Todd Snider preaches “I Don’t Know” is a correct answer on First Agnostic Church of Hope and Wonder
Drop the needle on Todd Snider’s new album, First Agnostic Church of Hope and Wonder, and over an unexpected funky backbeat the words, “Put your foot on the rock and push it till the good times roll,” is the first thing you’ll hear. It’s hard to think of a more appropriate statement of purpose after a year of freefall through an ocean of sorrow and absurdity where it often felt our country and civilization were going down for the third time.
While it’s a well-worn cliché that hitting bottom means you can push for the surface, Snider’s made a career of subverting clichés, and sometimes there’s profoundness hidden in the trite, and wisdom in the profane. That’s a position Snider’s staked out in his songs, an ever-present philosophy maintained through one of the strangest years of his (and everyone’s) life.
“It was the longest I’ve been home in about 30 years,” Snider says reflecting on the past 12 months spent as a stuck-at-home troubadour. “This is the first time I’ve ever got to see the same tree go through the cycle of a year. I made up songs a little faster because I didn’t have anything else to do. It’s driving me crazy, but making the record was really fun.”
Cutting a new album wasn’t the only fun Snider’s enjoyed. When the lockdown hit in March of last year, Snider’s primary residence — the road — closed for the duration. With the kibosh on in-person live performances, he quickly formulated a new kind of gig — a weekly livestream from his favorite East Side stomping ground, the Purple Building.
“We did the show on Sunday mornings just because I thought that’s when I’d be perfectly stoned and want to do it,” Snider says. “But once it got started, it was great. What a great wake and bake thing to do.”
Even with the weekly shows, Snider found more free time on his hands. Searching for other paths to explore, he began searching for a new sound.
“I’ve never been someone who tried to make a new sound,” Snider says. “I was just trying to be a folk singer. I only started to get interested in it as I got older. If a 54-year-old guy comes up with an original sound in rock ’n’ roll it doesn’t matter, but why not try, if I feel like it?
“I’d been studying funk,” Snider continues. “I was doing research, watching YouTube videos on funk drummers — [Clyde] Stubblefield and another guy, [Benard] Purdie. They invented this style called ‘fatback.’ I asked a ton of drummers if they knew fatback and they’d be like, ‘Is that a band?’ I knew Robbie Crowell. He played saxophone in [Snider’s band] Eastside Bulldogs, but I also knew he was a multi-instrumentalist and drummer. When I asked him what he knew about fatback, he said, ‘That’s the first thing I played. My first band did the James Brown thing.’”
With Crowell as a collaborator, Snider began developing a sound he describes as “funk in the back and busking up front.” As Snider explains, “I told Robbie I wanted to lay down some rhythm tracks and everything about them was gonna scream, ‘Get horns!’ but we’re not gonna. We’re gonna get a banjo. And I was going to have girls to sing [the backup vocals], but I did a fake vocal track to show the girls what I wanted them to do, and I don’t know if I just hit the right bong or what, but it was the funniest thing ever, so I said, ‘Fuck it, I’m the girls!’”
Recorded at The Big Purple Building in East Nashville, which had recently undergone a transformation from an off-and-on live venue to recording studio and rehearsal space, the majority of the songs began with a rhythm track, using classic funk beats as a foundation, as was the case with the album opener “Turn me Loose (I’ll Never Be the Same).”
“The beat came from a James Brown song,” Snider says. “We would spend all day working on the drum part, then I would start putting the melody over it and it would change it until you don’t recognize what you’re stealing anymore.”
Snider’s vision of folk-funk wasn’t the only new aspect of the album. His weekly musical pulpit opened the door to a style of song narrative Snider never felt comfortable with before, as well as a unifying theme.
“It was about a month into doing the shows, and I just loved them,” Snider says. “Everyone was calling it ‘church’ because it was on Sunday and they started calling me ‘The Reverend,’ and I am a Reverend.” [Snider was ordained in 2013 to preside over Amanda Shire and Jason Isbell’s wedding].
