[13 January 2014]
PopMatters Music Editor
There’s more than meets the eye when it comes to Hard Working Americans and their upcoming self-titled album. On paper, the band’s lineup would seem to satisfy all the requirements of a supergroup, with prolific singer-songwriter Todd Snider pulling together an ensemble that includes Widespread Panic bassist Dave Schools, Ryan Adams and Chris Robinson guitarist Neal Casal, Great American Taxi keyboardist Chad Staehly, and King Lincoln drummer Duane Trucks. And by the letter of the law, their album Hard Working Americans would be considered a covers album, what with the band working through songs from a wide range of artists, from Randy Newman to Lucinda Williams to Drivin’ N Cryin’.
While it’s not entirely inaccurate to define the band and its album this way, there’s much more going on with both, as Snider explains. Instead, you might think of Hard Working Americans as a conceptual project making a concept album. As Snider has described the thinking behind the collaboration, “The songwriters in the Americana world were spending as much time on their poems as the jam bands spend on their tones and their solos. Why not put these things together? Why not combine the best songwriters with the best musicians?” What results in combining the best songwriters with the best musicians is a concept album that pays tribute to—what else?—hard working Americans, as the group takes songs about everyday folks making ends meet and recombines them into a narrative of its own making over the course of the 11 tracks. It’s music that’s properly reverent of its source material, even as it takes advantage of the players’ creativity to craft something all their own.
Premiering here on PopMatters, Hard Working Americans comes out on 21 January, via Melvin/Thirty Tigers.
Photo by James Martin
PopMatters: In your press release, you describe how Hard Working Americans combines “the best songwriters with the best musicians”, as you took some of your favorite Americana songs and had them reimagined by your jam band friends. Did you initially conceive of this project around the songs or did your wish to collaborate with other musicians come first?
Todd Snider: Songs have always been my favorite part of being alive and I always have all kinds of different relationships going with all kinds of different songs, so it’s hard for me to remember sometimes what I’m even talking about by the time I get, say, to here. But I also really crave to learn about music.
I think with music, every answer leads to ten more questions that will either fluster you and make you want to quit, or completely take you over like a crack habit and then you just always seek out questions, which is what made me want to work with all these guys. It would be like if a junkie heard about a bag of drugs under a bridge; he’d for sure start walking toward it, which is sorta like how I think this kind of happened with the whole box of rocks. It kills cats, but it’s good for music.
Hard Working Americans seems more like a concept album than a covers album, since you’re making a story out of linking together these reinterpreted songs. What was it like taking other people’s songs, then shaping them into your own narrative? How does it compare to crafting stories through your own original compositions?
I live in Nashville and am a country music fan too and have been around a lot of it, so, to me, I wouldn’t say this is a cover record. These songs were never hits before. And most country records are written by someone besides the band, like the first Stones, Beatles, and Dylan records were. I just wanted to set the bar in my mind at making a record that would have 11 songs on it that were going to each be more entertaining, melodic, and interesting than any 11 songs I could have written myself. I am hoping that from this process, I will learn more about songwriting and be able to bring some of that to the group.
People make fun of Nashville because not everybody writes their own songs and we make fun of rock ‘n’ roll because everybody writes their own songs. As if somehow singing a less interesting song that you wrote yourself makes it better and deeper than, say, an interesting melodic song that you didn’t make up or that composing music is the main talent to have. I don’t think that and some songwriters who are just generally known to be really, really good have said that I’m pretty good at it too and might even know something about it. I don’t feel like needing to be the writer makes you better at it.
But with my own stuff and other people’s stuff, I just try not do anything or be anybody or go anywhere, and that usually works. If you say a word over and over, it stops making sense. For me, that’s what singing is like and why it’s for the birds.
It’s particularly interesting how you work with songs from different styles, different periods, and with different tones, yet bring them together cohesively on the album. What was the process like for you and the band to make these songs your own, especially since this group of players hadn’t worked as a unit before?
I would stomp and holler, and they would jam until one of them would have an idea. And then they spend some hours arranging it all, while I rolled j’s and said shit like “yeah” and “killer”...and then when they’d say it was time for me. I sang and even danced my little heart out.
Many of the songs on the album are by your friends and contemporaries. Have you played your versions of their songs for them? What do they think of them and the project as a whole?
Some of the guys and girls have heard their songs, but most people don’t believe the shit I talk about and especially when I’d say it was called Hard Working Americans. I think most people thought I was kidding. Plus, I’m always talking about putting some show on behind the barn, you know? So I think they are mostly just starting realize that I really did join a band and all that.
With this first effort under your belt, are there any plans for more Hard Working Americans material in the future, like a set of originals? And if so, will it be about hard working Americans?
I hope we can write some of our own songs and we are going to try to make some stuff up when we are in Chicago and it will be about Hard Working Americans. Yes. Also soft boiled.