Todd Snider’s story doesn’t begin with a radioactive spider, overdose of gamma rays or a top-secret military experiment gone awry, yet it ends in him leading a cast of musical superheroes collectively known as the Hard Working Americans. They make their self-titled debut this week as the longtime folkie teams with some of the jam scene’s finest.
“There is a huge party waiting to happen between the Americana and jam scene,” Snider tells PW, still buzzing from their first live performance. “If someone would just throw a festival that featured all those people, they would find a common thread backstage through their drug connections—and it would be glorious.”
In concert, Snider tells how he quit the football team his junior year in Beaverton, Ore., and joined the burnouts thanks to psychedelic mushrooms, a prelude to his paean to hippiedom’s archenemy, 2004’s “Conservative Christian, Right-Wing Republican, Straight, White American Males.” A born storyteller, Snider’s gentle, self-effacing manner was learned from songwriting legends like Jimmy Buffett, John Prine and Billy Joe Shaver; he’s spent a lot of time over the years hanging out with those folks and their fabled contemporaries. Eventually, his buddy, keyboardist Chad Staehly, asked what he had against his own generation, Properly chastised, Snider sought out more age-appropriate companions—and fellow dope smokers—and wound up fronting a quintet with Widespread Panic bassist Dave Schools, guitarist Neal Casal (Chris Robinson Brotherhood, Ryan Adams), drummer Duane Trucks (Col. Bruce Hampton) and Staehly, the instigator. Together, they reimagine 11 lesser-known thematically-connected songs with novel melodies, rhythms and parts.
“I could’ve told those guys I wrote those songs, though they would’ve probably thought I got really good really fast,” Snider chuckles. “I found about 18 songs, and the guys sifted through them. We found the ones that had the most contextual pull for the story that would make a bigger movie.”
They imbue Hayes Carll’s folk-blues “Stomp and Holler” with greasy barrelhouse swing, deepen the gritty bar blues of Bottle Rockets’ “Welfare Music” and turn ‘50s honky-tonker Frankie Miller’s “Blackland Farmer” into a slinky blues-funk barnstormer. Covers afforded time to develop their chemistry, while Snider worked on original songs. “I really would like to use this time to learn melody and composition and really getting inside some of these other songs that have qualities to them that I don’t bring,” he says. “I feel like what I’m learning, I can take this back to my job as a folk singer.
“I love songs; they’re my favorite thing. It’s usually lyrics first and a melody second, which is a weird way to show up at the jam band scene. But it’s what I’ve been trying to do for six years,” Snider says. “I’ve been going to my show and, after my show, find some jam bands to go get high with.”
This follow-your-nose ethos has served him particularly well of late, proven when he spotted his next big thing during a visit to Mountain Stage. She’s one of those next-gen train-hoppers, a hobo girl with a dog and steely gaze, singing by the side of the stage, clearly wasted. She and her friends looked intimidating, “but they had weed,” he says, “so I went over.” Snider took the lady backstage, and some townies tried to warn him, including a guy running for mayor. “He goes, ‘That girl is a problem.’ And I said, ‘I think I’m going to take her home and record her.’ He goes, ‘Man, she’s unbelievably unreliable.’ And I said, ‘You just sold me on her.’”
That vocalist’s name is Sarah Elizabeth Farrell. She has wine for breakfast and a gritty manner, like Charles Bukowski in Converse. Snider’s already cut her record.
“I’m probably going to have to get her into rehab or something, but she’s Ella Fitzgerald. She’s the real thing,” he maintains. “She’s been hoboing trains for two years and smells like it. She’s beautiful, but you can tell, like, ‘What happened with Mom and Dad? ... Kiddo, you touch the guitar, and I wanted to cry for you.’”
This is Snider’s life these days. “I just smoke dope and say I can’t believe I get to be at all these rehearsals,” he laughs. “I could sell my seat for thousands of dollars to some rich Deadhead.” He’s hoping Hard Working Americans will be an ongoing project. He’s finished writing a batch of potential songs, but as always, Snider’s just going with the flow.
“I would love to make this a place where these great musicians feel like they can do whatever they’re into today,” he says. “You have some words, a new gadget or whatever, we’re going your way. If Duane came in and said, ‘I’m all fucking beats now,’ I’d be ‘Alright, now we got a guy with a turntable.’ It’s not for me to say.”
Sat., Jan. 25, 8:30pm. $22. With Caroline Rose. Union Transfer, 1026 Spring Garden St. 215.232.2100. utphilly.com