A Q&A with Dave Schools of Hard Working Americans

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Well that song is so appropriate for the album and for the times that we live in. I think the sense of uncertainty that so many people feel will give this album resonance to a lot of listeners.

I think so, too. There was really nothing we could have followed that with. There’s nothing left to say in this particular chapter of the Hard Working Americans after that and after all you’ve been through through the course of the record.

Did Todd come in with a bunch of songs and then you all whittled them down to eleven?

He sent around 20, 25 songs, sort of original versions. And we all listened to them a lot, but fully knowing that the intent was not to recreate the feeling of the original song, the intent was to make it our own. And like I said it was easy because it was a new band and everybody was excited to get to play together and know each other. And ideas came about easily.

And he came in with some interesting ideas at the end. He showed up with a Gill Scott-Heron tune called “The Military and the Monetary,” which was more like a poem about peace and war — the business of war and the business of peace. And we wound up working it into the Will Kimbrough song “I Don’t Have a Gun.”

When I was talking to Todd earlier, he said he conceived of this project as a way to merge the poetics of a folkie with the more advanced musical sensibilities of people who are involved in the jam band scene. Did you see it as that kind of collaboration?

I understood what he was going for. I didn’t have any preconceived notions about how this material was going to sound, it was an interesting way to approach a project as a producer, because I’m going into an expensive studio with people who are away from home, which is pretty precious time to traveling musicians. So I want to know what’s happening, I want to have a really good idea of how we’re going to approach getting at the end goal. But the end goal of this was really up in the air … it was like we really didn’t know what we were going to sound like. So to think that having a jam band interpreting traditional songwriting would have been a mistake. However, the grand old tradition of jam bands of throwing the cards in the air and letting them fall where they may was definitely in place.

Well he said y’all put him in front of the microphone and he’d do his little dance and you would kind of play off that.

Yeah, well, that’s basically it. Sometimes he wouldn’t’ be playing the guitar, he’d be stomping his feet in a rhythm and sort of singing the melody. And that’s what we’d base it on. That’s where it all comes from. People clapping and stomping and singing along – that’s songwriting. Whether it was cave people banging rocks together and grunting, if they were able to do it together, then why can’t we add some guitars and bass and keyboards to it and have it be a song?

Did you have any trepidation about covering Drivin N Cryin’s “Straight to Hell,” which is such an iconic song for anyone who grew up in the South during the ’80s?

No, I’ve known [Drivin N Cryin frontman] Kevn [Kinney] forever. He’s sat in with Widespread Panic, and he’s always been a fixture at Warren Hayes’ Christmas jam. “Straight to Hell” is one of those songs. But to tell you the truth I had no trepidation. I just knew that I did not want it to be a big fast country two-step sing-a-long. In fact, that was the first song we cut in the studio. We attacked “Straight to Hell,” it was the first thing we did and it was sort of the bold experiment in deconstruction that gave us a thumbs-up for what we were going to try to do with the rest of the material. It’s like, you know, why can’t we do this song as a mournful ballad or a gospel song? So we changed the key because it fit Todd’s voice better, he could hit the high note, and then Chad started playing the intervals on the organ and immediately put it into this sort of church dirge kind of thing. And I’m like, well there’s some real power here, and if the song isn’t a happy crazy sing-a-long then the power comes more from how you interpret the words.

Which is another thing about a great song that I will always bring up:  if you write the words properly, if you write them from your heart and soul and don’t get too specific about things, then anyone who hears it can always attach their own meaning to it. And that’s when people grab hold of a song and put it in their hearts.

So any trepidation I might have had about doing a song like “Straight to Hell” was immediately washed away when I heard our version of it. And Kevn dropped by the studio in Athens when we were mixing it. He sat there and he was just blown away because he had never heard anyone cover his song. And he had certainly never envisioned it being done quite like that. So that was another thumbs-up for Todd and I because these songs aren’t our children. They are children that belong to other people and we sort of babysat those kids and returned them to their parents dressed in a different set of clothes and possibly even armed.

So there’s always a little of bit of – gosh, what’s Hayes Carll going to think when he hears what we did to “Stomp and Holler”? But I think our intent was pure and hopefully they’ll have the same sort of reaction that Kevn had, which was positive and surprising. Certainly we want to surprise them because anyone can take these beautiful melodies and just go, “Hey, you know, we recreated your song exactly how you played it on that record you recorded.” I’d be like “Great, thanks.”

Well, the folk tradition is all about borrowing and adapting. And in rock music, people are a little touchier about covering songs and about pride of authorship. But it’s cool that y’all did a covers album, especially when it’s one of the best songwriters around, singing lead, it gives it a whole new kind of twist.

It does. I think every single person in this band grew up listening to Led Zeppelin and hearing “Whole Lotta Love” and then paying attention to all the legal mess that Zeppelin go into. They really did straddle that line of – are we reinterpreting or are we plagiarizing? Should we give credit to the people who we lifted this from?

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