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The Storyteller & Paradise Lost: Conversations With Todd Snider and Great American Taxi's Vince Herman

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A Conversation with Todd Snider

Mike Ragogna: Hello there, Todd.

Todd Snider: Hey Mike, nice to be talking with you.

MR: Same here. We were in touch years ago when Universal reissued and put together a couple of albums that you'd worked on, one being a "best of" for the Hip-O imprint.

TS: Oh yeah, did you know Bob Mercer then?

MR: Yeah, the late Bob Mercer. What an awesome guy. One of the greats.

TS: That makes me happy to talk to someone who knew him. He was like my dad, I miss him so much. He was very much like my father. When I was finding out I was getting married I called him. Good guy, crazy guy though.

MR: (laughs) He so understood the business and yet was amazingly artist-friendly. He was great to hang with as well.

TS: Yeah, me and that guy have done some late nights together that's for sure.

MR: And he is a big part of the Todd Snider story. You guys go back to when you both were with the Margaritaville label, the Coral Reefer days. Let's get into that.

TS: I was like 26 and I was playing a bar in Memphis, and there were big crowds until record companies started showing up. There was a bunch of them at the time, and everybody had all of these ideas for me. Bob came into my life and saw a show. They would all say, "We want you to be on the label" and "We want you to do this." I said, "Well what about what I just did, what about the thing that made you want to come back here and talk to me?" He was the only person that came at it in the way where he said, "I don't want you to do anything, I want you to take my money and do whatever you want." I thought I had won a contest or something. From that day he said, "Don't worry about being on the radio. Make whatever kind of poems you want, record them how you want, and the rest will be everybody else's problem." He stuck by me my whole career. Every friend I have has a story of that record company that had an outfit they wanted him to wear or a sound they wanted him to have. I was really lucky that this guy thought I was funny or fun to get high with, and my whole career, he took care of me right up until last summer. Right now, I'm too old for anywhere to care what I do. But in those days, there could have been more pressure then there was. I felt like I almost had a Sopranos type character, because he was such a powerful guy in the music business. He was definitely doing stuff bigger than the folk thing that I was doing, which was almost the thing he did after work for fun. He just helped me for fun when he was done doing those billion-selling records. If I hadn't have had that protector, I don't know what would have happened, I probably would have ended up being sent home. I don't know, thanks to him, we have this job.

MR: Yeah, we're definitely in the Bob Mercer fan club.

TS: It's like a family too, like me and you will probably know each other for the rest of our lives now. I can't begin to think of all of the people I know, he never lost touch with anybody. He's just a good guy, he was almost like a cult leader.

MR: When I spoke to Kate Bush and Roger Taylor about him--his mentoring both of them--Roger didn't know he had passed away, so I was the one who broke the news to him. I kind of feel bad about that.

TS: Well, he was an amazing character, he was like a guy out of a movie. He was somehow always holding the wheel, nobody ever knocked him off his square. He was a partier, that's how people mostly remember him. When you would be around Bob, people would say this is what music was like in the seventies, and I would think I'm staying here then.

MR: Beautiful. Todd, let's talk about you for a while. Songs For The Daily Planet would be considered your debut right?

TS: Yeah, that's the record Bob had me make. I was really young, and I had written like a hundred songs. But in my mind, I knew the thirteen I wanted to put on a record and I didn't want anyone to tell me different. He was the only one who wouldn't. That was a fun time in my life. It was mixed though, it came with some sadness and some struggles that you don't see coming. All in all, it was a lot of fun, '94 and '95, first year on the road.

MR: You were 26 or so.

TS: Yeah, about twenty years ago.

MR: You're also associated with The Coral Reefer Band, and you hung out with those guys too.

TS: Yeah, Jimmy Buffett is who Bob worked for at the time, and he took me under his wing and let me open for him and taught me some things and really helped me get started. I think he funded my first two albums. They did better then we thought they were going to, so I got moved over to MCA, but Bob stayed with me and Jimmy stayed with me. I still see Jimmy. I'm going to cut one of his songs and I can tell he's strapped for cash. I think the thirty, sixty dollars I could make him could really help him get through. (laughs)

MR: (laughs) Jimmy Buffett has to be on Forbes' richest people list.

