Rising every Sunday from his home in East Nashville, Todd Snider dresses and ambles over to his Purple Building Studio. He doesn’t bother locking his door on the way out, partly due to his trust in the neighborhood and partly due to his general apathy toward corporeal possessions.
“I wouldn’t expect for somebody to come crashing in the door and if they did, they can have my shit,” Snider said by phone one afternoon. “I’ll help them get it out of here. And they can shoot me if they don’t want a witness. I’ve had a good run. Fuck it.”
Snider’s “good run” has stretched over a quarter of a century and to opposite ends of the United States. From humble beginnings in Beaverton, OR, his career trajectory reads like a road map of a cross-country trip. Seeing Jerry Jeff Walker perform in Austin, TX gave a young Snider the inspiration to forge a career as a solo troubadour rather than fronting a band. In Nashville—specifically the hip East Nashville neighborhood—the lifelong wanderer has planted his roots with the Purple Building, the studio where he performs regular livestreams, as do his friends including Widespread Panic keyboardist JoJo Hermann.
Along the way, Snider’s face has popped up like a musical photo-bomber. The noted agnostic served as the officiant of Jason Isbell and Amanda Shires‘ wedding in 2013 and became a familiar face to many in the jam scene that same year as frontman for Hard Working Americans, featuring Dave Schools, Duane Trucks, and Neal Casal, among others. Throughout his career, he has shared the stage with his idols including John Prine, Jerry Jeff, and many more.
But now Snider is the head of his own congregation—both literally and figuratively. The 54-year-old singer-songwriter launched his livestream series—originally known as What It Is—at the outset of the pandemic. Since then, he has gone live nearly every Sunday at 10 a.m. CT. The series eventually morphed into the First Agnostic Church of Hope and Wonder, then evolved again into its current incarnation, The Get Together.
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What’s curious is that Snider, a lifelong troubadour who has performed in crowded bars and small theaters for decades, had already planned to go digital even before the pandemic.
“I have bad arthritis, so I don’t know how long I’ll be able to travel,” Snider said. “And so we started thinking in terms of doing shows that you filmed and recorded and put on the computer. And we were planning that anyway, just in case, and then we came home from the road… and they said we couldn’t tour anymore. And Brian, my tour manager was like, ‘Well, we’re set up to film and record really well.’ So we started doing it every Sunday and I don’t know how many we’ve done. I really am used to it now. It feels like a new way to do a show.”
Snider will readily admit that it was rough going at first. As someone who is not exactly tech-savvy—he conducts his phone interviews from a corded landline in his kitchen—the transition to a digital format came with a learning curve.
“The first two, well, the first one I came and I didn’t really understand what we were going to do,” Snider conceded. “You know, and I was pretty baked and then I was like, well, after the first one, I understood it. And so for the second one, I was kind of nervous cause of how many people were watching.”
The following week, Snider’s stream was marred by loss and mourning. Ahead of the show, John Prine’s wife called Snider to tell him that the iconic singer-songwriter had passed away.
“And I think the next day I went down and just played Prine songs for a long time,” Snider recalled. “And over the course of that thing, I just felt like I got the hang of whatever this is.”
As the weeks began to stack up into months, What It Is became the First Agnostic Church of Hope and Wonder. Whereas What It Is was more of a free-flowing livestream featuring a hodgepodge of songs, First Agnostic Church took on a definite shape. Each week saw Snider revisit one of his studio albums—18 in all—as he weaved chronologically through his catalog. All the while, Snider was recording an album of the same name.
First Agnostic Church of Hope and Wonder—both the livestream series and album—represents a bold experiment for Snider. While walking a mostly straightforward path through his recorded music during his weekly livestreams, he was exploring an entirely different route in the genre of fatback music after being inspired in part by a drum lesson from Duane Trucks.
“I’ve always liked funk a lot and I don’t know much about it. But I felt that groove and I was like, I want to do something like that,” Snider said. “And so I started looking into like Parliament and all that, but I feel like Ramblin’ Jack Elliott. So I wanted to put the Ramblin’ Jack Elliott in front and then have in the back, like Bootsy Collins and Bernard Purdie. I think I was just trying to do something unique, which I don’t think I’ve done. And I don’t know if I think this is. For some reason, that’s what I felt like I was trying to do: something I had never heard.”
Though Snider has built a reputation as a lauded singer-songwriter, a look at his studio discography reveals a wide swath of influences and genres. Dating back to his more conventional rock and roll beginnings in the late ’90s, through brief forays into garage- and jam-rock interspersed with more traditional folk-rock hybrid albums, he has amassed a following due in no small part to his unpredictability.
“I guess I get bit by a lot of muses and stuff. I just kind of go with them,” Snider mused. “I don’t know why, because I have acts that I like that make the same record over and over and it’s probably hard to stay with somebody like me that keeps making records so differently. You know, where the only real connection is the lyricist. But so far, I get away with it, even got away with that garage-rock record, jam band record. People are nice to me. They bring me clothes and shit.”
Dating back to his early days in Memphis, TN in the mid-1990s, fans have often brought him clothes that add to a wardrobe of denim garments and shirts of varying degrees of bagginess.
“Ever since I was playing at the Daily Planet, people get me coats, they get me shoes. They bring me food,” Snider said. “I don’t think they think I have any of that stuff.”
While the new album is permeated with his latest stylistic pursuit, it also rings of that classic Todd Snider feel. The finished product is a balanced work that finds the fatback sounds of the funk and reggae stars of the ’60s and ’70s sprinkled throughout an adventurous concept album. Embedded in First Agnostic Church of Hope and Wonder is the story of a crooked preacher who embezzles money from his congregation. With his back up against the wall, the damned cleric prays for God’s salvation, which he ultimately receives—because that’s the kind of humor Snider thinks God has.
“It felt like the songs were preachy and everyone was calling me a Reverend,” he said. “So the last three songs I made up to tie the room together, but the third-to-last song, he passes the plate, the second-to-last song, he admits he’s keeping the money in the plate, and then the last song he quits, he feigns indignant. He says he’s going to step down before he gets fired. And I don’t know where that came from, but that was after the sixth song. And I was like, I got a theme here.”
To anyone vaguely familiar with Snider’s extensive body of work, the subject of religion is no new territory. With some of his most biting sarcasm about the hypocrisy of religion to date, First Agnostic Church of Hope and Wonder also carries at its heart one of Snider’s most pervasive and prevailing mantras: “I don’t know.”
“Agnostics believe in things, they just admit they don’t know first,” Snider said. “You can’t really have a faith without being agnostic. You can’t believe in something until you don’t know for sure. So I’m not knocking, like, believing or beliefs because I have them, but they start with an ‘I don’t know.’ … I’m wide open to what might happen when I die. I don’t have a guess, but that doesn’t mean I don’t definitively think other people’s guess isn’t true. I don’t know. That’s what I feel like if I go to the gate and I get grilled at some gate, I’m going to say I didn’t know. I couldn’t figure it out. But I’m open to anything. I believe in love, forgiveness, magic.”
Though Snider may not know what will happen when he dies, he is far too aware of what happens when others die. In the past year, he has lost idols-turned-friends from John Prine to Jerry Jeff Walker to Billy Joe Shaver. The year before, he mourned the deaths of friends and collaborators Neal Casal and Jeff Austin. Before that, he was onstage with mentor Col. Bruce Hampton when he shuffled off the mortal coil.
The First Agnostic Church has a full cemetery out back, and eulogies for lost friends are found throughout the album. It was that reflection on loss, the act of facing the pain head-on, that helped Snider work through his grief in an already heartbreaking year.
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“I feel like I threw myself into that record because it was getting pretty unbearable. Just kept coming,” Snider said. “I lost my dog, too. My first manager… I lost like a lot of friends in the last year. I’ve had a couple that went on purpose. That’s been really hard and I’m grateful in times like this to have this outlet where I can sing, even if I was just singing on my porch, and like it’s healing for the one doing it. It just breaks my heart, all of it. And it was already in pieces, I would suppose.”
“Most troubadours at least have a few cracks in their heart,” he continued. “It’s only because, you know that song, ‘Sunday Morning Coming Down’? It’s almost like joining a biker club. No more wholesome shit for you.”
Even with that inherent tragedy involved in the life of a troubadour, Snider remains hopeful, with his eyes ever toward the future.
“I’m definitely like probably bourgeois more than aristocratic,” Snider said. “You know, there’s like two basic types of people. People want there to be a third person, but there just isn’t. There’s these two people, bourgeois and aristocratic, either excited about tomorrow or proud of yesterday. And once you lean towards one of those, you will be easy to market to. … I’m a tomorrow person… but I don’t mind yesterday people. And at some point, something’s going to knock the duality right off the frequency. Probably a long time after me, but who knows.”
That Socratic mantra of “who knows,” his own journey for truth in a world that keeps asking impossible questions—that’s what keeps Snider coming back. Over the past several decades and all across the country, the one thing Snider has seemed to know is that he doesn’t know. While most religious types file into services for the answers to the everlasting questions of the universe, this middle-aged, pot-smoking, peace-loving hippie has amassed his dedicated following by telling them over and over that he doesn’t have the answer—and that is the most comforting revelation of all.
“Well, like I say, I don’t share my opinions because they’re smart, I share them cause they rhyme,” Snider said. “And also if you’re a folk singer, songs aren’t the easiest thing in the world to come by. So any [idea] that comes to me, I want it and I need it for work. Even the opinionated ones. My philosophy on philosophy is that philosophy is fine.”
Todd Snider – First Agnostic Church of Hope and Wonder – Full Album