Hard Working Americans
Hard Working Americans
3.5 out of 5 stars
This ad hoc group of talented roots rockers is fronted by the perpetually shaggy Todd Snider. He leads Widespread Panic bassist Dave Schools, guitarist Neal Casal, drummer Duane Trucks and keyboardist Chad Staehly through eleven predominantly obscure covers that lyrically and musically are thematically linked to the “hard working Americans” conceptual banner. These tunes are written and played by under-the-radar Americana artists, about the blue collar class striving to better themselves despite oppressive economic and sociological odds.
If that sounds dry or academic, one spin will leave the listener convinced that this is a gutsy, no frills band digging into some terrific songs they love, by writers whose vision and work ethic they evidently respect. The performances typically rock hard as on the grinding version of Will Kimbrough’s “Another Train” that’s not far from early Led Zeppelin and a rugged, swampy attack on “Blackland Farmer,” grabbed from Elizabeth Cook. The intent is to apply a fresh spin on this material, opening up the music to the player’s own, somewhat darker, tougher vision. That’s easy to do with Drivin’ ‘n Cryin’s “Straight to Hell” which becomes a teary, meditative lament here, a change from the original’s far more boisterous, sing-along rumble. A stripped down, slide guitar driven take on of Randy Newman’s “Mr. President (Have Pity on the Working Man),” is self-explanatory and remains as relevant today as when Newman released it on his 1974 classic Good Old Boys. The Americans open up, grinding like the Stones circa Exile on Main Street for Hayes Carll’s “Stomp & Holler” and drag Kimbrough and Tommy Womack’s “I Don’t Have a Gun” through the Muscle Shoals muck.
As wonderful as it always is to hear the wit and harsh truths of the Bottle Rockets’ biting “Welfare Music,” the HWA don’t improve or even substantially revamp it from the original on 1995’s The Brooklyn Side. The closing “Wrecking Ball” (no, not Miley or even Emmylou, but the lesser heard gem from David Rawlings & Gillian Welch) is mainly a solo acoustic showpiece for Snider. Even though it’s an emotional reading, it doesn’t display the intuitive collaboration at the heart of this impressive debut.
The outfit had never played together before these sessions, so it’s somewhat of a surprise that the sound gels around a loose yet earthy aesthetic. The members of Hard Working Americans interact effortlessly, exposing us to some wonderful material we might not have heard without their crate digging. As a debut for five musicians who are busy with their own careers, let’s hope there is a follow-up sooner rather than later.