TS: He does really well, he's both brains. I only have met two people I know that can be a poet and then turn on the other brain. Robert Earl Keen can do his own taxes too and just write a poem and switch. I can't. I've got my money in a coffee can, then I got a record deal and gave it to a guy named Chuck or some s**t like that. He still takes care of it for me. (laughs)

MR: Okay, so coffee can aside, Todd Snider then moved on to Oh Boy, the John Prine-ish label. What was the move like, what was the history?

TS: We keep coming back up with Bob Mercer, but he always had his eye out for me, and I don't know what he liked about me so much. He knew that John Prine was my hero. Right in the middle of the first couple records, we brought in John Prine's management team. Jimmy was helping me make the records and John's manager was helping me manage. Then our third album for MCA, I think they sold two of them, my mom bought one, and maybe my brother's friend bought one.

MR: (laughs) Three. I bought one.

TS: (laughs) So, three people bought it. It didn't do very well compared to what we spent on it, so we got fired. That was the only time I ever got fired in my life, but I wasn't a jerk. When it happened, MCA didn't say, "You're fired," they just said, "We can't make your next record, we'll help you figure out who's going to do it." So, it was a really smooth transition from one to the next, so it didn't really come into my life. I was working on my records and being told don't worry they're going to come out. It's only a couple of years ago that I got nostalgic. I turned 43 or something, and I started asking my manager stuff. I always tell him, "Just leave me alone, I don't want to know, I don't care. If my lights are on and my phone works, I'm good."

MR: As long as that phone works, and it has internet, that's all that matters.

TS: Yeah, right? I just found out recently, just from looking into it, even more than I knew at the time, that transition in my life kind of got made for me backstage by some people who really had better things to do with their time. I just feel really grateful. I always hear in the music game that people are really ruthless and that's just been the opposite of my experience. I knock on wood. But that time in my life, I look back on really fondly because some of my heroes really stepped up and helped me. They always helped me work on my poems, but I didn't realize how much they were helping me backstage until I was older.

MR: By the way, The Devil You Know was an amazing album, and it had that great song to Bush, "You Got Away With It (A Tale Of Two Fraternity Brothers.)"

TS: Yeah, I need to start playing that. I haven't played that in so long. I'm really proud of that record. In fact, the team that worked on the record...I think we might have something fun going on. That was a cool time in my life. I had just made those three records for John Prine and I had been touring. In most peoples lives, if you hang around long enough, they will do a greatest hits record. Somehow, Bob saw that coming, and he called me up. A lot of people don't get to control their greatest hits record but he made it so I could. Then we made that one more record and he passed away. I love my last two records and they did good, and I've listened to them and I don't know if I like them as much as The Devil You Know. It feels a little chaotic trying to sort through the songs without him.

MR: You're talking about Peace Queer, and The Excitement Plan?

TS: Yeah, I'm thinking that should have been one record, but hindsight's 20/20. That was sort of one record that I decided I should split in half and make it into two. I wonder if I should have made one big one, especially if Bob had been around. After he passed away, I produced this record for a kid named Jason D. Williams, and it was just chaos to make. I remember in the middle of it thinking, "I need to keep my life like this, structure doesn't help me." Bob used to help me stay that way and I just thought, "Never again am I going to act like a grown up, I tried it for a few months and it doesn't do me any good." If I act like a ten year old, I tend to like the art that comes from it.

MR: But you had a number one album recently.

TS: Yeah, I'm really good at not following it. I really appreciate the team, like we work so hard and we're lucky because the people we're about to hand it to, they don't really show up. We'll go have a party this weekend and then we turn it over to these other twelve people, and the musicians will do the same and say, "You guys go do whatever it is you do with it and we won't bug you. Take your pictures or whatever you need to do, and if you need me to be some place, I'll be there." I try not to get to much thinking about. I've seen Robert Earl do it, but if somebody brings me the promotion plan or some s**t, I will stop making up poems for a couple of days. It feels like somebody is trying to shift your brain over to the other side and make you think about cognizant rational stuff.

