Todd Snider Pays Homage to John Prine, Billy Joe Shaver, and Other Heroes on His Latest Album

On his third live album, Return of the Storyteller, the singer-songwriter brings his characteristic humor and humility

Photo: Courtesy of Todd Snider

“The main thing I wanted to do is be a drifter or a bum, and a troubadour is the most glorified bum you can be,” says Todd Snider, the vagabond songwriter known for weaving wry, self-deprecating yarns—and the equally memorable songs they lead into. Lucky for him, that’s all he’s ever needed to be.

Currently, in the wake of releasing his third live album, Return of the Storyteller, which came out last week, Snider’s troubadour lifestyle involves catching up on sleep following several days on the road “banging around” without much rest. But his calling has always been far more about the journey than wherever he ended up.

“A big part of getting where I’ve gotten was not really heading anywhere,” he says. “And what is it [beatnik and LSD enthusiast] Ken Kesey said? If we’re not going anywhere, we better stick close together just in case one of us gets there.”

Recorded in fall 2021 at venues from California to the Birchmere in Alexandria, Virginia, Return of the Storyteller captures twenty-seven of the finest moments from his first shows since the pandemic—and his first since losing close friends and mentors John Prine, Jerry Jeff Walker, and Billy Joe Shaver, who all passed in 2020. 

Snider pays tribute to all three on the record, as well as to Neal Casal, his fallen friend from the jam-band supergroup Hard Working Americans. But there’s plenty of his typically candid humor to balance the pathos, often in the same breath.

We kept Snider from his well-earned nap just long enough to chat up Return of the Storyteller.

With such a deep catalog and so many fan-favorite songs, how do you curate a perfect set list? 

My idea of which songs are good moves around a lot. I’m a liberal hippie, but even the liberal hippies who come to see me had had enough [last year]. This felt more like the time to do a pep rally. I think people just wanted to hear about their relationships with each other, and so I hope that was what the tour ended up being.

You also shared stories about some dear friends you lost, like Jerry Jeff Walker and John Prine. 

Really, it’s just been the hardest time in my life, and I’m not trying to be dramatic. I’ve lost a ton of my friends to misadventure; in this lifestyle, you’re like a sock in the dryer. The deal with Guy Clark, Billy Joe Shaver, John Prine, and Jerry Jeff Walker, those are the people that, when I made an album, I sent it to them and I looked forward to hearing even the criticism. It’s been a real joy in my life to talk to John after I make up some new songs. I just miss that connection and miss having them to play a new song for, and I’m struggling to figure out who [I want] to yell at to try to get to watch my cannonball.

Have you always been the type of person who grabs a guitar and hits the road just to see what happens?

Yeah. I ran away really young and started hitchhiking really young and became that person first. And then when I saw Jerry Jeff, I realized the difference between a freeloader and a free spirit was three chords on the guitar. It started off as just another tool in the art of wanting to be free and avoid signing up for a traditional life. And then I noticed as I got into show business that there were people like John Prine—following in the footsteps of Ramblin’ Jack Elliott—who never let their career get in the way of their lifestyle choice. They never tried to figure out how to get bigger.

Did Jerry Jeff ever tell you what he thought about the album where you covered his songs [2012’s Time As We Know It]?

Oh yeah. He and I had a father-and-son relationship. He went back and forth about that record, but really, he loved it. He hugged me harder for that record than he ever hugged me. Every once in a while, he’d be getting drunk and tell me what songs I forgot and which songs I didn’t need to do. Jerry Jeff yelled at me a lot. Billy Joe yelled at me a lot, too. I like that.

What would draw their ire? 

You know, getting arrested or something like that or [messing up] the show. Jerry Jeff used to say, ‘In my day, you could miss a plane every once in a while. You guys can’t, and you miss most of them.’ Billy Joe got mad at me once over a haircut. He thought I was trying to get the haircut the label wanted. 

One time, I gave John [Prine] thirteen songs, and he said, ‘You got a really good song in there.’ I asked, ‘What about the others?’ He goes, ‘Yeah, you don’t want those.’ That was the nicest thing anyone had ever done for me. And then I used to make [Jimmy] Buffett mad all the time, too. But that’s ’cause they care, and they know I’m a lifer and I’m not doing this for money.

About that haircut, you did look like a “serious” singer-songwriter for a bit in the nineties.

In my mind I looked like John. I was probably 20, 30, something like that. I wanted a haircut like John’s and everyone was like, ‘You look like you could have a job.’ Shaver was like, ‘What is this? Did they tell you to get that?’ And I was like, ‘No,’ and he goes, ‘Well, you look like an idiot.’ Those guys were really sweet though, and I do feel like if some young songwriter showed up at my house with a bunch of police behind him, I’d have to let them in and put the couch in front of the door and try to make a plan. That’s just what it is.