With Dave Schools, Chad Staehly, Neal Casal and Duane Trucks in tow, the Nashville raconteur assembles indie supergroup Hard Working Americans. True to that monicker, he’s also got a tour to undertake, a book about to come out, and another solo album in the works.
BY JOHN B. MOORE
Todd Snider has had hit songs, he’s got a loyal following that span the globe and has made fans out of everyone from John Prine and Billy Joe Shaver to Jimmy Buffett.
What he hasn’t had, at least up until now, is a band.
But thanks to a handful of friends willing to take a step away from their day jobs for a while, Snider is in a band! At least for a few months.
Along with his longtime buddy David Schools, bassist with Widespread Panic, and keyboardist Chad Staehly (Great American Taxi), Snider set out to assemble Hard Working Americans, one of the coolest cover bands to ever find their way into a studio. The trio grabbed guitarist Neal Casal (The Chris Robinson Brotherhood) and drummer Duane Trucks (King Lincoln) to fill out the band.
The result is a self-titled record boasting brilliant re-workings of songs by artists (and many band friends) as eclectic as Drivin’ N Cryin’, The Bottle Rockets and Randy Newman.
Self-effacing, charming, funny and most likely a bit baked, Snider got up early one morning (ok, around 11 am his time) recently to talk about the genesis of the band, his soon-to-be released book and how the co-founder of the Croc shoe empire helped make The Hard Working Americans a reality.
BLURT: So when you were putting this band together, how well did you know these guys?
I had seen Neal play but didn’t know him. I met him after one of the Chris shows, and then when me and Dave and Chad decided we were going to be in a band, we made a list of guitar players and he was at the top of all three of ours. And then when we started looking for a drummer, we thought if anyone’s going to know who the best drummer is right now it’s going to be David and he told us he thought Duane was coming into his prime and, you know, I kind of think he is. He’s kind of the star of the group in a ways.
Was it tough for you guys to try and find the time to put this together? They are all in full time bands, and obviously you have your thing going on.
Uh huh, and I think that’s what sort of surprised everybody. I think if we had hit any kind of roadblock it sort of would have just dissolved. Part of what made it happen in my opinion – you know I’ve never been in another band, so I can’t speak for these other guys – it felt so odd that everyone had this kind of time. And my only job was to find the songs and sing. So I had collected some songs from my friends and in the bio I had said they were perfect and I regret that. I wished I had said that I liked them a lot; I wouldn’t know a perfect song from a shitty one, I know what I like. I have a lot of songwriters that I admire; I think they’re more melodic than I am. I’ve only got a few songs that could measure up to what this band is trying to achieve. It’s trying to be very lyrical, but also very melodic. I’m kind of a talking lyrics guy. I sing ok, I’m not the best, but I’m ok.
I think there are a lot of people who would say you’re a lot more than “just ok.”
I think I’d be able to pass a lie detector test, if they asked “are you singing from your heart?” and I answered “yes.” I hope it would say “he’s telling the truth.” You can’t control the amp or tone of your sound. You don’t get knobs on your throat; you just get what you got. I think I can hit most of the notes.
Where there any songs you wanted to cover, but for whatever reason they just weren’t working out?
You know, there was one song called “If I Were Born on the Right Side of Town” by Kevn Kinney and I couldn’t get it. The track was good, but the vocal goes up an octave in a way that I thought I could get, but I couldn’t. There’s some kind of life in it that Kevn Kinney put there that I couldn’t find my own place with it. That song really moves me in a big way, but for some reason I was immediately daunted by his vocal and just couldn’t take it anywhere.
But “Straight to Hell” (by Kevn Kinney’s band Drivin’ N Cryin’) was a nice compromise.
Yeah, “Straight to Hell,” as soon as we started it, we realized we had found our own spot. With the other song, it wasn’t that we couldn’t get it; we just couldn’t bring anything new to it.
Was that something that you specifically set out to do? Bring something new to each of these songs?
Yeah, we called it Putting ‘Em Through the Hard Working Americans’ Treatment. I wouldn’t say folk songs, but songs of my friends really, because there is no another way to classify them. We definitely wanted to reconfigure them in a way that would make (the songwriters) feel honored and also to let them become whatever it was we were.