MR: That works well for you with your lyrics. For instance, we were talking about "You Got Away With It (A Tale Of Two Fraternity Brothers)" in which there are levels that you can read into that song that I guess you're very conscious of.

TS: Yeah, the guy that I feel like I study the most, and I think Jimmy would say this, would be Shel Silverstein. He did this linear song that if you listen to it a couple of times, it has different levels it can go to. I always thought that was my favorite kind of song, and that's the one I always tried to make. I like a Jim Morrison song, where from the first listen, I don't know what he's talking about and I have to listen again and create it for myself. On the Shel Silverstein stories, sometimes, the first pass through it you followed the story it was like a movie and I followed it. Then the more times you listen to it, you realize things you didn't catch before. Like that song "You Got Away With It," the first time you hear, it it's about a couple of guys drinking some beers.

MR: The Shel Silverstein connection is interesting because you're on Twistable Turnable Man with "A Boy Named Sue."

TS: Yeah, I was really thrilled. Bobby Bare called me up and he's just a huge hero to me and asked me if I wanted to do that song. It felt like I won a contest, then I got to go do it with him. We got to do it at Johnny Cash's house and I was very grateful to be able to do that.

MR: You co-wrote "Barbie Doll" with Jack Ingram, right?

TS: Sure. That's been so many years ago. We were kids when we wrote that. Me and him have written so many songs together...we're very close, Jack and I. I think he opened a tour for me in '95 before he became a real country star. We just always stayed friends. I'm really proud of him and all he's done. He's out there in Texas where they take it so seriously, that if you make it as a country star, you might as well have run for governor. It's not easy to be a country star in Texas. I know that sounds silly, but it has its drawbacks. I know that he's faced some struggles with it. People just run up and punch country stars--it's weird. I just noticed that that state, for better or for worse, mostly for better if you're the singer, they take it so seriously like other people take sports.

MR: Also we get Don Henley from that state.

TS: I didn't realize that, I like that guy.

MR: I also want to talk with you about Vince Herman. You produced and worked on his Great American Taxi album Paradise Lost with him.

TS: I sure did, that was great. Vince and I met at one of those hippy festivals where no one has their shoes on. I had been a fan of Leftover Salmon for a long time, and I didn't know that he knew who I was. I sat by the side of the stage watching, and when he saw me, he smiled and then put my name into the song. So, I realized he knows who I am, and then afterward, there was some hippy bus like The Partridge Family that somebody was smoking weed in. So, me and Vince took our guitars up there and sat around and played with these hippies. We really formed a bond up there. It was about four years ago, then, like a year later, I was playing in Telluride or something and I saw across the street that Vince was playing and he had his band with him. When my show was over--my folk show started at 8 and his hippy rock show started at 11--I went over to that and they asked me to sit in. They started to call out my songs, so we played a bunch of my songs and I loved the way they did it. We started doing some shows together like that--we were trying to be like Dylan and The Band. It's been a lot of fun doing that over the last few years. We put out The Storyteller with Vince's band backing me up on it. When it came time for them to make a record, I didn't produce them so much as I introduced them to my friend Eric McConnell who does my records. I sort of sat there and guarded the door. "I'll make sure nobody comes in and bugs you guys and you do what you do." They don't really need my help. I learned a lot from them, I think I've chipped in a few lyrics here and there, and said, "Good take," once or twice. (laughs)

MR: Yeah, when it comes to the role of the producer, these days, that would be the guy that's there helping you through the process in the studio with you making suggestions when you don't know if certain lyrics work or if that vocal take was great or not. It's somebody you can trust who can help with the process and who knows a lot about music.

TS: Yeah, that is it. It feels like you're trying to get a buddy to help you. I had one record where I asked the guy, "Can you do this for me because I'm not really into it right now." That was fun too." "You make the record and I will sing at the end and here are the lyrics." That was because I was busy doing other things. That was a record called New Connection. Usually, I will just have a friend. Like, for me, I will go down to Eric McConnell's house and my friends will see my car out there and they will just start coming around. I will have three quarters of a song and last night, we sat around for the last hour trying to think of a line for one of my songs and I never did. But we'll get it this morning.

