Punching in with Americana’s new supergroup
By Lynne Margolis
(LSM March/April 2014/vol. 7 – Issue 2)
Todd Snider may present himself as a barefoot-stoner folkie just bumbling his way through life, but anyone who’s listened to his endlessly clever songs and stories knows he’s far more astute than he admits. He’s actually a bundle of stereotype-confounding contradictions, one of which involves a 10 a.m. interview time. This is not an hour most musicians favor, but Snider claims he’s been up since 5 — make that 4 — a.m. He takes insomnia medication, but it doesn’t work.
“I’ll get six hours a day, but always in, like, two-hour patches,” he explains, talking from his East Nashville home. As he gets deeper into discussing his latest project, the album Hard Working Americans and the same-named band that made it, his stream-of-consciousness monologues do indeed sound like the utterings of someone who’s been wide awake for quite some time.
“Listen to me. Can you tell I’ve had 30 fucking cups of coffee and nine joints?” he confesses. “I gotta stop doin’ interviews because I’m turning into a mad person.” Told his interview ramblings are actually a delight — containing both information and commentary that’s laugh-out-loud funny, without requiring prompts to talk — he responds, in his charming deadpan, “Yeah. I can’t stop. I actually go to a doctor for it. I do it when I’m alone. This is what my house sounds like when no one’s in it but me.”
His wife and dogs undoubtedly have learned to live with his sleep habits and speech patterns, but when the Hard Working Americans entered Bob Weir’s TRI Studios in San Rafael, Calif., only Snider and keyboardist Chad Staehly had any kind of working relationship, or really even knew each other, for that matter. They had no idea whether they and the other three invited players — Widespread Panic bassist Dave Schools, Chris Robinson Brotherhood guitarist Neal Casal, and drummer Duane Trucks, of “the Trucks family lineage,” according to the album press release — would manage basic bonding, much less click as bandmates and potential touring companions.
But their collection of eclectic covers turned out so well, they’re already planning a follow-up. What they did this time around, though, is not merely an album full of cool songs chosen from several Snider had gathered. It’s got a point, too — a thematic arc that tells the story of America’s underclass: the low-wage earners, the welfare babies, the once-proud laborers losing livelihoods, the falsely accused, the perpetually screwed.
“In my mind it was this thematic presentation of the financial, spiritual, and sexual struggles of somebody who was living just toward the bottom of that middle-class part of America that is working hard while the rest of the country seems to want to argue about what it should do, or how it should be treated,” Snider says. “And it must just be this awful spot to be in. Most of the people I hang out with are there.
“I was wanting to tell the story of the America that I feel like I’ve spent most of my life around,” Snider explains. “Backstage at honky-tonks and venues like that, and hotels that strippers hang out at or stay in. I wanted to paint the picture of America that showed that side of it, but that showed that that side of it had Thanksgiving, and was just as family as you.
“Even with the band name, I wanted it to afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted,” he continues. “I wanted to take … say, Tea Party people, that type of a person who might naturally think the term ‘hard-working American’ applies to them. I want to be the one who stands up, for better or worse — if only for humorous reasons — and says, ‘Bullshit, so am I. So is Courtney Love, so is Mike Tyson, so is that guy on the street who mumbles shit to himself. We’re part of the fabric, too.’”
While en route somewhere in Los Angeles, Casal starts to explain his view of why the album turned out so well, then interrupts himself to hand some change to a panhandler — “which I’m happy to do,” he says. The exchange couldn’t be a more perfect nutshell manifestation of the album’s point: instead of judging, the “haves” might try having a little more understanding and compassion, and generosity.
“You can’t make a good record without good songs,” Casal observes. “Without that, we wouldn’t have had anything. So it really started with Todd’s really sound concept. ’Cause God knows, the world doesn’t need another covers record. But this is a covers record of a different sort. It’s the kind no one’s made yet. That’s really what pulls this whole thing together.”
The songs range from Randy Newman’s “Mr. President Have Pity on the Working Man” to Kevn Kinney’s Drivin ’n’ Cryin classic, “Straight to Hell.” The band turns Texan Frankie Miller’s “Blackland Farmer” into a slinky swamp-rocker and tunnels Will Kimbrough’s “Another Train” through some Led Zeppelin crunch. They also get rowdy with Hayes Carll’s “Stomp and Holler” (aided by guest John Popper’s harmonica). Kieran Kane, BR5-49’s Chuck Mead, and the Bottle Rockets’ Brian Henneman also appear in the album’s song credits, and the album wraps with an emotional version of Gillian Welch and David Rawlings’ “Wrecking Ball.” And on the version of Kimbrough and Tommy Womack’s “I Don’t Have a Gun” pressed to vinyl for Record Store Day, Snider drops in lines from Gil Scott-Herron’s “The Military and the Monetary.”
