Hard Working Americans Come to terms with the fact that they are a living breathing rock and roll band and get back into the sandbox
By Sarah Baranauskas
“Everybody comes to the table with an innate sense of serving the song,” bassist Dave Schools said, taking time out of Widespread Panic’s recent three night stand in Vegas to talk to The Marquee about Hard Working Americans. “There are some veterans and there are some younger cats. Take Jesse [Aycock], growing up in Tulsa, where the musical legacy of restraint and playing just exactly the note that’s called for is immense. Or Neal Casal doing studio work with all these legends, he understands timing and tone. Duane [Trucks], with his family legacy and his involvement with Colonel Bruce Hampton. Chad Staehly, with all of the bluegrass and Americana mountain music he’s been involved with. As for me,” he continued with a laugh. “I don’t know anything. I’ve always lived in a world of freedom. I’m like a two year old that never got disciplined. Really, the loose cannons are Todd [Snider] and I. We need these other cats to keep us in check.”
When Hard Working Americans announced their formation in 2013, it was as an intriguing supergroup, forged from a shared love for songs that both celebrate and kick the doors open on the hard-scrabble life of the unsung underclass. It was these types of tunes that were given fresh approaches on their self-titled debut album. Now fast forward to this year’s Rest in Chaos (released May 13th on Melvin Records/Thirty Tigers). It is not only an artistic high-water mark for frontman/lyricist Snider, but also signals Hard Working Americans collectively discovering their own creative life force, morphing into an exciting, original voice in American music.
“We thought we’re just getting a band together to make an album and maybe do ten dates,” keyboardist Staehly said, speaking from his Colorado home. “Initially we never envisioned that we would be a living and breathing rock and roll band.”
Schools echoed that sentiment, and added, “The whole thing was suspect from the beginning. [Snider], one of America’s greatest songwriters, wants to make a covers record? But what Todd was doing was getting a group of people together to help him realize something. Only none of us knew it at the time — not even Todd, probably. He just knew he felt a little bit stuck in the paradigm of the folk singer, but he loved jam bands and rock and roll.”
Hard Working Americans followed the opposite course most bands traverse, as they recorded their debut album and then played their first show, a flood benefit at the Boulder Theater on December 20, 2013. Even with the experience, name recognition and professional camaraderie between the musicians, there was genuine uncertainty about what the band would sound like live. But that night was the first signal that Hard Working Americans might be more than a one-tour project, a realization that became more apparent as the band played more shows. Studio time was booked in Chicago, where the first tour ended.
Armed only with Snider’s poetry, some of it free verse he had been working on for years alongside his songwriting, the band worked with base elements to conduct an “experiment” as both Staehly and Schools called it.
“This alchemy took over,” Staehly said, describing the four days in Chicago that would lay the foundation for Rest in Chaos. “From the first day it was like songs were appearing out of thin air and Todd was figuring out ways to fit the lyrics he had into the songs. It came together in a really organic and natural way. It’s almost unexplainable.”
Snider trusted the band with his words, but it still took time — and further recording sessions — for the final cuts to solidify. As Schools, who has produced both Hard Working Americans records, explained, allowing for a free-flowing musical conversation sometimes required different approaches. “Todd would stop and read the lyrics if there was not a melody or a central tonic key yet,” Schools recalled. “Then we just tried to pull something out of the tonality of his voice, a tonic key to base a progression around. He has an innate personal rhythm, like anyone who speaks, sings or orates does, so that would become the initial tempo. We were like kids in a sandbox listening to these amazing words and finding music to go along with them. It took a long time because it’s not a normal process. But it seems that nothing is normal about this group.”
Rest in Chaos reflects this open approach. The thirteen tracks have room to stretch their muscly legs as they swagger around desperate, at times depraved, corners of the American psyche illuminated by Snider’s words and weathered vocals. His characteristic dry humor, along with driving Southern rock, west coast psychedelia and hip shaking rhythm and blues, give Rest in Chaos its moments of levity, sunlight splashed across a gritty barroom floor.
The timeline of making the album also saw Snider wrestle with some hefty life changes, such as a divorce and a move from his longtime home in East Nashville. Chaos is painted on both personal and worldwide canvases, to a world that appears to grow more unhinged and fearful by the day. Finding rest in that chaos is what Hard Working Americans are striving for.
“In order to dance, you have to let go of self-awareness for a little while,” Schools refleced. “Being riveted to the TV news and Twitter feeds and the two-inch screens that fit in our pockets, these electronic leashes that we carry around, that doesn’t help us achieve that state where we can dance. So if Hard Working Americans can help people achieve a state of freedom for a while and dance, then we are absolutely pleased. If some of Todd’s ideas and reflections on their struggles get in while they are dancing — double win.”
Free your mind and your ass will follow.
Hard Working Americans are living up to their go-get-em moniker. A third album is already in progress, with demos recently cut in the Cash Cabin in Hendersonville, Tenn. “We’re infused with the spirit of Johnny Cash and his legacy” Schools described. “We’re back in the sandbox again and who knows where it’s going to go.”
Go If You Dig:
- Drive-By Truckers
- Hayes Carll
- The Band