PHOTO: TOBIN VOGGESSER
Hard Working Americans
Hard Working Americans
Melvin Records/Thirty Tigers
(Editor’s Note: Awards shows have a way of bringing renewed attention to the artists and works that receive nominations, and with their recent 2014 Americana Honors and Awards nomination in the Duo/Group of the Year category, we decided to revisit the debut album by Hard Working Americans.)
Singer-songwriter Todd Snider maintained his fierce artistic pace with the release in January of his third album within a year — the eponymous debut by Hard Working Americans, his side project with Widespread Panic bassist Dave Schools. Some side project!
HWA is a jam band supergroup of sorts, fronted by Snider, and including not only bandleader Schools, but also guitarist Neal Casal (Chris Robinson Brotherhood), drummer Duane Trucks (Col. Bruce Hampton’s School of Music) and keyboardist Chad Staehly (Great American Taxi), who introduced Snider to Schools.
Produced by Schools and Snider, Hard Working Americans surprisingly doesn’t contain any band originals, but rather carefully curated covers the band claims completely as their own with their inventive interpretations. The 11 songs included were chosen from a group of 25-or-so Snider sent to Schools before the band convened for two weeks last fall at Bob Weir’s TRI Studios in San Rafael, Calif., to record the album. Several of Snider’s pals are among the writers whose songs appear on the full-length, including Will Kimbrough, Chuck Mead, Tommy Womack, Hayes Carll and Kevn Kinney.
Hard Working Americans is a very “real” record. There’s no gimmickry here, just prodigious musical synchrony; a groovy, meaty musical mix that travels from the swamp to the mountain, with a few juke joints in between. It is a decidedly Southern-sounding album, drawing upon the region’s rich musical heritage for its simmering rock recipe, a compelling blend of blues, gospel, R&B, roots country and classic Southern rock.
The album is full of inspired performances. The rhythm section of Trucks and Schools percolates throughout, supplemented at times by Staehly and Casal, who take turns in the spotlight. Casal shows himself to be a budding guitar god, contributing immensely to the record’s big sound. And Snider’s gritty, soulful vocal performances are equal to the album’s accomplished musicianship.
While there are no throwaway tracks on Hard Working Americans, a few cuts deserve specific mention. The record kicks off with a swampy, tom-tom heavy arrangement of Frankie Miller’s “Blackland Farmer,” which Snider discovered when his friend and sometimes collaborator Elizabeth Cook covered the song on her critically acclaimed album Welder. HWA’s version features some atmospheric slide guitar work by Casal.
The opener is followed by “Another Train,” cowritten by Kimbrough and Gwil Owen. Snider told Schools he wanted to sound like “Ozzy Osbourne” on “Another Train” and the result is the album’s hardest-hitting track, highlighted by Casal’s heavy riffage and soaring solos.
The band’s barrelhouse boogie arrangement of Carll’s “Stomp and Holler” has received considerable airplay on Americana radio stations, and deservedly so. John Popper of Blues Traveler sits in on this track and delivers a blistering harmonica solo.
Their take on Kinney’s “Straight to Hell” is another standout track. Building from just guitar and vocal to a full-blown rock anthem, it’s become a favorite at their concerts with the crowd singing along to the chorus: “I’m going straight to hell/Just like my momma said/I’m going straight to hell.”
HWA gives “I Don’t Have A Gun,” which was cowritten by Kimbrough and Womack, a laid-back, trippy arrangement. Staehly’s jazzy electric piano opens the track which features some quintessential lead guitar noodling by Casal. The band recorded a longer version of “I Don’t Have A Gun” which transitions over the same groove into a recitation by Snider of Gil Scott-Heron’s chilling “Work For Peace.” That exceptional recording was released as a 7-inch vinyl single for Record Store Day last year on Black Friday under the title “Don’t Wanna Hurt Nobody,” and is still available for purchase online.
As a rule, so-called super groups like Hard Working Americans usually have a short lifespan. Based on this impressive debut, let’s hope HWA is the exception.
Hard Working Americans plays Acme Feed & Seed (101 Broadway) on Wednesday, July 30, to benefit the Shalom Foundation. Doors at 6, show at 7:30. Tickets are available now.