From learning old-time music in his family home to hosting John Lee Hooker, Guy and Townes.
Ed Snodderly is a child of the American South and he so is obsessed with its culture and music that he has spent nearly fifty years working with it. He learnt guitar on his father’s and uncles’ guitar which was bought in the ‘30s from the profits of the family’s tobacco crop. He has built a career as a singer-songwriter who had a couple of albums on the famed Sugar Hill label and his songs have been covered by Sam Bush and Jerry Douglas amongst others, he is co-founder of The Down Home venue in Johnson City, Tennessee, which has played host to everybody from blues players Willie Dixon and John Lee Hooker to songwriters of the calibre of Guy Clark and Townes Van Zandt. If this wasn’t enough he also teaches Bluegrass, Old-Time and Country Music at the University Of East Tennessee. Americana UK’s Martin Johnson caught up with Ed Snodderly over Zoom as he sat on a park bench in Asheville, North Caroline, to talk about his career and his latest record, ‘Chimney Smoke’, which features the cream of Nashville players and ex-pupil Amythyst Kiah. While he is a champion of roots music, he also recognises the influence of The Beatles on the world of music and he shares his love of avant-garde, jazz and rock guitarist Marc Ribot.
How are you and where are you?
I’m great, I’m on a park bench in Asheville, North Carolina, and I’m just about an hour from home on the other side of the mountain.
You’ve had a long career in music, around fifty years I believe, how would you describe your career?
I think it has been a very colourful experience. I started from the grassroots of learning from family members music, and then a lot of people started learning the guitar in the mid-‘60s, and that’s when I started playing. It took me a few years to work out what direction I was going to be going in. Quite honestly, my mother asked me if I wanted to play the guitar when I was twelve years old and by the time I’d got back to my bedroom I’d said yes, so she said we’ll get that guitar that’s upstairs at your grandparents’ farmhouse. That was the guitar my dad and his brothers had bought working tobacco in the ‘30s, and my grandfather was an old-time fiddle player. So that guitar had three strings and I added another three, and after about a year of messing around, I wanted an electric guitar. I sat down at the kitchen table with my dad, and he said these are the chords you have to learn, G, C and D, and he showed them to me, and that’s the last time he played guitar because he said he didn’t have the time to work up his callouses again. He told me I had to get those chords down before I thought about getting another guitar. That was the greatest guitar lesson I ever had because it set me straight about not wishing for something else that I hadn’t fulfilled with what I had. I’m so grateful because the music, playing music, and being connected to the history has just helped me through my life. And my children, I’ve got a boy twenty-two and a daughter who is thirty, and I’m able to be really open with them and they’ve seen how I’ve spent my life doing this, and how I’m in charge of my own failures. I’m happy for the enriched part of my life.
So I learnt first from them, and then I learnt from all of the British Invasion, then I went to Nashville and then, through my grandfather, I slowly started playing old-time music. It then started being popular again, a resurgence, and so I then really started playing that. I’ve always been acoustic-based and I’ve always been interested in writing my own songs and learning from all the singer-songwriters. So really I’ve been doing it for a long time, and it is a road I’m still on and it is a colourful road. It’s a good road I’m on, I’ve had successes here and there, and I’ve had failures here and there, but it is all about keeping on, and I think I’ve made one of the best records I’ve ever made with ‘Chimney Smoke’.
You seem to have continued the best bits of the ‘60s folk revival into the 21st Century. Do you see yourself as part of that continuum?
I was a little young for the folk revival, I wasn’t quite of age, but it really perpetuated an appreciation for folk music, old-time music, country blues, and all that stuff. I graduated from school in 1970, and everything was just a big pot of stew and you could kind of choose which road you wanted to go down. I ended up going down a road that mixed old-time bluegrass with not really a rock & roll flavour, but a flavour where you felt there were some influences there because to me that felt to be the most real. That’s where I’ve stayed, trying to find the music that to me is the most real, and that’s what they came to call americana, which is just a blend of lots of different flavours and that is kind of where I’ve settled in to. It allows me to play old-time music, it allows me to play a bluegrass type of thing, so it is a really great place to be.
Your latest album ‘Chimney Smoke’ is your 10th, a steady number but not prolific considering you released your first in 1977. You’ve got your own venue The Down Home and you are also an educator. What does your recording career mean to you and how does it help with your other activities?