MR: It's nice that you were born to do this.

TS: At 45, I'm still sort of mad for it. It's a different body that I'm doing it in, but the brain is...well I bet you I have half the brains now then I had then. I still like to write poems and when I was eighteen, I was like, "I don't give a crap what the world wants from me, I know what I want from the world, I like poems. I don't care what I get from them, and this is what I do." Lately, I've been feeling that more and more. It's a big company we have now. It's great that we have a company, but I just like to chisel on my little poems for whatever it's worth.

MR: What advice do you have for new artists?

TS: My blanket answer for that is don't ask me for any advice. (laughs) First of all, don't ask Todd Snider because he don't know s**t all. (laughs) To be kind of serious though, that's kind of a tough one. Part of me wants to say, "I wouldn't give you any," and that would be my best advice," "Don't ask for too much of it," or "Don't let me tell you what to do." I think Kris Kristofferson said, "If you're doing it for the right reason, there is no chance you will fail." I think there's some truth to that, but I don't really know if I would have any good advice. I'm getting older but I still just feel like I'm getting older, and I still just feel more prone to ask for it than give it.

MR: It also ties into the concept of being in an old body, I get it. I'm in a middle-aged body, but I don't see a difference between me now and me at eighteen, and I never did.

TS: Yeah, that's just it. There's this kid from my home town that just moved here to do it, and I really believe in him. He's got this look in his eye like he's not sure why he does this all day. I bet you'll want to check on this kid in a few years. I live in East Nashville so every night when you go to the bar, there's another kid that just got there. The thing we say to him is, "Welcome home, man." Usually, when someone gets here, they came from someplace where their dream is really foreign and silly. Then you get here and everyone has the same thing. "I want to be Johnny Cash, my neighbor wants to be Johnny Cash." We all do. Everybody wants to be Kris Kristofferson and it's not some pie in the sky dream. It doesn't just have to be one of us, we can all be Hank Williams and it doesn't matter what your friends back home think. Anyone that's reading this and loves music, get to East Nashville, just go to the 3 Crow Bar. Your brothers and sisters are waiting for you there right now.

MR: Anything got your eye recently in politics? Occupy Wall Street, etc.?

TS: Yeah, I've got a new song about a guy from Arkansas I know and the song is called "Good Things Happen To Bad People." It speaks to that story, it's just one person's little story of how somebody could end up Occupying Wall Street. I hope that people doing that would hear the song and feel empathized with, although, as much as I sing about politics, I see it just the same as professional wrestling. Our sports politics are very similar to professional wrestling, only we try to make believe that we're doing things and it's serious. I think it's just entertainment--some pot holes get fixed, but mostly guys bluster and they either catch on or are really liked like Justin Beiber or they go home like the kid you've never heard of.

MR: Amazing. Todd this has been really wonderful, thank you very much for everything.

TS: Thank you so much, Mike.

Tracks:

Disc One
1. Greencastle Blues
2. Is This Thing Working?
3. Just Like Old Times
4. Eighteen Minutes Speech
5. Tension
6. Doll Face
7. Rose City
8. Stuck On The Corner
9. Sunshine
10. Bill Elliot Story
11. Sideshow Blues

Disc Two
1. 45 Miles
2. Looking For A Job
3. Play A Train Song
4. KK Rider Story
5. Don't It Make You Wanna Dance
6. East Nashville Skyline
7. The Devil You Know
8. The Ballad Of The Kingsmen
9. America's Favorite Pastime
10. Mushroom Story
11. Conservative Christian, Right - Wing Republican, Straight, White, American Males
12. If Tomorrow Never Comes
13. Good Fortune

Transcribed by Theo Shier

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A Conversation with Great American Taxi's Vince Herman

Mike Ragogna: Oh, is that Vince from Great American Taxi on the line?

Vince Herman: Hey, good morning.

MR: How would you describe what a Great American Taxi is?