Casal’s fingers occasionally conjure Jerry Garcia glissandoes while Staehly goes for jazzy keyboard fills. Snider’s vocals are funky and spirited one minute, pensive or vulnerable the next — and soulful throughout. Each player brought exactly what they were supposed to: a sense of adventure and willingness to do whatever the songs dictated, without egos interfering.
The catalyst was Staehly, a founding member of Great American Taxi, the Colorado-based jam band that backed Snider on his 2012 tribute album, Time as We Know It: The Songs of Jerry Jeff Walker, and 2011’s Live: The Storyteller. Snider also produced Taxi’s Paradise Lost album and is putting out the band’s late-2014 release on his Aimless Records label. (He’s now an honorary member, too.)
One fact Snider doesn’t mention is that Staehly also co-manages him. So it’s unclear whether Staehly was acting as a friend or advisor when he instigated this project by suggesting that Snider, 47, hang out with musicians his own age for a change, instead of his usual company: Walker, Guy Clark, Kris Kristofferson, and Billy Joe Shaver, to name a few of his decades-older cronies. It must be noted that most singer-songwriters would kill for opportunities to spend time in such company, but when Staehly challenged Snider to contact Schools during a trip to San Francisco, the singer went for it.
In 1994, Snider and the Nervous Wrecks had opened some shows for Widespread Panic, one of his favorite bands. But he hadn’t stayed in touch, figuring a guy in one of the nation’s top-grossing touring bands had become “an intimidating rock star.” Snider, however, also fantasized about being “the Arlo Guthrie to the Phish and Widespread Panic people of the world” — in other words, the link between the folk and jam-band realms, like Dylan was to Grateful Dead fans.
Yes, Snider is aware that bands of that genre aren’t really into the “jam” tag. But he and Schools got together and did just that, and he loved it.
“We had fun, and it was like [jamming with] an old friend,” Snider admits.
“Once we had David Schools, I thought, ‘Well, the sky is the limit,’” Snider says. He called Casal because the Chris Robinson Brotherhood is his other favorite band. (Casal is also an alum of Ryan Adams’ Cardinals, and has done solo work, too).
Snider didn’t want to raid his two favorite bands for any more talent, so Schools recommended Trucks, an already-accomplished behind-the-beat player who’s been touring since his early teens. Trucks’ “lineage” includes Uncle Butch, the Allman Brothers drummer who sent him his first kit, and brother Derek, the guitarist who just announced his departure from the Allmans to concentrate on his own family unit, the Tedeschi Trucks Band. (And their great uncle, Virgil Trucks, pitched a pair of no-hitters in ’52 with the Detroit Tigers.) Young Duane’s fiancée, not coincidentally, is the daughter of Widespread Panic guitarist Jimmy Herring.
Recalls Snider, “When I listened, I said, ‘This is gonna be so fuckin’ fun.’”
Atlanta resident Trucks was equally thrilled.
“As a young gun, it’s really an honor to be around a bunch of guys you can look up to and feel justified looking up to,” he says. He had seen Casal play with the Cardinals, but admits, “As far as Todd and Chad and Neal’s solo stuff, all of it was brand new to me. And it was such an eye-opening thing getting to TRI and just being able to feel them out personally and musically, before, during, and especially after the recording session — just really digging into all of their catalogs and really getting into Todd’s stuff. He’s just such a deep well. There’s so much depth coming from everyone in the group.”
For Casal, participating was a no-brainer as well.
“Todd Snider, that level of songwriter, Dave Schools, that level of bass player, with the history that he has, the answer is, ‘Yes. We’ll get to know each other later. Let’s play some music.’ I want to be around these guys. That was the impetus for me. It was a very simple decision.”
And for Snider, it was a chance to get out of folk singer-songwriter mode.
“I just told them, ‘Dudes, I want to be in a rock band. I got y’all here to do whatever you wanted.’ But I told ‘em, ‘Let’s rock balls, too.’ In fact, if we go back in the studio, I wanna head toward Sabbath.”