It is entwined. It’s like the wildwood flower, the entwined vines and connection. So, to me, I operate under a little tree of sorts, and the tree is having a music venue, writing and creating music, teaching music, and recording music all under the same umbrella. If I’m honest, it makes life interesting, instead of just one thing where I’m on the road and playing my songs and I don’t have much interest in that, I do it, but I like having a venue, I like variety, and it keeps me kind of going, you know. I have had a long career, but it is all relative. For one thing, I don’t think about how long something’s been going on I just keep going,
If you mention old-time music and bluegrass to some people they may think of something that is dry and dusty, but ‘Chimney Smoke’ is anything but. How did you record it and where did you get the songs from, were they just what you had finished at the time?
My level is high, I really want to do the best I can and write the best songs that I can, and if you think about the competition I don’t call it competition, I think of it more as a connection. The value of having done this for such a long time is that I don’t want to waste people’s time, I just want to give them something good. I really felt that some of these songs were giving some people something good. The track ‘Chimney Smoke’ is a remembrance, but it is also a question of where are we folks, and what are we doing? The chorus is “I wanna ask, you might laugh What does it mean for me to sing this song”, does it mean anything or am I wasting my time and so far, I don’t think I’m wasting my time because people are saying thank you. Those things are something I know and my feeling is that that is a statement, and a statement needs to be made these days. So putting those things together with other songs like ‘Gone With Gone And Long Time’, and ‘Jump Dance South’, these are important songs to me and I couldn’t have written them until I was here in the last year or two. Those are songs that come from my whole being, those are not early in the career kind of songs, they have depth to them. So the architecture there was I’ve got the good songs now how am I going to get them across, and I brought in some of my good friends in Nashville, I brought in one of the greatest engineers, Bil VornDick, and I then brought in someone with the same experiences as me and the same age as me to produce the record, R. S. Field. It is just like getting in a car and going somewhere, you know. That was a real honour to have someone like Shaun Camp and Kenny Vaughan and all those guys, and Kenny said, “Ed, this is the best batch of songs I’ve played on in twenty years.”. All that positive stuff was the energy to make the whole record and from a good place.
Who kept all that talent under control?
I tell you, it was never under control. I’ll tell you, I’ve made some good friends over the years, and everyone on the record immediately said yes we’ll come and do whatever you need us to do.
You’ve mentioned some of your friends there, but the number of artists you’ve had come through your venue over the years is amazing. Did you ever get a sense of history in the making?
It is a total sense of history and I will tell you why. We’ve been very fortunate, we’ve had all the blues greats, we had Willie Dixon, John Lee Hooker, Koko Taylor, Clarence Gatemouth Brown, and singer-songwriters, we had Guy Clark, we had Townes, they played there so many times. Have you heard that bootleg record you can get now by Townes Van Zandt, ‘Down Home Live’?
So, that is me way back introducing Townes. We definitely honour that history because it is a cool history. It’s not just me who’s made that place work, it is a lot of people who just care about having a special place in The Down Home. It is a special place and I can’t believe we’ve just celebrated our forty-seventh year a couple of weeks ago, that is just crazy.
You have your finger on the pulse.
A big finger you can put on the pulse is creating a room for the pure existence of appreciating something that is on the stage, and then having people come and making an effort to get people to keep quiet and stay attuned to the stage. Anyone who comes to The Down Home, know why they are coming. In the early days, we had to filter through the riff-raff of people being noisy, but we would just say “Hey, not here. We didn’t build this place for that kind of thing, go somewhere else, there’s plenty of places for things like that.” Now we’ve got a very nice kind of place, people come and appreciate stuff. Doc Watson used to come every Christmas, about a week before Christmas he would come and do a show. The sad part about it is that a lot of those folks who were so influential have passed on. So now we are still doing up and coming, we still just go for the best show we can find.
What is your view on the health of old-time, roots, and blues music?
I’ll tell you what, a lot of the old-timey bluesy are all being thrown in the stew just now, it’s going to be interesting to see where things go. I teach at the university, and there are so many up-and-coming younger people who are just playing the fire out of instruments. The woman who sings with me on ‘Chimney Smoke’ and a few other songs was a student of mine and we spent a lot of time playing old-time guitar, her name is Amythyst Kiah. Every door she walks through now is opening for her. She is a great talent, but I’ve had so many students like her, very talented, and what I like about where things are right now is that a lot of these people have a really broad spectrum of the history. I can always tell went an act comes through and they don’t really know much about older things, and I appreciate the musician who might know Jimmie Rodgers and Bob Wills and Bukka White, you know. I like the thread that can come through music, and I like to be part of perpetuating that thread. I feel good about where things are going.