VH: A Great American Taxi is about the largest vehicle you can ever imagine you know. You may look at it as the whole country that, of course, has a lot of room in it. You know you can always pick someone up in a taxi. Or, it's a band that celebrates all of American music from Tex-Mex to zydeco to polka to bluegrass to reggae to what ever comes into our heads. We'll drive you along with it.

MR: Let's take a tour of some of the tracks on your new album, Paradise Lost, starting with "Poor House."

VH: It's all over the country that people feel like they're about to walk down that road and walk through the front door of the poor house. On our album Paradise Lost, we're talking about some of the things that have led us to there, and hopefully about how we can bring our own paradise to the situation and maybe forget that we're in the poor house.

MR: Looking at the state of things, what do you think happened?

VH: I think we forgot to keep making things. I think we've forgotten that nobody can buy anything unless they're doing a little work to get a little cash. The cash all flows to the top. It's got to all re-circulate somehow or the whole thing is gonna grind to a halt. I think we forgot to re-circulate.

MR: Now's the time to bring up a quote from a fine young future cabby in his prime: "I believe in the power of music and songs that can generate the energy to do something. Politics should be in music; everything's politics, especially music. Songwriting can draw attention to appropriate issues of our times."

VH: Absolutely. It's a great mirror to hold up and let people see themselves in and hopefully move them towards creating more solutions together in kind of a communal way, which music begs you to do. Music begs to pay attention to your community and your friends and the folks around you. You know, pay attention and work for solutions.

MR: What do you say those who say, "Shut up and sing!"

VH: Well, go listen to Rush Limbaugh. He's "singing" all the time, you know? I think...music does provide spiritual information and spiritual armor to go on and do the tough things that you need to do. It needs to exhilarate you and lift you up. But that doesn't mean you have to stop thinking altogether. That just deprives you of fully expressing yourself in your music. Music has to have it all coming out of it or there's just so much wallpaper.

MR: Your last two albums, Streets of Gold and Reckless Habits, seemed more "jammy" than the new album. How come?

VH: We wanted to really concentrate on the songs and the storytelling, and with Todd Snider producing the record, we knew we would be doing some storytelling. We just didn't think the story needed another guitarist along this time around.

MR: How did you go from being a Leftover Salmon to a Great American Taxi?

VH: Leftover Salmon took a hiatus and probably six months into that, I was asked to put together a band for a benefit in Boulder and pulled a wish list of Boulder players I always wanted to do a thing with. We played that one night and it was so much fun, we played again and again and eventually, those nine people turned into a five piece that was road-worthy to get out on the road and do that thing.

MR: And Tim O'Brien?

VH: Seven years later, we go to make this record and our buddy Tim O'Brien in Nashville agreed to sit in on a couple tunes, particularly on a song called "Blair Mountain" about Mountain Top removal in the state of West Virginia, and on a tune called "Silver Fiddle," which he really, really lent a great feel to. Tim is a real musical hero of mine. Tim is pretty much the reason I moved from West Virginia to Colorado in the eighties, to chase down Tim and his music. So, it was a real honor to have him play on this record with us.

MR: Tim practically seems like a band member.

VH: Tim is actually not a band member. He's a fella that sat in on the record for a couple of tunes. Tim goes back to the band Hot Rize, real major icons in the bluegrass world for us.

MR: Who are some of your other influences?

VH: In the songwriting realm, Woodie Guthrie and Jackson Browne and Todd Snider...great storytellers. The Del McCoury Band is major in my world. Of course, New Grass Revival and those kind of things. You know, songwriters like James McMurtry. There's so much good music out there, it fills my head up. I try to navigate through the jungle of it.

MR: In your Great American Taxi, of course.

VH: Well, that's it. There's lots of room in a taxi, you know? And you never know who's gonna get in.

MR: How did Todd Snider climb on board the Great American Taxi?