Did you consider writing your own songs at all for this band in the beginning?
Yeah, I don’t feel like I could ever make up songs that I was as attached to as these in a year or two… I have 14 news songs, but where I am with writing songs is I don’t really want to have choruses. The place at where I’m at is not what I really wanted to do with a band; it’s more what I like to do musically alone. I don’t think they would be good for this group. I like to think this group is just more about serving the song, that’s what David always says and he’s our leader… I like being a folk singer and making up songs every two years, but I also like this idea of being a band and combing our friends for the best songs we can find. Songs that really get to us the most.
I admit it’s a little unfair to ask you this because the album just came out, but have you thought about getting together with these guys to do more records. Or was this always conceived as just a one-off project?
We’d like to do it again. There’s a certain level that I suppose we’d have to succeed, that none of us are going to pay attention to, a certain amount of people would have to get this record to allow us to do this again. I can’t imagine the guy that paid for us to make this one would want to do another if this one didn’t sell. He’s a good guy though. He lives up here in Boulder (CO) and his name is George Boedecker and he’s this kind of Hunter Thompson type. (Editor’s note: Boedecker is the founder of Melvin Records, the label that put out the Hard Working Americans album.) He invented those shoes with the holes in them. (Editor’s note, pt. 2: Boedecker is also the co-founder of Crocs. I shit you not.) He’s kind of part of the band, you know.
So as you’ve said this is your first time being in an actual band. Did it turn out to be everything you thought it’d be? Was it strange having other people around you that you had to talk over ideas with?
Yeah, I try not to do anything without everyone else. Right now I’m just learning new things. We had rehearsal yesterday and after I wrote a letter to a friend and I said “Yesterday I learned more about music in one day than I had learned over the past decade.” So for me, I feel like the best thing I can do in the band is just sing and really support everyone and just really try and let this group of people… Everybody is just really creative, every one of them, and its fun to watch them together, so I try and butt in as little as possible. When asked, I have opinions and ideas. It’s a fun time when we’re all together, we have a good time. Neil handles the artwork for the record and David went in and mixed the record, when it’s time to do the booking of the tour and all that jazz, Chad’s handling that. And all I had to do was look for songs.
So everyone has a job?
Yeah, everyone has a job. Duane’s job is to try and get arrested and date chicks to keep us in the papers that way.
So do you see more shows with the band in 2014?
It kind of depends on the timing. I know the other guys have tours with their bands. I can always postpone a folk tour. I love it right now. My main thing is learning what I can. I like being around positive people. Nobody in this band is clinging to this and hoping that it turns into something else. There’s not a brass ring chaser in the whole ensemble, there’s not a bean counter in the group. Nobody gives a shit about anything but getting high and jamming. We’ve got a great guy looking out for us and everybody’s got a day job. It’s sort of like a surprise side job. We’re all life musicians and never cared about stuff like (radio hits). You can’t ever see past the first three rows anyway, so it doesn’t really matter how far (the audience) goes after that.
Do you mind talking for just a minute about the book you have coming out?
Oh yeah, it comes out in April and is called I Never Met a Story I Didn’t Like, but its more about dropping names and getting high. I think it’s kind of funny. I did it really in a blur. It starts out with a story about Jimmy Buffett, and then there’s one about Jerry Jeff Walker, and then there’s one about a kid I grew up with, and one about Slash. A lot encounters with famous people, I guess.
Having seen you perform a few times over the years, I know your stories about your songs tend to change from show to show, are these stories as you best remember them or is it a little bit of fiction as well?
Those stories are all in the book. When I’m telling the stories (on tour), sometimes I’ll change them up, but in the book I point out which parts are true, which parts I lied about and here’s why I lied about them.
You had mentioned earlier that you had some new songs written. Do you plan on putting out another album of your own soon?
Yeah, I think so and I might even have some of the guys in this band play on it, we just won’t call it a Hard Working Americans record. I might even have them help me write some of the melody. I have 13 lyrics and I’ve written melodies for all of them and a few are in good shape. The rest I may need to tinker with.
Photo Credit: James Martin