You teach songwriting at East Tennessee State University. What drew you to that and why is it important to you? Also, you must have learnt something about songwriting yourself after teaching all those students.
I can’t teach songwriting, but I do show up and tell them that there are no rules, well there are but there are no chapters to read. I tell them it is all up to them, show what they’ve got. I try to get people jived up to go, and I also try to bring people’s past up, I let them know that where they’ve been is a good history that they can count on and rely on. The other thing I teach, or try to perpetuate, is routine and keeping your world open for ideas, and to read and to appreciate and take in a lot of things that have come down. So I don’t really teach songwriting, I show up and be there and try and get them stoked up. I’m kind of like the poker going into the fire, trying to get the embers going, trying to get a little shake-up going down. It is good and I love it. The students will come up to me and tell me this is the greatest class they’ve ever had, and I’m like, good, it is because we’ve been totally honest and right on and we’ve totally dealt with songwriting, we haven’t dealt with the business of music. I don’t like going there.
Arhoolie Records’ Chris Strachwitz passed away recently. How would you judge his contribution to roots music?
Man, he was so wide-open, he was too wide-open don’t you think? I’ve got a bunch of those records and in the early days I’d get an Arhoolie record and I didn’t know what the heck the band was. I think he helped bring in zydeco, that cajun stuff, it was pretty cool. I was fortunate enough in the ‘90s to record for the Sugar Hill label, and I’m still friends with Barry Poss who created the label, that label was acoustic-based bluegrass and singer-songwriter stuff, but it had a really good reputation so if you were on the label, you were good. I was like, OK, I’ve slipped in the door here.
You are a busy guy, do you have any plans to come to the UK and Europe?
I’ve been getting some good reviews, and quite a bit of airplay in Ireland and the Netherlands, and where ever. I do have plans, and I’ll let you know if I get over there. A friend of mine, Malcolm Holcombe, has been to the Netherlands and Italy, and maybe England, and he has been helping me with contacts to try and make a European tour happen. A fella in Italy has reached out to me to say he would love to have me for four or five shows, so I feel like it will be a good place for me to come. A lot of us Americans come and have better success over there because people are so into it, it is so nice. I’ve been over once to Germany and the Netherlands, and while it was OK, I’ve got a bit more footing now with this record getting some airplay. So, fingers crossed.
At AUK, we like to share music with our readers, so can you share which artists, albums or tracks are currently top three on your personal playlist?
The record I’m listening to right now, it is questionable whether people would enjoy it, but it is one of my favourite electric guitar musicians, Marc Ribot, and I love him. It is esoteric and weird, but I just like his politics and the craziness of his guitar, and I’ve just bought his new record ‘Connection’ and I’m spinning that. I think Brandy Clark is a really good writer. When I was thinking of making this record I went to see Bil VornDick, he’s done Alison Krauss, Bela Fleck and Jerry Douglas, people I know, and I asked him how did those guys in the early ‘70s make those great-sounding records. He said “Musicians, musicians, good songs and musicians.”. I said OK, and those things just keep holding up. So going into making ‘Chimney Smoke’ I really wanted to try for that, and having Bil VornDick in there really helped with those musicians I had who are good musicians. So, hopefully, the record hangs in there with people picking that up to enjoy it. I like so many people, Lord have mercy, all the Randy Newmans, all this and that, I just like all that stuff.
Finally, do you want to say anything to our readers?
I can say straight on that the amount of support they’ve given me in such a short amount of time, giving me some great reviews and helping with some airplay, I am really very, very grateful. I’m not just saying that, it really does mean a great deal. I want to come to Liverpool because what those four guys did was amazing, I want to feel some of that. Lord have mercy, what an influence the mountains have had on me, and what an influence Liverpool has had on all of us. So I would just like to say thank you, and I hope to get over at some point.
We need people who are courageous enough to start their own music venue because we need places to play that are good. I would just like anyone who hears this who has an interest in perpetuating good music to start a music venue. Why are we here, it’s because of good music and cold beer. Really, good music and cold beer go very well together.
Ed Snodderly’s ‘Chimney Smoke’ is out now on Majestic Records/Need To Know.