“Me and Neal Casal [guitarist for Snider’s side project band, Hard Working Americans] had a running joke where anytime a song would come on the radio on the bus that said, ‘You’ve got to …’ or ‘C’mon on and …’ or ‘You’ve got to know when to hold ’em …’ Neal would say, ‘No I don’t. I do not need to know when to hold them. Stop bossing me around.’ So I thought, well I’m a preacher now. This opens me up to [writing bossy songs], topics I haven’t been able to touch before because no reasonable person would come to me for advice about anything. People’s reaction would have been like, ‘Who gives a shit. You know three chords and smoke more dope than anybody I know!’”
The license to “boss” his listeners around led in many different directions from exhortations to enjoy life with a simple purpose in “Turn me Loose (I’ll Never Be the Same),” admonitions against the pitfalls of searching for, rather than living with, meaning in “The Get Together” and “Never Let a Day Go By,” and alter calls to exchange apathy for action in “That Great Pacific Garbage Patch” and “Battle Hymn of the Album.” All delivered with the usual Todd Snider mixture of bravado, wit, and stoner wisdom.
The spiritual heart of the album lies in two songs: Snider’s tribute to his late friend Jeff Austin, “Sail On, My Friend,” written before the arrival of the coronavirus, and “Handsome John,” a truly reverent testament to the late John Prine, an early casualty of a pandemic writ large by willful apathy and ignorance.
Snider’s friendship with Prine began in 1990 when Snider, in his mid-20s, was living in Memphis and landed the enviable position of being a chauffeur to the already legendary singer-songwriter. “I met him and he came to one of my shows a day later,” Snider says. “He was making demos in Memphis for the Missing Years [album] and I drove him around town. He was kind to me, but I’d see he was that way to everybody.”
While “Handsome John” is a specific tribute to Prine — name-checking Prine songs and incidents from his life — it’s also a beautiful, universal celebration of a life lived with dignity and kindness. As Snider explains, it was largely drawn from his memories of the last time he saw Prine perform.
For much of his career, Prine would end his shows with his trademark song, “Paradise,” set his guitar down, and walk off stage. For his 2018 tour, he put together a new show, ending his performances with the song “Lake Marie” from his 1995 album, Lost Dogs and Mixed Blessings, which ends with the quote “We gotta go now” from the frat-rock classic, “Louie, Louie.”
“He was a poet through and through,” Snider says. “His shows were like mini-movies. [That last show] he set his guitar down on the ground and started doing this little dance around it that turned into the most profound thing I ever saw. Young people dance for different reasons than old people do, and he illuminated that without saying a fucking word. He danced like it was the last thing he’d ever do. I was crying and laughing the whole time he was doing it. I don’t think he knew he was going to get corona, but I definitely think he knew he was getting to the end.”
While “Handsome John” and “Sail On, My Friend” provide notes of grace for the album, the record’s closing trilogy — “Stoner Yodel Number One,” “Agnostic Preacher’s Lament,” and “The Resignation vs The Comeback Special” drive home the unifying concept of an end-times service with the Right Reverend of the First Agnostic Church of Hope and Wonder.
“I got into this thing where I was this bullshit preacher, and I wrote the last three songs [to fit that theme],” Snider says. “‘The Stoner Yodel Number One’ was him passing the basket. ‘Agnostic Preacher’s Lament’ was him confessing that his whole church thing was a load of shit but he wants to get away with it. And then the very last song God has told him to do this Donald Trump thing and storm off, and it works — proving that God is hilarious.”
It’s tempting to say that Snider’s vision of grift and grace is a darkly cynical view of the world, but of course, we live in a time where pussy-grabbin’ leches are re-cast as heavenly warriors, hurricanes change paths with the stroke of a sharpie, and the reality you inhabit is determined by which YouTube channel you stare into. It truly is an age of miracles, or perhaps just cosmic practical jokes. After all, being in on the joke doesn’t make the pie in the face any less painful, but it does help your attitude after the splat.
As for Snider, the tonic for human struggle is always in the heart, as he says in a line from “Turn Me Loose (I’ll Never Be the Same)”:
“I won’t be moved by more than sorrow or settle for less than love.”
“The thing that’s crazy to me are the three questions everybody asks: ‘Where do we come from? Where are we going?’ and ‘What are we supposed to be doing?’” A worthy pondering from a man who finally witnessed the same tree go through the cycle of a year. “Those three questions have a totally correct answer — ‘I don’t know.’ But man! The lengths people will go to, the clothes they will wear, the rituals they get excited about just because they don’t have another answer to those three fuckin’ questions.”