Theme aside, Snider brought covers instead of originals because he didn’t want to give the band a folk-singer’s side-project feel, with tunes written in haste. He also admits, “I wanted this band to be more melodic than I am and I wanted to hopefully learn more about melody through this band. So I really thought it would make a better record if I just got better songs than my thoughts this year.”
By turning the players loose on these tunes, Snider says, he learned much about song structure.
“I remember Dave and me were talking about … going in there and trying to create our own thing with these words that meant so much to me. And it was great to watch them do that. That’s what I wanted to learn and be part of.”
Trucks loved the educational aspect, too.
“It’s been a revelation … being surrounded by musicians that are willing to just play for the song, and not letting ego or musical talent or any musical smarts get in the way,” he says. “Everyone in the band is very musically able. Their main goal is to play for the song, and making sure that these stories that Todd is telling, they all have a setting that brings the story out. That’s really been a huge learning curve for me, because it’s always something that you really strive for.”
It got even better when they rehearsed and performed live, Trucks says, because the attitude of serving the song didn’t go away when audiences showed up. “Some guys, in the studio, will go and play one way, and then when they’re in front of a group, play a different way,” he explains, “but these guys are just dead serious about making these songs what they are.”
Casal’s just happy there were no drama-queen moments. He’s lived through enough of those. Though he calls both Schools and Snider “fiery individuals,” their passion doesn’t involve tantrums, like the guitar-smashing rant his former Cardinals boss engaged in during an Austin City Limits taping several years ago. (Snider occasionally threatens to pursue his “new hobby” — stabbing people — but his bandmates remain unscathed. So far.)
“Certainly, we’re not just hanging around drinking chamomile tea ’cause we’re in our 40s and want to have an early night,” Casal says. “I get a lot of emails from Todd at, like, 4 in the morning … and I’m the same way. I stay up late. There’s all kinds of storms that are still raging in my heart. But it’s not drama for drama’s sake; it’s not bullshit.
“That’s one of the cool things about this Hard Working Americans band,” Casal continues. “We all came up with this same instant trust, where everyone has the room to bring their creative or artistic dramas right to the table without it ever becoming a personal trip. If someone’s having a weird moment, it’s like, just take a 15-minute break. Walk away and take a few deep breaths, have a quick conversation, and we’re back to it. You don’t have to break bands up over that kind of shit anymore.”
As far as Snider’s concerned, this band’s not going anywhere for a while.
“I think I might just want to be a Hard Working American now,” he says. “This feels like the group of people I wanna move forward with, with my songwriting. I’ve got a whole bunch of lyrics that I’ve written a bunch of music to; I write it, throw it out, write it, throw it out. And I keep going back to this record and the way it almost felt like we were rewriting these songs, starting with the drummer. And that’s what I want to do with my own stuff.”
They’re already planning to find another recording studio after a string of February dates, and talk excitedly about collaborating on originals.
“This time around, it’s going to be all new territory,” Trucks says. “I’m really excited to see the way it naturally develops. I think everyone is really pumped about how quick and easily the first week at TRI went. … It should be cool to get into a room without a set of songs and just see what happens organically.”
Adds Casal: “It was really one of those very fortunate record-making experiences, where everything from the players to the songs to the studio to the engineer all lined up in the right way. Instant friendships were forged. Genuine ones. We’ve all probably been around long enough to know when you’re forcing it or trying for something, and when it’s real. And it just felt that way right away. By the time we got into the second song, we just hit a gear. And that was it.”
Snider has no idea where the sessions might occur. And he’s fine with that — happy, in fact, that for once, he doesn’t have to make all the decisions. For this release, everyone took on jobs they wanted to do; Schools mixed the album and Casal, a photographer, handled the artwork (he also shot the cover photo for Snider’s upcoming book, I Never Met a Story I Didn’t Like: Mostly True Tall Tales, due May 1 from Da Capo Press). Heck, Snider doesn’t even have to talk onstage, much less do all of it, like he does at his solo shows. Except the concept of Todd Snider not talking onstage is so hard to comprehend, the very thought almost causes brain-freeze.
One thing he promises won’t happen is permanent poaching from the Americans’ other bands. There may be a roster of fill-ins for when they can’t make it, but the idea is to keep their spots secure as Americans and members of their more lucrative outfits. If Widespread Panic or the Chris Robinson Brotherhood lost key members because of him, Snider says, “I would have to jump off of something. To save Grateful Deaddom.”
But fear not, Snider disciples. Juggling jobs just makes them hard-working Americans.