VH: We met Todd at a festival up in Michigan at Dunegrass and we were able to get him to run away for a couple of hours. We locked him a school bus and played folk music for hours on end until his road manager Elvis found him. We actually stole Todd. For a couple of hours, Elvis was freaking. He didn't know where Todd was. We played tunes for hours that led to doing a little tour with the guys from Yonder Mountain Strong Band...Ben Kaufman and Jeff Austin and I did a little tour with Todd and eventually, we were able to lure Todd into a taxi at a festival and that led to a bunch of different projects including Great American Taxi, and playing on Todd's live album, The Storyteller, recorded in Nashville. And we also have done a Jerry Jeff Walker tribute with Don Was producing that should be out in the spring for Jerry's 70th birthday. Todd also produced Paradise Lost for us. So, we've been deep in the Snider camp for the last year or two.

MR: Todd also is an amazing artist, you're so right about his storytelling and his unique way of phrasing things. I love that his points are very pointed. He gets right to it.

VH: That's for sure. He pulls no punches and he tries to find a way on each song to expose not only a bit of the world around him but also himself and his kind of raw reactions to it. It's what makes his songs so compelling, I think. They're real, they're honest.

MR: Speaking of real and honest songs, let's talk more about your album's material, which seems to have a political theme running throughout.

VH: Yeah, you know, we talk about things like mountain top removal mining. The "Blair Mountain" song is about a place that was the scene of the largest labor conflict in American history where over 100 miners were killed and now the place is scheduled to be mountain top removed and erased forever. That's a major loss. It should be a major monument to the working class in America, but I guess no one pays attention to that "working class" stuff anymore.

MR: What's the story behind "AM Radio"?

VH: You know, the paradise that's been lost in the music business. You used to be able to have a budget, put some money into it, and sell some records. Well, people kind of don't buy records anymore either. So, the music industry is facing a little paradise lost in trying to figure out how to rebuild and how you can create intellectual property and be compensated for it. There are all kinds of things we've lost our way on, you know, and I don't know if we've provided a way out for anybody, but I hope we've described the scenario, at least.

MR: You might say it's not like the "Olden Days."

VH: That's a great little journey into a moment, a second, where everything seemed to be just perfect. But then, it kind of went away.

MR: Yeah. Was that second the end of WW II until when?

VH: I think probably until the beginning of Bush II. That really saw the downfall, you know? I think things have taken a turn and I think it does come back down to finding a way to create a working class again. With fair trade and NAFTA and all those things that have opened up economic opportunity for that top one or two percent to trade internationally and reap all the profits from it, I think that's when things got really out of hand. The corporations have lost all connections to the communities they're in and any responsibility to work for the good of the communities they're in. I think we have to get back to thinking twice about corporate charters for corporations that harm America rather than do good and provide jobs and work because we have to get a grip on our economy again and if that means making things, then we have to look at the world economy and how it relates to what we consume and change our ways on that. I think we need to be local.

MR. Be local.

VH: Work local.

MR: Be local, work local.

VH: Think locally.

MR: What do you think about the "Occupy" movements?

VH: It's a really exciting time where people, I think, are free to say things they haven't been free to say in a long time. Even though we knew there was this thing boiling underneath, we left-wingers knew that a lot of the country shared our thoughts. It's really great to see it coming out and the 99 percent exerting that we're still here is a really great thing. And I love the kind of anarchist organization of it all, the fact that there's been no national leader emerge has given us time to really talk about the vast scope of all the things that are wrong. With the leaderless thing, the conversation can develop over the next few months as wide as possible as we begin to move toward solutions. Not having a leader and not having it be able to be hijacked, politically, I think, is key to the leaderless organization of it all, and I hope it continues.

MR: It contrasts the "Tea Party" movement where a lot of people with very strong identities--maybe it's better to call them "characters"--came on board and identified themselves as leaders of that organization. In a lot of ways, it tainted what could have been genuine at the beginning.

VH: Absolutely, I hope the left doesn't fall victim to that.

MR: What advice might you have for a paradise found?

VH: Well, it's bring your own paradise these days. BYOP. Play music. Hang with your family. Try to make your community stronger. Enjoy the time we have. Life is real short. Even in the midst of increasing poverty and poor income distribution, the worst since the great depression, we can still find sources for joy and community. For me, music is what does it.

MR: Speaking of music, what advice to you have for new artists?

VH: Man, tell the truth. Sing what's deep in your brain and in your heart. Sing it loud. We need you.

