What happens when you take the carefully crafted lyrics of some of Americana's best songwriters and hand their tunes to a bunch of instrumental wizards from the jam band scene? You get the debut album from Hard Working Americans, out Jan. 21.
Leading this magical musical science project is one of the business' great mad scientists, Todd Snider. Snider has long been associated with the folk and Americana scene but in recent years he has also gained friends in the jam community through multiple festival dates and his work with Great American Taxi. In an "open letter" released in November, Snider wrote "I’ve been standing in between these two worlds, and thinking that the people in each of them were meant for each other. 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?"
For the Hard Working Americans project, Snider assembled an all-star lineup of jam musicians including Dave Schools from Widespread Panic, Neal Casal of Chris Robinson Brotherhood, Chad Staehly of Great American Taxi, and Duane Trucks of the Trucks Family. He then went out and selected songs from some of his favorite songwriters including Will Kimbrough, Tommy Womack, Hayes Carll, Randy Newman, and Gillian Welch for the group to cover.
"Hard Working Americans" sets itself apart from most covers albums in that the band manages to make the 11 tracks from different writers, musical styles, and eras have one cohesive sound. A layman unfamiliar with these songs would likely have no idea they weren't Hard Working Americans originals. Along with co-producer Dave Schools, Snider's arrangements of the songs give everything a dirty blues-rock groove that never sounds forced.
When your band is called Hard Working Americans, you can expect the songs to display a strong Populist bent. Randy Newman's "Mr. President (Have Pity on the Working Man)" fits snugly with The Bottle Rockets' "Welfare Music" and Frankie Miller's "Blackland Farmer." The remainder of the songs are tales of the kind of "fringe of society" dwellers that make Snider's solo albums so rich.
Not surprisingly, the standout tracks on "Hard Working Americans" come from artists Snider has collaborated with in the past. Both of Will Kimbrough's offerings are outstanding, with "Another Train" offering a barn burner blues rocker and his co-write with Tommy Womack, "I Don't Have a Gun" being given a more lush production than the searingly spare version on Kimbrough's "Godsend." Also among the album's best offerings is the lead single, Hayes Carll's "Stomp and Holler."
While those songs are the best of "Hard Working Americans" offerings, there isn't a dud among the album's 11 songs. If this band was an experiment, it was a successful one and if this debut album is any indication, we can only hope this isn't a one-off collaboration. With one of America's best songwriters at the helm, it'd be a shame not to hear this stellar band burn through an album of Snider originals.