Country Music

Fueled by the Ghost of Johnny Cash and LSD: Todd Snider Returns to his Talking Blues and Houston Roots

Todd Snider will bring his talking blues to Houston's Heights Theater.
Todd Snider will bring his talking blues to Houston's Heights Theater. Photo By Stacie Huckeba
In the grand tradition of talking blues artists, Todd Snider brings the ridiculousness of life and current events front and center forcing listeners to take a look around. “If I had to really hone in on a religion, I’d say I’m an absurdist, and that would be my political party too.”

In his latest album, Cash Cabin Session Vol 3, Snider returns to his talking blues roots after years of recording more rock fused albums and playing in his group Hard Working Americans, alongside jammers Neal Casal and Dave Schools. The singer is clearly in his element and this album carries the same smart, funny story telling style of his live shows.

Cash Cabin Sessions is a collection of songs recorded in a place full of songwriter spirits, Johnny Cash’s cabin in Henderson Tennessee. The cabin itself was built by Cash in 1978 and used to record his American Recordings album with Rick Rubin. His son, John Carter Cash, has turned the cabin into a studio space for special artists to use.

When Cash’s friend, Loretta Lynn used the cabin to record Full Circle, she asked Snider to come along. After working out there Snider was haunted by a reoccurring dream, “I had this dream that I woke up there, Johnny Cash was standing there and he had kicked me to wake up and I was asleep on the floor. I had it a few times and I was taking a lot of acid at the time.” In one version of the dream Cash pointed to a specific corner of the studio and warned Snider that he was “missing it.”

Snider reported this dream to his good pal and band mate, Dave Schools who encouraged him to pursue a deeper meaning behind it. “Both of us are like looking for songs or the slightest jive ass reason to play music so we got ourselves convinced that the band had to go out there and trip and see what the dream meant.”

They went on to include all of the Hard Working Americans in their trips to the cabin and recording the never released Cash Cabin Sessions Vol. 2 there. Feeling as though not enough had come of their exploration, Snider returned to the cabin on his own. “I went back there by myself because I was already moving on. I knew after that that I was moving on to a folk phase and I really wanted to take what I learned from my band to my day job.”

Snider and John Carter further explored the corner that Cash had pointed out to him in a dream. Snider describes the scene, “For no fucking good reason at all we go over to the corner where he was pointing to see what we could find. We still go over there and look around sometimes, we didn’t really find anything but he said to me, ‘Do you think this place is haunted?’”

From that conversation came the song "The Ghost of Johnny Cash" which describes verbatim the experience of Loretta Lynn being visited by the ghost of Johnny Cash while working in the cabin as told by Cash’s son. The song drives home the deep roots of the cabin and Snider’s songwriting community in Nashville.

The song “Talking Reality Television Blues” pokes fun at the all too familiar reality of our current celebrity obsessed culture revolving around the television. “That’s the thing that blew up in America. We always think it was Sonny and Cher or something, no it was that fucking box and it’s had its course.” The video, which ironically we will watch on our computer or phone screens, features a cartoon version of Snider telling the story of how we got to where we are today.

With his recent album the singer has kicked off an almost two-year long solo tour, featuring a Houston stop at the Heights Theater. In the past Snider has occupied Main Street Crossing in Tomball for a multi night event which sells out quickly. This upcoming stop will be the first time in a few years that fans can catch him in town. Describing the venue and city block to Snider he says, “Far out! We call that ‘something to do street’, I haven’t found that in Houston. I think I found something to do street!”

For anyone who has ever caught Snider’s live shows, they know they come chock full of sarcasm and good spirits. No matter how much of a household name he has become in the Americana scene, Snider always gives off the vibe of a barefoot subway busker just enjoying the ride and sharing his stories for anyone who wants to listen.  “I love songs and I love music, but the lifestyle, I love. I’ve heard people say ‘I’m paid to travel and I sing for free’ and I do both for free. The chaos of the tour is more addictive than anything I’ve ever done.” says Snider.

“I love songs and I love music, but the lifestyle, I love. I’ve heard people say ‘I’m paid to travel and I sing for free’ and I do both for free. The chaos of the tour is more addictive than anything I’ve ever done.”

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Discussing the talking blues history and artists with Snider inevitably led us up and down all paths leading to Ramblin Jack Elliott. “I think of him as the living heir to the guy that invented the job that a ton of people do.”  Snider and Elliot have grown from mentor and pupil to friends. The 87 year old will even join Snider for a few dates on this never ending tour. “He has been a really good friend to me for a long, long time and he is like the dad of a larger family of people.” says Snider.

Snider grew up in the more hippie friendly city of Portland and when his family decided to move to Houston during his teenage years, the singer quickly made up his mind that Houston was not his scene. “I hung around the high school in the summer, met some kids and thought, ‘I’m going to get my ass kicked here.’ An Oregonian is kinda effeminate in that culture.” says Snider.

It was only later that he realized that he had totally misinterpreted Texas culture, “I never could have seen that all these big, puffed up dudes that are just chewing footballs for breakfast are not gonna kill me. I found out later in Texas is the only place in the world where those guys just get into music, they hear it and then cry and they just line up to see Hayes Carll. They don’t do that anywhere else.”

Todd Snider will be performing with Elizabeth Cook, May 19 at the Heights Theater, 339 W. 19th, doors at 7 p.m. $32, Sold Out
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Gladys Fuentes is a first generation Houstonian whose obsession with music began with being glued to KLDE oldies on the radio as a young girl. She is a freelance music writer for the Houston Press, contributing articles since early 2017.
Contact: Gladys Fuentes