A Conversation with Jon Snodgrass of Drag The River

By Nick Bequette

August 27, 2015

Drag The River have never been your typical “Alt-country” band. They come from punk music. The band’s founding members, Jon Snodgrass and Chad Price have been in bands, such as All and Armchair Martian, before and during their tenure with Drag The River. Snodgrass and Price took a slight furlough from that scene 20 years ago and recorded the tracks that became Drag The River’s debut album, The Hobo Demos. Since then, members have come and gone, but the band has continued to release music that would be fair to call alt-country.Their punk background, however, can be heard scattered throughout their records; such as on Back In Bloom from their most recent self titled album.

The only way to find punk music, at least in the ‘80s and early ‘90s, was to have your ears open to what sounded good to you and not what was fed to you on mainstream radio. It took some digging, similar to the digging it takes to find some great country artists. They’re out there; just dig! I’m always curious to hear how people have stumbled across the music that changed their lives, particularly those that found punk music in the ‘80s. Jon Snodgrass did not disappoint with his answer. You will read it below, of course, but it includes a Kenny Rogers Greatest Hits tape, The Beatles early ‘70s compilations records, Kris Kristopherson, Warren Zevon and Husker Du.

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They are currently on tour backing Social Distortion along with Nikki Lane and will be at The Fillmore in Charlotte on Friday night. This tour’s opening slot gives them exposure to potential new fans that are not familiar with their music. It also gives them days off– days off to which they are not accustomed. When they go on the road, they play every night. Social Distortion’s tour schedule left the band with 17 nights off. So they, along with Nikki Lane, are using those off nights to hit other cities close to their scheduled opening duties for Social distortion. Ahhh, the romantic life of a touring band. They put in the work doing what they love. “We’re not trying to get famous. If we play to 100 people a night, we’d be happy”, admitted Snodgrass.

My conversation with founding member, Jon Snodgrass, was as easy as they get. He doesn’t come with stock answers. When he starts talking you had better be ready to listen. He has the cadence of Kerouac; every answer, an adventure, and, every once in a while, left room in the conversation for my follow up. I caught up with him in El Paso, Texas, “waiting for a few stragglers”. They had played the first of their “night off” shows after the start of their Social Distortion tour, in Tempe, the night before.

CLTure: How did this tour get set up? Had you ever played with Social Distortion?

Jon Snodgrass: Well, we’ve been self managed our whole career, which we turn 20 in February. Our friend, Casey Cress, who we’ve known a long time, he’s helping us out. And he has been saying that we need to do some kind of support tour like this for a long time, ya know. And he talked to them, but also over the years, I’ve met Johnny (“2 Bags Wickersham) and David (Hidalgo Jr.), their drummer, and it turns out we know their bass player, too. He turns up and says his other band played with us years ago. So, I believe it was just a perfect storm of a lot of things. We never used to want to do that kind of thing. We liked playing our own show and not playing for people that didn’t come to see us.

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CLTure: Yeah, that was something I wanted to ask you. Do you approach those shows differently when you’re opening and playing for a crowd that may not be familiar with your music?

JS: Yeah, not to name drop but I went through with Frank Turner (Lucero) in Australia before this tour, and he’s done this same tour before. And him and his band told me, “just play all the hits. Just come out and knock it out of the park… relentless– just go for it”. And we kind of do a little of that, but we’ve put a little flavoring, hopefully, of various types of songs. And there’s a couple (that we play in the set) that are our really slow, sad songs. And they seemed to go over pretty good, and we actually felt like if the crowds are like they were in Tempe, they were polite and listening, and they wanted to hear what you did and it’s only a 30 minute set. That was the first set list we made in I don’t even know how long– we just play. So our tactics may be evolving. On the first day it was nice to know what we were going to do but, tomorrow, that set list might be right out the window. We may go back to what we do; just calling them out on stage as we go.

CLTure: Yeah, I know most Social Distortion fans have been around a long time and Mike Ness’ solo records are certainly in the same vein as what you guys do. I think they’ll be pretty receptive.

JS: Yeah, he was one of the first dudes I met, and I can honestly say he was maybe one of the nicest dudes I’ve met. I talked to him several times as the day went on and, I honestly can say, I look forward to talking to him again (laughs). Like I brought up to him how this was their twenty-fifth anniversary of this record (Social Distortion), and I told him 25 years ago I saw them in Lawrence, Kansas, at The Outhouse. And he went, ‘awww man!’ It was such a wild show, and it was nice to get his perspective of it. I was like, ‘I wish I could have talked to you about that 25 years ago’.

CLTure: It’s been 20 years since you and Chad started writing together. Did you think when you two sat down and started writing what would become The Hobo Demos, that you two would still be on the road together 20 years later?

JS: You know, ummm, kind of. You know we sort of joked about it like this band is our retirement plan. But this is what we can do no matter how we feel or what age we are. There’s no limit to country bands and we can rock and do whatever we feel like doing. Not that you can’t in any other bands but, I’m definitely not surprised.

CLTure: What music were you listening to growing up?

JS: The first tape I got was Kenny Rogers’ Greatest Hits. And the I got The Beatles, you know the ones with the early Beatles and the later Beatles, the red and blue ones?

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CLTure: Oh, yeah. The Red and Blue Albums.

JS: Yeah, I got those. Then I listened to a lot of Kris Kristopherson and Waylon Jennings. Then, in like 1985, my parents split up and my mother went back to school, and I went up to Omaha, Nebraska. That’s when I found a skate board. And sometimes I would stay with this other family. Their son had gone off to college and I would sleep in his room. I found a Husker Du tape in his room. Then I bought Dead Kennedy’s, Plastic Surgery Disasters and I’d listen to all that stuff. I listened to a lot of Warren Zevon. So yeah, I liked it all.

CLTure: So that was your first exposure to punk music, was finding….

JS: Was just finding a Husker Du tape in a guy’s house, yeah. Because I listened to The Beach Boys, and I liked them, and The Beatles. And I liked their early stuff but, I started liking their later, darker, heavier stuff more.

CLTure: What’s the writing process like with you and Chad? You’ve been doing it a long time. Has it evolved over the years or do you just sit down and throw ideas at each other or do you come prepared with stuff?

JS: It used to be whoever sang it wrote the majority of the song. But now it’s kind of come (on the last couple of records)– it’s like we’ve written so many that it’s– I try not to overwork music, you know? Like I used to just sit and woodshed it for a long time. Like the majority of songs, I mean the really good songs that people really like, are the ones you tend to write in the time it takes to play. So sometimes on a song like that, I won’t necessarily seal it up. But the next one I’ll run by Chad and have him shoot an idea and something great can come out of it, or vice versa. It can just be ‘it’s too long’ or ‘that’s the wrong key’ or ‘I like this part, you know? Every song is different. But we definitely try to give input, and on the last couple of records we’ve really tried to give more input between each other. I mean even if the input is, ‘that’s done’.

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CLTure: Very good, there ya go. I got it. You two are like a modern day Lennon/McCartney.

JS: (pause) A little bit, maybe. Except we give way more credit to George when he gives his input. (laughs)

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