Hard Working Americans perform show in Durango, Colo.
FARMINGTON — Todd Snider is nobody's fool, even if he does like to get a little goofy every now and then.
For more than 20 years, the gangly singer-songwriter and philosopher from all over has been turning out some of the catchiest, funniest and at the same time most thoughtful music of anyone who operates within the catch-all Americana genre, earning himself a reputation as a lyricist and performer with few peers. So it's a little more than surprising when he confesses to harboring somewhat of an inferiority complex when it comes to his songwriting — a feeling that led indirectly to his willingness to put aside his successful solo career and sign up for an extended hitch in the Hard Working Americans, an ensemble outfit made up of fellow freethinkers and freewheelers that performs this weekend in Durango, Colo.
In an interview conducted via email last week because Snider had temporarily lost his voice, he explained that his rationale for making the move had everything to do with artistic expression and nothing to do with commercial potential.
"For me and the musicians I've always admired, staying amused is such an all-pervasive obsession that it makes heroin look like snuff — only it's healthy," he wrote with his typical plainspokenness. "I had been learning about composition from Amanda Shires (singer-songwriter, violinist and wife of former Drive-By Truckers frontman Jason Isbell), and it was blowing my mind how far I had got in my music with how little I still know ... then I started obsessing on my friends' songs that I thought were melodic in ways that I was not.
"And then I asked David Schools (the bassist for Widespread Panic who fills the same role in the Hardworking Americans) to explain that to me and how that was working in a way that would hopefully improve my ability to write melodies, which has never been my strong suit but is something I love ... in spite of how often my songs sound like talking, I often wish they sounded more like Ryan Adams ... you know, music is the reason you're supposed to be getting to read your poem and not the other way around."
As part of the effort to improve his melodies, Snider began playing some of his favorite tunes by friends of his for Schools, who eventually joined in. Those jam sessions slowly took on other players, evolving into the band that would come to be known as the Hard Working Americans, or what Snider referred to in his stream-of-consciousness style as "a full metal campaign to reinstate the natural laws of absurdity by protesting nothing, which is technically a celebration of everything, thus saving the world and looking good doing it."
Snider is regarded as nothing short of a genius in many circles for his ability to craft and perform conversational tunes, a gift that can make his material sound entirely spontaneous even when it's a song he's played thousands of times. For proof of that, a music fan need look no further than "Lookin' for a Job," "You Got Away With It" or "Just Like Old Times" from his brilliant 2006 disc, "The Devil You Know." But in his mind, it's not a gift at all, though he acknowledges it's a style he's married to.
"It was always more like a burden," he wrote. "I snuck in with 'Alice's Restaurant'-type talking blues, and I'll never ever stop doing that, not even when the crowd goes away."
Snider found himself admiring the work of the Isbells and Kevn Kinney, in particular, analyzing their approach to composition. With Schools' help, he tried breaking them down and deconstructing them, an effort that would come to include guitarist Neal Casal of the Chris Robinson Brotherhood, keyboardist Chad Staehly of Great American Taxi, drummer Duane Trucks and guitarist Jesse Aycock. In January 2014, the group released its self-titled debut disc, an effort that featured inspired interpretations of songs by some of those aforementioned songwriters, as well as Will Kimbrough and members of the Bottle Rockets. The band's sound lands in that netherworld somewhere between psychedelia and country-rock, and Snider sounds like he's having the time of his life settling back and letting Schools call the artistic shots.
"When I am in charge, it kinda means that no one is," he said. "David Schools is a leader. I make no decisions whatsoever. I make up poems ... sing, dance if I can't help it and really just support these guys, who are as close to a family as anything I have."
The group is planning on releasing a new album of original material early next year, but is touring now on the strength of that debut disc, a live album that came out in October and a new single, "Dope Is Dope," penned by Snider and former BR5-49 member Chuck Mead, for whom Snider professes a great deal of admiration.
"Man, Chuck could show up at my house with a police chase behind him, and I would barricade first and ask what he did later," Snider wrote. "The other night, I went to see him and the Grassy Knoll Boys (Mead's new band) and was just knocked all the way over. For my bread, that guy is Hank Williams."
Not that Mead doesn't deserve it, but such generosity of praise is typical from Snider. He credits his bandmates for being much more knowledgeable in a musical sense than he is, adding that they each have a willingness to teach and share. The result has been very inspiring, he said.
"It's what I would call a wellspring of creativity that I can't stop thinking about," he said. "I don't have family or even friends, really, mostly because of ... well ... I'm not a good cat in what you would call traditional terms. But I'm not a thief or ... a violent cat. I just have a hard time shutting up and way too many ideas, and then, on top of that, I'm like seven crowding six in all the worst ways you can imagine. You ever see me and Liza Minnelli in the same place at the same time? Think about it."
Even after two-plus decades of life on the road, Snider said he still loves getting lost in the passion of tours and the blur of shows. For him, that's the payoff.
"I have no attachment to the results of it, and so it's just like an ocean of positive energy for me, be it ever so pointless," he wrote. "And man, I can prove in court that it's pointless, but what isn't? Am I right? High five."
After all, money does grow on trees, he insists.
"I mean, it really does," he wrote. "It gets easier to care less about just about everything the older I get, which does not mean I love less. I just care less. I like what Mick Jagger says about just following the river."
Those kinds of statements illustrate Snider's career-long propensity not to take himself — or the music business, or life — too seriously. Against that backdrop, his decision to cast his lot with the Hard Working Americans — which he insists is something he's in for the long haul — doesn't seem like much of a risk.
"I say if the ice is thin, and it is, we dance on it," he wrote. "I say if were doomed, and we are, then crank up some Zeppelin and let's make out ... the rest is all pops and whistles to me."
While Snider is no stranger to introspection, he acknowledges that it can be difficult for him to rationalize his artistic decisions in a way that anyone else can understand.
"It's hard for me to make sense when I talk about singing as it relates to eating, 'cause for me, it was more like a Marilyn Manson-type decision or like those kids who get their faces tattooed and hobo trains," he wrote in between frequent obscenities and numerous references to his fondness for ingesting substances frowned upon by certain, if not all, government agencies. "Singing, for me, is flailing from grace, and at that, I'm a ------- natural."
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