Todd Snider seems to be spending a lot of time these days playing someone else’s songs.
Kind of on the heels of last year’s uniquely Snider-esque Jerry Jeff Walker tribute Time As We Know It, the Nashville-based songwriter wraps up his 2013 with Hard Working Americans, a project focused on, well, songs by other artists that Snider just really, really likes.
The project’s title may well have a double meaning, referring as much to the songs’ original authors working local circuits or plying their trade deep in the gears of the Nashville machine as it does to the protagonists in the songs themselves. The songs on the 11-track CD (which shelves this coming January) all reflect a loosely drawn undercurrent of the weathered side of contemporary rural roots — the fleeting redemption of honky-tonk nights, exhausted one-streetlight towns, unwilling fugitives from busted-up pasts — and were penned by Snider’s friends and peers (Will Kimbrough, Hayes Karll, Dave Rawlings) as well as some elder heroes (Frankie Miller, Randy Newman).
Not so much bleak as carefully drawn, the selections here pivot on the dispassionate eye for detail that characterizes Snider’s own work. The red door on the green Cadillac in Kevin Gordon’s “Down to the Well,” the girl next door’s mother in Kevn Kinney’s “Straight to Hell,” the weary desperation of a guy trying to outrun a jailbaitin’ rap in BR5-49’s “Run A Mile.”
Snider plays the front man here as vocalist, inhabiting the tunes with shitkicker abandon (Hayes Carll’s “Stomp and Holler”) or threadbare pathos (Randy Newman’s “Mr. President Have Pity On The Working Man”) but the project is at least as much about the band itself, which plays its debut gig Friday night at the Boulder Theater. Widespread Panic bassist Dave Schools, who produced the CD, holds down the bass seat, teamed with Great American Taxi keyboardist Chad Staehly, drummer Duane Trucks (Derek’s kid brother and nephew of Butch of Allman Brothers fame) and guitarist Neal Casal from Chris Robinson’s band. Staehly and Snider have logged many miles together, from tours where Taxi played as Snider’s backup band, but otherwise this is an outfit that mostly had to learn how to play with each other.
We asked Schools if it took him a little while to get used to this enterprise.
“Y’know, not really,” he observes.
“Sometimes the out-of-the-box things are really the right artist-choice for everyone involved. It think it’s a perfect fit [for Snider]. … He’s such an excellent songwriter himself, and such a real person.
“He sort of took a lot of lessons from Jerry Jeff Walker and John Prine, and he has all these contemporaries that he’s really close with, like Will Kimbrough and Gillian Welch, Kevn Kinney and Hayes Carll. Some of them are friends of his and some of them are idols of his, or they’re someone who just wrote a song he thought was an excellent song.
“What was great was that he took it a step farther, by being a sort of notorious folk artist, known for speaking his mind, and then doing someone else’s songs by letting go and doing it in a rock band.”
Schools talks at length about the band deconstructing the songs down to their essence, their words and their melodies, and then rebuilding them. Not so much covering them as re-imagining them. Schools describes his approach in the studio.
“Rather than just re-do ’em,” he says, “let’s just break them down, let’s distill them to their essence … preserve the integrity of the original, but change the rhythm up. Change the key. … The Kevn Kinney song ‘Straight To Hell,’ we totally turned into a gospel tearjerker. And I never would have thought it could have the kind of power that it does until we tried different things with it.”
And in a sense, the whole enterprise has one subtle stroke of genius to it. Since none of the original songwriters were present in the studio for the breaking-it-down process, nobody had that sometimes cringe-worthy moment of turning their own creation over to the band. Schools knows this well.
“Yeah, it’s a little like having your neighbors dress your kids.
“I’m lucky with my experience with Panic, in that there’s always been a tightrope that we walk. No matter how collaborative the writing is, there’s a spark or a genesis of an idea that someone came up with. The level of willingness to give it over to the group mind can change with the wind.
“I think always being out on his own, being solely responsible for not only the songwriting but also the way it’s presented, if [Todd] was ready for a break and try something different, he’s been more than willing to share his opinions, and let go when he thinks someone might have a better one.”