and the end of it was good,” he told me. “He died with his girlfriend Scout. He adored her and bragged about her constantly, so I’m glad that he was with her.”
He notes how once again, life seems to imitate Jerry Jeff Walker. “It’s funny that my favorite song is Mr. Bojangles, then my dog ended up traveling with me, then he died, and now I’m gonna have to grieve for 20 years.” After a moment of mental math, he checks himself. “I mean, if I lived another 20 I’d grieve another 20. I wouldn’t put any money on that.”
Cowboy Jim onstage with Todd Snider, Fort Smith AR. December 6 2019. Photo Credit: Michael Boothillier
“I don’t have any point I’m making.”
With his mention of mortality, I ask about some lyrics he wrote for Hard Working Americans, his jam band that released studio albums in 2014 and 2016. “Ascending into Madness,” from 2016’s Rest in Chaos has fascinated me since I first heard it performed live in Santa Cruz about 5 years ago. It opens with the line “I’ve come down here one last time, a few times,” and I ask if he wrote the song in a time when he thought the end may be near. But he corrects me and says it actually represents letting go of his old attitude as a lyricist.
“I was singing about keeping singing. Like, Here I’m gonna sing my song again, but for what reason? There’s no discernible reason,” he says, then elaborates. “(It’s about) ending the desire to make sense of things. I don’t have any desire to be understood. I don’t have a point I’m making. I’m singing because I can’t think of a single other thing to do, and it’s the funnest thing.”
Todd On Stage with the Hard Working Americans. San Francisco, January 21 2014
The new attitude is clearly one that Todd carried into writing his 2019 release, Cash Cabin Vol. III. It’s an album in which he explores current events not by putting his toes in the water so much as by running in the pool area.
Compared to his old topical staples like “Ballad of the Kingsmen” or “Conservative Christian, Right-Wing Republican, Straight White American Males,” Todd’s opinions on Cash Cabin are fairly coded. In “Talking Reality Television Blues,” the closest he comes to firing shots directly at Donald Trump is calling him an old man with a combover. And “A Timeless Response to Current Events,” is more Gil Scott Heron than Woody Guthrie. That’s not to say that Todd has abandoned commentary, but it does seem he’s developed a preference for making his targets dance by shooting at their feet.
Despite his best efforts, his lyrics are as richly layered as ever. I ask him what he thinks makes a quintessential Todd Snider lyric and he ponders for a moment.
“Gosh, I don’t know,” he says, laughing shyly with a hint of flattery. “It goes back to that thing that I call sort of Cosmic. It’s why I like LSD. Because It feels like – there’s dicking around and there’s knowing.”
On “Like a Force of Nature,” Todd revisits a topic that’s recurred in his songwriting, saying “may your hope always outweigh your doubt.” He’s written about hope and doubt before on songs like “Statisticians Blues” (2002) and “Big Finish” (2012). I ask why this theme seems to keep coming up.
“I noticed that once or twice I’ve gone at those two things, and they do sort of go hand in hand,” he observes. “I try to avoid hope. Doubt doesn’t scare me. But hope – I always think, don’t get caught up in this.” It’s a sentiment he reiterates again on “The Blues on Banjo,” in which he describes sounding hopeful about tomorrow as “embarrassing”.
“Margaritaville is going nowhere.”
Todd says that one of his goals on the road lately has been digging into his back catalog and working some lesser-played songs into his setlists. Inspired by his time spent in a jam band, he wants more variation from one show to the next. But he admits it’s a struggle to relearn and retain some of the deeper cuts.
“There’s one called Brenda. I don’t know how I (wrote) it to begin with. I wouldn’t even know where to start,” he says and laughs at the nuances of his own brain. “Margaritaville is going nowhere. A Pirate Looks at 40? Nowhere. All Jerry Jeff Walker songs? None of them are gonna scoot over for my songs.”
The part about Jerry Jeff Walker is no exaggeration. Snider is a true encyclopedia of Walker knowledge. In fact, Todd claims to have beaten Jerry Jeff in trivia about him on several occasions. In 2012 he released Time as We Know It, a tribute album to his hero, and “Mr. Bojangles” has a regular home in Todd’s setlist.
His deep sense of connection to Jerry Jeff and the importance of Texas in his development as an artist might be among reasons why Todd’s shows in the state often have the air of homecoming shows, and his fans are banking that his pending return to the Devil’s Backbone Tavern will be no exception. Plans for pre-show tailgates and barbeques near the venue began forming on social media the day the Backbone dates were announced, and I’ve spoken with people flying in for the weekend from places like Tennesse, California, and Washington.
Todd says he expects to feel nostalgia as he takes the stage at the Devil’s Backbone Tavern, and he won’t try to fight the feeling. He hopes a few old friends from his original days will join him for the weekend. If nothing else, he’ll likely see a lot of ghosts as he makes his way from his tour bus into the small bar. They’re memories he’s left imprinted of himself, of friends come and gone, and possibly of a grinning old bartender singing along to his songs.
“I don’t mind those ghosts. I like ‘em. I wanted them when I was young.”
Photo of a photo by Ian Wade. Original photographer unknown.
Todd Snider will play at the Devil’s Backbone Tavern February 14th – 16th