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A chat with Hard Working Americans’ Todd Snider: Labor of love

Hard Working Americans release their extraordinary debut album Jan. 21.
Hard Working Americans release their extraordinary debut album Jan. 21.
James Martin

Proponents of the “big bang theory” speculate that after a period of extreme heat and rapid expansion, the universe cooled sufficiently to allow energy to be converted into various subatomic particles, including protons, neutrons, and electrons.

Put another way, an incredibly staggering creation arose from seemingly shambolic chaos. And if that still doesn’t do it for you, ya got somethin’ amazin’ out of next to nothin’ – which pretty much describes the recording sessions for Hard Working Americans’ remarkable self-titled debut, set for a Jan. 21 release.

HWA is the brainchild of talented singer-songwriter Todd Snider, bringing together the prodigious talents of an all-star roster of musicians: bassist Dave Schools (Widespread Panic), guitarist Neal Casal (Chris Robinson Brotherhood), drummer Duane Trucks (Col. Bruce Hampton’s School of Music) and keyboardist Chad Staehly (Great American Taxi).

Throw in a little cameo work from John Popper (Blues Traveler) and producer John Keane and you have somethin’ pretty amazin’. “Supergroup” is a word that gets used about as much as “bathroom tissue” – but for Snider and his band of merry musicians, it fits like a glove.

Tunesmith Snider chatted with me about the new collective and the dynamic new record as the band readied for the release. The artist acknowledged that he formed the band “because I wanted to be in a band that wanted to be great, whatever that meant.” And given the fact that the album is a collection of Snider’s self-professed “perfect songs,” the greatness was close to guaranteed.

“I'm so proud of that one,” crowed Snider. “It’s easier to be excited about because I did so little. I can almost brag about it, you know? It’s almost like I want to say, ‘Except for the singer, this s**t is the s**t! And then when I'm by myself with my wife, I'm like, ‘I sang pretty good right? Sound pretty good? Nobody ever called me a singer before (laughing). But I got heart.”

“In an emotional sort of way, that’s sort of how it started for me – bein’ a song that I felt like, ‘Oh, I wish I’d a said that’ or that got me somehow. And usually if a song really gets me, I’ll remember all the words.”

“So those songs for some reason are in a pile of about 20. But for some reason, there’s a little line in every one of them or a part of one of them that I just always kept. Trying to be the singer of them is harder. I would probably go down in the first round of a contest. But I mean to do them honor. I mean to make the writers happy.”

“I like singing other people’s songs more than my own. On other people’s songs, I can sing these songs and I'm not going, ‘Does this need another verse? Man, I love this song but ohhh, I’d like this line f**king out.’ On these, I don’t do that. These are great. I hate these people. These songs are perfect. I'm jealous of the people who wrote them.”

To say that the album is a dream fulfilled for Snider vastly understates its importance to the veteran performer. After all, it’s taken him two decades to amass the avowed tuneful perfection – featuring songs by Gillian Welch, Kevin Gordon, Kieran Kane, Tommy Womack, Will Kimbrough, Kevn Kinney, Brian Henneman, Hayes Carll and Randy Newman. But for Snider, the debut also satisfied several, ahem, “primal essentials.”

“Oh yeah,” he admitted . “I've always wanted to be part of a jam for starters. Most people don’t like to be called s**it, but I don’t mind. I’ll be called whatever. I like ‘jam band.’ That’s my thing – girls with hula hoops and no shoes.”

“And as much as I like lyrics and think that’s kind of how I got in, I always thought that music’s deepest thing that it could do would be to make you move. As much as I'm a folk house person, I always thought that the root of what music did, not to sound silly, was it got you laid or it made you move or made you do things.”

For “mortal” musicians, the challenge of capturing improvisational brilliance in the studio is daunting. But Snider and his hard working bandmates – all experienced extemporizers – were more than up to the task.

