[19 March 2014]
Hard Working Americans are a cover band fronted by idiosyncratic singer-songwriter Todd Snider and a group of musicians recruited from the rootsier side of the jam band scene. Guitarist Neal Casal has played with the Chris Robinson Brotherhood, Dave Schools is the bassist of Widespread Panic, Chad Staehly plays keyboards in Great American Taxi, and Duane Trucks is the drumming nephew of Allman Brothers’ drummer Butch. Snider being Snider, he’s chosen an unusual set of mostly lesser-known country and roots-rock songs for his band to cover. It also comes as no surprise that Snider and his handpicked band pretty much play the hell out of these songs.
On the other hand, Snider is a limited vocalist, so with him in the lead, everything the Hard Working Americans play sort of flattens out. The effect is one of a bar band with very good taste playing songs that they love but that their singer sometimes can’t really pull off. Opener “Blackland Farmer” is a radically darker version of a classic country song by Frankie Miller from 1959. Snider’s laconic delivery blends really well with Casal’s sliding blues guitar and Staehly’s funky organ. It’s a hell of an opener that leads nicely into an upbeat, hard rocking take on Will Kimbrough’s “Another Train”. Snider’s pleas to his woman to miss the train and stay the night are totally believable, although Casal’s showy guitar solo is a little much here.
It’s when the band slows things down that the Hard Working Americans start to run into problems. “Down to the Well” is mostly a straight cover of a song by Kevin Gordon, and there’s a palpable lack of energy to the song. Snider’s vocal issues become more apparent on Drivin’ and Cryin’s “Straight to Hell”, where he attempts to sing in what sounds like his softest possible voice for the bulk of the song. It sounds very forced and makes the whole track difficult to listen to. Sure, he eventually starts belting it out near the end of the song, but instead of a big climax it ends up feeling like too little too late. Kimbrough and Tommy Womack’s “I Don’t Have a Gun” features a similarly soft vocal but fares a bit better due, once again, to the keyboards and guitar playing. It also helps that the song is meant to be a drunken rant instead of a woe-is-me lament. The slow, acoustic treatment probably works best on the album’s closer, Gillian Welch’s “Wrecking Ball”. Welch’s lyrics are evocative and specific, and Snider clearly loves the song and manages to do it justice.
The rest of Hard Working Americans is similarly hit and miss, and it usually comes down to Snider’s delivery and his song choices. Recasting the Gibson Brothers’ bluegrass tune “Mountain Song” into a Grateful Dead-style country-rock song works, especially when Casal tosses off a note-perfect jam band guitar solo that could’ve come from anyone from Jerry Garcia to Phish’s Trey Anastasio to the guys from Moe. Hayes Carll’s “Stomp and Holler”, on the other hand, clearly finds the band having a blast playing it but Snider comes off as insincere singing Carll’s lyrics. This is particularly noticeable when he leans too hard on the song’s punchline, “I’m like James Brown only white and taller / All I wanna do is stomp and holler,” and saps it of most of its humor. The Bottle Rockets’ “Welfare Music” finds the band invested and playing with energy, but the early ‘90s song feels dated and the lyrics faintly ridiculous in 2014. Randy Newman’s “Mr. President (Have Pity on the Working Man)” demonstrates exactly how difficult it is to pull off Newman’s simultaneously sardonic and sympathetic vocal delivery. BR549’s “Run a Mile” falls squarely on the “hit” side of the ledger, though, as the band digs into the song’s bluesy groove and the mid-song hard rock breakdown gives the band one of its few chances to really rock out. And the vocal delivery falls right into Snider’s wheelhouse, which of course helps a lot.
Hard Working Americans is obviously a labor of love for Snider. It gives him a chance to loosen up and play a bunch of songs he really likes, and if it doesn’t work for listeners on every single track he probably doesn’t care all that much. But that doesn’t mean we can’t call him out for song choices that don’t quite work, and there are definitely some songs here on which Snider probably shouldn’t be singing lead vocals. Nevertheless, the album is an interesting collection of songs that effectively sheds a little light on some great songs from artists that often don’t get enough credit.