It’s not unheard of for musicians to come together and immediately create a slew of inspiring sounds. But the lightning-speed at which some find success cannot be predicted. No one’s more surprised about Hard Working Americans’ quick rise to fame than bassist Dave Schools (Widespread Panic, Stockholm Syndrome) and his bandmates: vocalist Todd Snider, guitarist Neal Casal (Chris Robinson Brotherhood), keyboardist Chad Staehly (Great American Taxi), guitarist Jesse Aycock (Paul Benjaman Band and The Secret Sisters), drummer Duane Trucks (yes, Derek’s younger brother).
On December 20, 2013, the Hard Working Americans debuted to a sold-out crowd in Boulder, Colorado, to benefit the Colorado Flood Relief. Schools and company were shocked by the energy they shared onstage together; it was something they didn’t know they had.
“[However,] we discovered [our] innate ‘bandness’ on the road,” Schools relays. “We really didn’t know what was going to happen.”
At first listen, Schools said Hard Working Americans seemed like a rock band or psychedelic band or an Americana band. They addressed their identity with the attitude: anything goes.
“It’s a different network, because Widespread Panic’s thing has always been the whole is bigger than the sum of the parts,” Schools explains. “It’s about being a band and [collaborating], but also all the rules are suspended—other than the ones we developed for ourselves over 30 years of playing together. We’re all attracted to the idea that anything goes. Anything can and will happen.”
Though not everyone in Hard Working Americans had personal relationships with each other prior to their formation, they were acquainted in some way. Schools met Snider from his time touring with Widespread Panic in the ‘90s. He also watched drummer Duane Trucks grow up. He hadn’t met keyboardist Chad Staehly or guitarist Neal Casal, but knew of them from associations and bands they were in previously. Nevertheless, they learned a lot by touring together from the get-go.
“The whole thing could have been a complete miserable experience,” Schools admits, “but it wasn’t. . . . There’s a lot humor in togetherness and that’s really the only way to survive the road. We all look forward to the times we get to play together.”
For the rag-tag group of jammers, rockers and storytellers, the band debuted their self-titled album in January 2014, less than 30 days after the relief benefit. The group played onstage only once before releasing “Hard Working Americans.” Quickly, media outlets, from Rolling Stone to NPR’s Fresh Air to The Washington Post, hailed it. It also won the bid for the Americana Music Award’s Best Duo/Group of the Year.
Recorded at Bob Weir’s TRI Studios, the record was more or less a collection of songs that founder Todd Snider liked, restructured in Hard Working American fashion. “We went from an American rock band to a powerful rock ‘n’ roll band,” Schools clarifies.
Last October they released a live album, “The First Waltz,” as well as a concert rockumentary by Boulder, Colorado, filmmaker Justin Kreutzmann. Kreutzmann chronicled the band’s beginnings on the stage and in the studio. The film opens with an introduction of sorts from Snider:
“My fellow Americans, my name is Todd Snider, and I am a hard working American. Most people who don’t know me, don’t consider us hard working Americans or very American. We smoke grass all day, don’t go to church to pray. We think Jerry Garcia was as important as Ben Franklin was. . . . but here’s the other thing: I am also a flag-waving, country-loving, American patriot., and I feel like patriotism has been stolen from people like me. And it’s for that reason that I called my most talented hippie buddies, and I convinced them that we had to do something, and we have got to take that flag back for the silly. We will not stop singing and playing our songs of freedom.”
“The First Waltz” basically was made to introduce Hard Working Americans to the world (yes, a foil to Martin Scorsese’s “The Last Waltz,” which followed the final show of The Band in 1978). The documentary showcases the reasoning behind songs Snider chose to cover on their first album.
“[They’re] great songs that really have no place to go,” Neal Casal say in the rockumentary. “I think Todd spent years gathering up these stray tunes—like a real humanitarian effort.”
Songs featured on “The First Waltz” and within the film include the frequently played “Stomp and Holler,” originally sang by Hayes Carll. As well, Frankie Miller’s “Blackland Farmer” and Kevn Kinney’s “Straight To Hell” is played. In July of 2015, the band released “Dope is Dope,” an original single written by Snider and Chuck Mead.
Now, Hard Working Americans are back in the studio picking away at a new album, set for release in early 2016. “It’s been a long-time coming,” Schools says. “We literally went into the studio less than a month after the first record came out last year.”
After composing seven or so original songs that Snider had written over the last decade, the six men were finally able to gather again in December 2014 to begin working on a third album. “Over the course of this year, as we can, we’ve gotten closer and closer to finishing it,” Schools continues. “It’s definitely not a ‘first album: part two’; it may even shock a few people.”
Nothing seems too much for the performers who almost all have two to three projects going at once. They don’t take for granted their ability to produce records, and hang out with icons, legends and stellar performers. “
This is what we do and live for,” Schools says, “and not a day goes by that I don’t think about playing or at least wake up and put a record on.”
Schools credits Snider for finding the poetry in song and humor in storytelling on the stage. With Hard Working Americans, however, the typical Snider performance is stowed away. While touring solo, audiences are often engaged in Snider’s wry wordplay, discussing everything from political to pop-cultural references. He’s become as much a storyteller as a songwriter.
“A lot of folks in the crowd will yell out to Todd, ‘Tell us a story!’” Schools shares. “It’s sort of our role to shake that up a bit or we go stale. One night, [Snider] answered that in this band the songs are the stories. The great thing is that months later, on his own tour, he had a whole new batch of stories to tell . . . Maybe it sounds pretentious, or maybe it sounds like we don’t know what it is we’re trying to do, but a good collection of songs is like taking a trip—and I’m not making a pun.”
The Wilmington show likely will be drawn from the American wellspring, perhaps with a bit of glam rock thrown in. “You never know, maybe we’ll come out looking like Ziggy Stardust,” Schools jokes. “And I’m looking forward to what we look like with all this new material to work with. . . . We keep having nights where we walk off stage and go, ‘Gee-whiz, I didn’t know we could do that.”
Schools is excited to return to Greenfield Lake; he hasn’t been in the Port City since his performance with Stockholm Syndrome in 2010. “There’s been a long-time love affair between Wilmington and Widespread Panic, and vice versa,” he says, “so I’m pretty psyched about it; it’s going to be a beautiful evening.”
Hard Working Americans will take over the amphitheater on Wednesday, August 19 at Greenfield Lake. Visit www.greenfieldlakeamphitheater.com for tickets.
Hard Working Americans, featuring Turbo Fruits
Wed., August 19
Doors, 5 p.m.; show, 6 p.m.
Greenfield Lake Amphitheater
1941 Amphitheatre Dr.
Tickets: $26 Adv, $31 Door