“Well for me personally, it was very easy. It started with David Schools deciding to do it at that place TRI (Studios). That place is really dialed in, so it was almost like we could do whatever we wanted without having to re-set up stuff.”

“And then he and the guys took over and I would sing and I wouldn’t even play anything. Or I would just kind of move and sing and they’d start playing along. So some of these songs aren’t necessarily the same ones ‘cause we were just wanting to be our own thing, we wanted to have our own versions. It was all David’s idea and then everybody had lots of ideas.”

“I’d stand there and sing and clap and then one of those guys would say, ‘I have an idea. It’s probably stupid, but check this out.’ And every time one of them would say that, I’d be like, ‘All right, I’m gonna go get some coffee.’ Then I’d come back and it was cool to get to watch. And I would just sit there and watch them work s**t out.”

“They would spend a couple of hours jamming on it and talking about it. It was all kinds of stuff that I don’t know how to do on my albums, so it was fun to go, ‘Oh f**k, so that’s how they do that s**t.”

“You now what, I just had the best seat in the house and I got to pick the f**king songs. It was like I won something. And it was amazing and you could go back and forth and say they all left their egos at the door. Or it almost sometimes felt like they all just brought ‘em in and nobody gave a s**t.”

“I don’t even know how you describe that, ‘cause they were wide open to share their ideas. And they all just got along and they laughed and I’d be just going, this is f**king crazy. And then they’d say, ‘All right, we’re gonna try another one Todd. We’re gonna raise it up a key too.’”

“The hope is to try to be hard to describe. I don’t know why it feels like that’s the most uniquely true thing. It feels like if everyone’s just doing their own thing, it becomes this thing you haven’t heard before, as opposed to, ‘You guys give it a ZZ Top vibe and we’ll do a Dead thing.’”

“I've got a bunch of new songs. We’re all getting together on Sunday to start rehearsing for the tour and I wanted to bring some new songs. ‘Hard Working’ version. I'm excited about the idea of bringing some lyrics to these guys and saying, ‘All right, guide me.’”

Incredibly, Snider tried for years to drum up interest from some of the young musicians that he’d been playing with to no avail. But when I suggested that the album couldn’t have been recorded with anyone other than the current band – the “unwashed cast iron skillet” – Snider provided one of his matchless insights.

“Maybe not. I tried to get young kids to do it but they wouldn’t listen to me. But if I was gonna talk to a young person, the first thing I would say to do is tell all old people who tell you what to do to 'F**k off!'”

“So I admire all the young people who ignored me. And I wouldn’t have trusted the ones that didn’t (laughing). I’d of thought, ‘Ahhhh bullsh**t.’ But I was glad that somebody struck up the idea that we were still relevant.”

For accomplished musicians, it can be a challenge to always be relevant and “keep it fresh.” But after spending a few minutes with the Hard Working bandleader, this music fan just doesn’t see that happening to this band.

“That is because one of the things that I do ‘em for is to learn. And most musicians’ favorite, happiest time is, to be frank, when they’re a little bit f**ked up and they’re jamming with somebody who’s showing them s**t.”

“And for me, I'm learning about all the instruments and a ton about arranging and also about shows. I really wanted to learn from David, especially about performing live. I had ideas about the live show that he was like, ‘Nope!’”

“As soon as he said it, I was like, ‘Oh f**k! See, this is what I'm here for. I get it now.’ It was like he turned the lamp on. I was like, ‘Oh yeah, we can't f**king do that, we’ll look like idiots.’ I'm not even going to tell you what it was.”

“At the end of the day the hope is that you can make some sounds to distract people from their ‘impending doom’ (laughing). But hopefully it’s a joyous noise and people dance around to it and get laid and then wake up and think about what the words were – maybe when they listen to the album. Don’t listen to the words at the gig. Look at the girls and dance. And then go home and think about our mission to save America somehow (laughing).”

After listening to Hard Working Americansnew album – and spending some time with Todd Snider – America seems just a little safer…

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