(Left to right: Duane Trucks, Chad Staehley, Neal Casal, Todd Snider, Dave Schools)
Look for our feature article on Hard Working Americans in the January/February 2013 issue.
Dave Schools is best known as the bassist for legendary Southern jam band Widespread Panic. But this wailer is no one-trick pony: the Richmond, Virginia, native is also an accomplished producer and a member of the new folk-hippy supergroup Hard Working Americans, which is helmed by Todd Snider. We spoke with Schools recently about producing the group’s debut album and playing bass for this wily group of miscreants.
What was your initial reaction to the project when you were first approached about it?
An emphatic yes, I said I’d love to do it. Anytime I can get a chance to work with Todd, I’ll take it. He’s such a great, positive, entertaining, and special person. Whether it’s just playing bass behind his music or talking about stuff or a project like this, the answer is yes.
So this wasn’t the first time you’d worked with him?
It’s the first time in the studio, I think. Todd and his band The Nervous Wrecks opened a lot of shows for [Widespread] Panic sometime back in the mid-’90s, and that’s how we kind of got to know each other. And then we reconnected in Nashville when Panic was touring with the Allman Brothers, celebrating their 40th anniversary.
I hadn’t seen Todd in a while. He never fell off the radar or anything personally, but we reconnected and last fall he calls out of the blue and says, “I’m playing a gig at the Napa Opera House, do you want to play with me?” And I’m like “sure,” so we did. We had a three piece. We hired a friend of mine, Paulo Baldi, who plays with the band Cake, to play drums. And we just did a Todd set as a trio and had a real good time.
Next thing I know, he’s like “I got this sort of supergroup I’m going to put together. And I want you to produce a record and play bass.” I said, “Can we do it out here at TRI [Studios]?” The answer was, from his part, an emphatic “yes.” So really that’s how it all got set in motion. Didn’t really know too much about what ideas he and Chad had already conceived, but as we communicated, the material came through, [and I saw] that it was going to be a covers record and that the idea was for a sort of dream team band to basically deconstruct and reconstruct these cover songs in our own image.
As I listened to the original versions of the songs, it became quite obvious that these were friends of Todd’s, fellow songwriters, people he looked up to and in some cases didn’t necessarily know. Others he had known for decades. He had been collecting these tunes for quite some time. So it was just a matter of nailing down the personnel in the band and getting in the studio. That came easy: it was just absolutely wonderful when Duane Trucks and Neal Casal signed on because they’re spectacular players. As a producer, I knew that it was going to go one of two ways: it was either going to be great with all these great players who’ve never played together, or it was going to be a garbled mess, which could be fun anyway. So I knew we were going to have fun and of course it turned out to be great, as I think the record evidences.
The record has a really tight sound and a thematic vibe running through it.
The thematic vibe was part of Todd’s idea, which was to sort of have it be like a soundtrack to a person’s life, that each song represents a tipping point or watershed moment in this ordinary Joe kind of person, as they go through life. They fall in love, they make terrible mistakes, they get some redemption, they understand themselves, they commit crimes – all kinds of things. Really, it just worked out great.
And then the Gillian Welch tune, “Wrecking Ball,” as an end-cap really just put a punctuation mark – put a real period – on the end of the whole thing, because so many times in life you go through periods where you think you’ve learned a lot and you sort of look back and you get this view, and that was such an emotional rendering of the song from Todd. He came in the studio, he was practically in tears by the end of the vocal track, and he’s like “You had me repeat that first verse, which Gillian doesn’t do. And when I started singing the first verse again, it’s like every fucked up thing I ever did in my life hit me.”
It was just one of those special moments in a studio where electricity is just filling the air and a great performance gets captured. And that’s what we all live for. So to have that as the sort of end-cap of this journey through a person’s life and realizing that the journey starts over – there’s never any definitive decisions made based on what you’ve done in the past, or any redemption you may have gotten. You could lose it all at any second or you can do something wonderful with it. And hopefully people have many points in their lives like that, and I think a great song is always open to interpretation, no matter how you frame it, and I’m really proud of Todd’s performance on “Wrecking Ball,” I think it’s gorgeous.