There's a lot to be said for the old adage that you're known by the company you keep. So to all who think of Todd Snider as a snarky burnout with one minor '90s hit, take note of the guy's friends: Jerry Jeff Walker, John Prine, Loretta Lynn, Jason Isbell and so on. When people of a certain stature vouch for somebody, it matters. And if you study Snider's catalog from his start in 1994, you hear patterns emerge - razor-sharp wit and an x-ray vision to see through American institutions and preoccupations. Artists that shine lights and hold up mirrors can unsettle as well as entertain us. But Snider has always emphasized that he doesn't want to change anyone's mind with his opinions - he just "wants it to rhyme."
The Cash Cabin referred to in this record's title belonged to the late Johnny Cash, a recording studio at the legend's Tennessee home. To recap the lengthy story told in the liner notes, Snider had a dream of the Man in Black's spirit beckoning him to the place. And his wasn't the only ghost story he uncovered. This third attempt to get it right (voila "Volume 3") at Cash's studio turned into a song and a project. Snider steers sharply away from the last few years of pure-fun rock songs (as part of the band Hard Working Americans) and returns to DIY folk music. In particular, he wants to reopen the books on the finger-picking/talking blues style that Woody Guthrie and Bob Dylan evangelized.
Highlights include "Working On a Song," a thoughtful take on songwriting as a life metaphor, and "Talking Reality Television Blues" which takes us through TV's inception to its power as a kingmaker. It's deep stuff, but you're in the hands of a gifted philosopher, comedian and artist.
Snider's singing goes for feel over strict time and melody, and usually succeeds. Lyrically, it's often funny at first listen, then spooky the more one dwells on it ("media coverage of media coverage" or "reality killed by a reality star" are two resonating examples). A particular political stance isn't required to enjoy the wordplay or inventiveness. Maybe the paranoia runs a little deep in places, like name-checking corporations in "The Blues on Banjo" or banks in "Framed." But this is still a great record that beats out ordinary collections about love won and lost. Snider asks big questions about whether what's now is new, and if our ghosts haunt us or help us. Those famous friends (Isbell cameos on "Like a Force of Nature") continue to approve.