MR: Vince, when you get on stage, do you feel like the mission is beyond just making music, maybe trying to communicate bigger messages or meanings to the listener?

VH: Yeah, I'm not trying to explain anything or trying to lay out a 12-point program or anything like that, you know. It's really commiserating, really, if nothing else--here's what we're experiencing and we're kinda in this thing together. Here's my take on it, you know, let's dance. It's kinda how I feel.

MR: Any other thoughts about being on stage?

VH: One of things I like to do on stage is to improvise, maybe the whole song or maybe make up a verse to another song or something that locates people right into the moment, that night, in that place. You know, improvise about the town, the venue, you know the beer bottle that just broke or something like that and it brings people into the real time, right there, right now. Even if you're talking about politics, that's what people are after entertainment for, not to acknowledge just where and who they are, but what's going on in the broader picture, and bring it all together in a swirl of dance and joy. That's what I'm after.

MR: "Bring it all together in a swirl of dance and joy." Love it. Have you ever said that line before?

VH: No, I haven't but I'm just waking up, you know, and morning is the freshest time for everyone's brain.

MR: (laughs) You're on tour?

VH: We've been on tour since October 4th with a couple of days at home. We're doing our thing. We've been hitting both coasts, we've been to Texas and West Virginia and California. We finished what we call the Harvest Tour 2011 where we went from Santa Cruz up to Seattle on the California promised land where everyone is harvesting. There's a little migrant workforce digging up weeds. And that's always an annual celebration. It's a whole economy emerging in California and Colorado and other places around medical marijuana. It's a beautiful sprouting of freedom that I hope continues. It leads a lot people to the West Coast so we've been playing a lot of harvest parties.

MR: Harvest parties as part of the culture. Who saw that one coming.

VH: Well, you know, I would have. I always figured the politics of marijuana prohibition was a generational thing. As we all kind of grow up here and see that it's not the villain that it was made out to be by the older generation who had all kinds of myths put on them that they fell for. I always knew it was a matter of time before it went away.

MR: I'm not pro or con about legalizing it, but it's strange that marijuana is something that you would pick on, so to speak, when it seems like everyone's smoking it. It's like picking on sex. Everyone's doing it.

VH: There are a whole set of associations with it. Of course, if you're smoking pot, you're probably into free love and voting like a Democrat and stuff like that, you know? I think that's how politics works--you hold up something up and the set of associations that go with it kind of talks about your unexpressed agenda. And it's all coded.

MR: Wait, isn't Great American Taxi code for something?

VH: Yeah. It's actually a front for a bunch of socialist-thinking, kinda Jesus-thinkin' guys. You know, "Give me your poor..." and all that kind of stuff, and thinking about social justice and all those things. That's what it really is. But we're just posing as a musical organization. And a socialist conspiracy.

MR: Speaking of Todd Snider, which we aren't but did earlier, is there a song wittier than "You Got Away With It," the one he wrote about Bush and the fraternity?

VH: Boy, that's such a great lesson in songwriting too, you know, to start with the premise of this guy kills people and has been doing it for a long time, painting it as the story of two fraternity brothers saying, "I can't believe we got away with that." And it still goes on and on. What a great perspective to create, to be able to tell your story and not be so direct about it, to have a scenario that reflects it rather than boldly puts it in your face is brilliant. He's great at that sort of thing.

MR: Did Todd have some creative input as far as suggesting nips and tucks at Paradise Lost's lyrics?

VH: What he did for me was really ask questions about the songwriting, like, "When was the first time you saw this? What got you there? Write about that. Pull on this emotion, pull on this image." It was great to have him ask the right questions as we wrote.

MR: Any last words of wisdom?

VH: Happy holidays!

MR: Thanks for your time, Vince.

VH: Thanks, Mike.

Tracks:
1. Poor House
2. AM Radio
3. Blair Mountain
4. Angel Dust
5. Olden Days
6. Maud Only Knows
7. Penny Arcade
8. Silver Fiddle
9. Radiation Blues
10. Gonna Make a Record
11. Swamp Song
12. Easy Listening

Transcribed by Brian O'Neal

Great American Taxi - "Poor House"