In 1985, a few years before “singer-songwriter” would be permanently affixed to his name, nineteen-year-old Todd Snider showed up in San Marcos, knowing only that he had come to “sing.”
“I was a drifter, the kid that was always on your couch, didn’t have parents with bread and wasn’t going to college,” said Snider, who grew up in Portland. “My friends called me ‘The Load.’”
Snider said he had a life-changing moment not long after arriving in San Marcos: a friend took him to Gruene Hall, a legendary venue in New Braunfels, to see Jerry Jeff Walker, one of the architects of the 1970s “Cosmic Country” movement.
“What he was singing about that night made me feel less like a freeloader and more like a free spirit,” Snider said. “All of a sudden, it felt like the life I was leading had some value. I realized from watching him that taking a life like mine and adding three chords is probably where a song like ‘Mr. Bojangles’ came from. I felt like I had the qualifications to be a songwriter.”
Snider began writing songs the very next day. Twelve albums of biting protest songs, talkin’ blues and rough-around-the-edges rock and country later, it is not unusual for Snider to be mentioned in the same conversations about modern folk singers and troubadours as his four primary influences: Walker, John Prine, Billy Joe Shaver, and Kris Kristofferson. “After I found Jerry Jeff,” Snider said, “I immediately latched on to the ol’ white guy with the acoustic guitar, harmonica and a million miles of hard, ramblin’ stories.”
On April 24, Mr. Snider will celebrate his original muse with the release of Time As We Know It: The Songs of Jerry Jeff Walker. Produced by Don Was (Bob Dylan, The Rolling Stones), the 14-song set was recorded last year in Nashville with the Colorado-based Americana band Great American Taxi and features cameos from Kix Brooks of Brooks and Dunn, Elizabeth Cook, and Amy LaVere.
“We went to the studio and jammed all day every day for four days,” Snider said. “It felt like a very natural way to make a record.”
The group recorded 30 songs, and Snider insists it could have cut 30 more. What made the final cut, Snider said, were not necessarily the biggest hits but the 14 songs that sounded best together. “It was more like making one of my records than a tribute album,” Snider said. “We figured the only way it worked is if we let the words and music dictate that this song and that song could be on an album together.”
The songs on Time As We Know It represent the two distinct phases of Mr. Walker’s career. Mr. Walker, 70, left his childhood home in Oneonta, New York, in 1962 to crisscross the country as a gypsy songwriter, cobbling together a career with stops in Florida (where he would later mentor a young Jimmy Buffett), California, and Louisiana. In 1965, a night in jail in New Orleans for public intoxication yielded Mr. Walker’s signature song, “Mr. Bojangles,” the story of a dancing man and a dead dog that the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band would eventually take to the top reaches of the Billboard charts.
After setting up in Austin in 1972, Walker recorded a string of albums, including the landmark ¡Viva Terlingua!, which marked the turning point where the burgeoning Austin scene transformed from merely long-haired people playing country into a distinct sound that would be interchangeably dubbed “cosmic cowboy,” “gonzo,” “outlaw country,” or “redneck rock.”
“To me, in Act I, he started off as a Ramblin’ Jack Elliott-type gypsy and then turned it into some kind of folkie meets Hunter S. Thompson,” Snider said. “Act II is where that somehow turned into country music. I stole his first act first. Later, I stole the second. I’m currently stealing the third.”
Over the years, Walker has become one of Snider’s closest confidants. The pair sometimes tour together, and Snider was careful to get his blessing before recording his tribute.
Snider said that upon hearing of the tribute, Walker asked about the song choices, interrupted himself and vowed to just wait for a copy of the CD in the mail. “He’ll give me any kind of advice he can think of. He’s my hero.”
He added that years ago, they reached a point in their friendship where Snider whipped Walker in trivia contests about himself. “It was then that I think he knew he had made a friend out of an ex-stalker,” Snider said.
There is perhaps no better evidence that Snider has fully embraced Walker’s follow-your-muse spirit than the fact that Time As We Know It will be released just seven weeks after Snider’s latest full album of original material, Agnostic Hymns & Stoner Fables. The potential for confusion in the marketplace amuses Snider. Would someone not intimately familiar with Walker’s work know the difference between these two new Todd Snider records?
“I’m hoping,” Snider said, “that you could hand the tribute to a guy and have him say, ‘Sounds like Todd Snider wrote the best 14 songs of his career. But haven’t I heard the one about the dog and the old man somewhere?’”
Listen to the entire album here, in advance of its April 24 release: