Folksinger Todd Snider was only 16 years old when he first ran away from home.
“My family was splintering and my parents were both going through a difficult period,” he says. “I stayed on people’s couches [in Portland, Ore.] to get through high school. I think it got me used to living a scattered lifestyle. They call it the sofa circuit. You become somebody who is moving all the time. Before I became a singer, I was already a gypsy.”
Sept. 14 | 9 p.m.
Crystal Bay Casino | Crystal Bay, Nev.
In his early 20s, Snider’s perpetual road trip led him to Austin where he first saw Texas troubadour Jerry Jeff Walker perform his candid brand of songwriting.
“My friend and I stumbled into a club where he was singing about the life I thought I was living, about being an aimless person,” recalls Snider. “It was then I realized there are a lot of guys who followed in Woody Guthrie‘s footsteps. They learned three chords and never got a job.”
Thus began three decades of crisscrossing the county with little more than a guitar in hand. Snider was previously married, but he never had children because, in his words, he would have “left them on the hood of the car.”
“Looking back at age 50, I would agree there is an inherent selfishness to it,” admits the revered songwriter. “There was this crowd of people that wasn’t growing up and I wanted to stay in it. It can become altruistic and help other people but, honestly, it’s not always conducive to being a good brother.”
Snider usually stays on the move with no phone, no wallet and no watch. Sometimes he doesn’t even know what he is being paid for his performances.
Along the way, he’s met plenty of other tramps committed to a nomadic, countercultural lifestyle and befriended outcasts like the homeless teens with tattooed faces and skinny pit bulls who move marijuana around the country in empty boxcars.
“I like my job,” he says. “It’s kind of like being a suspended adolescent. When I was young I was seduced by that Hunter S. Thompson lifestyle. If someone offered me a drug, I’d take it. If someone opened their car door, I’d jump in and see where the road took me.”
Earlier in his career, Snider couldn’t always be counted on to show up at a gig. If he got nervous — as he still does — he might meet somebody, get offered drugs and escapades, and next thing he knew he’d be on a random train headed out of town, leaving the audience wondering in the dust.
“When I first dove in, I had no awareness for others,” he says. “As I’ve gotten older, I feel like I’ve learned to be somebody that has a bit more of mindfulness that there are other people besides me. It takes a lot to pull me away from a show these days. But a really pretty girl, a nice car and huge pile of drugs might do it. I’m always thinking if I stay 10 more minutes, I’ll come away with the best song I’ve ever written.”
In between tours, Snider retreats to his home outside of Nashville, Tenn., where he spends a good portion of each day getting stoned and composing music.
“It’s a process of opening your heart and seeing what is in there,” he says. “Then you have to decide if what was in there could be even mildly entertaining to somebody else.”
As a man whose reckless sense of adventure led him to unconventional mentors such as John Prine and Guy Clarke, Snider has now become one of the last true folksingers looking out for the next generation.
“It seems there is a bit of family tradition,” he says. “Let me put it this way: if my friends were pounding on my door with the police hot on their trail, I’d let them in, barricade the door and later on ask them what happened.”
For artists like him, the line between life and songwriting is a blurry one, if it even exists at all.
“I don’t know if there is a new chord for me to learn or an album I haven’t heard yet,” he says. “But I like to hear about the legends of the towns and meet the weirdo with the nickname that everyone knows. I’ve always been that way. People like me are constantly looking for that next story, that next adventure, that next song.”