TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. The new quintet Hard Working Americans was formed by singer/songwriter Todd Snider and includes Dave Schools from the band Widespread Panic and Duane Trucks, whose family includes members of the Allman Brothers band. Hard Working Americans covers 11 songs by well known songwriters and rock critic Ken Tucker says the album coheres as a statement of both solidarity and fun.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "STOMP AND HOLLER")
TODD SNIDER: (singing) Little Johnny Walker caught a bullet last night running from the guitar store. Took a left down the alley. Guess he should've gone right. Now he ain't taking nothing no more, no more. Everybody knows it's a hard time living with hate and the greed.
Most folks earn what they get for a living, others try to steal what they need. Down on the corner already talking how they're going to cut that tape. I'm out here just working for a dollar. All I want to do is stomp and holler.
KEN TUCKER, BYLINE: That's Todd Snider's voice leading Hard Working Americans though a loud, roughed up version of a song written by a country folk singer Hayes Carll called "Stomp and Holler." It's one of many songs on Hard Working Americans' debut album that concerns the plight of an ordinary Joe - a hardworking American who just can't seem to catch a break.
This collection certainly hammers home its obsessive theme. It's also titled "Hard Working Americans." But you can't accuse it of lacking a sense of humor or resourcefulness.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BLACKLAND FARMER")
SNIDER: (singing) When the lord made me, he made a simple man. Not much money and not much land. He didn't make no banker or no legal charmer. When the lord made me he made a blackland farmer. Uh-huh-huh. Mm-hmm. Hey-yeah. Mm-hmm. Uh-huh-huh. Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm. Yeah. Well, my hands ain't smooth. My face is rough. But my heart is warm and my ways ain't tough.
(singing) I'm the luckiest man that has ever been born because the lord gave me health and a blackland farm. Uh-huh-huh.
TUCKER: That's "Blackland Farmer," a superb song from the 1950s by the country singer Frankie Miller. Miller sang it like a shrewd fellow tilling the soil who's never expecting to be treated fairly by the world. In Hard Working Americans' version, the song becomes a slightly more sinister blues-tinged ballad. The drums of Duane Trucks dig the furrows deep into the earthiness of the melody while Todd Snider's vocal makes the narrator seem a little resentful, perhaps even a little dangerous around the edges.
Snider also has just the right edge in his voice to pull off a song such as Randy Newman's "Mr. President, Have Pity on the Working Man," conveying the composition's full resentment at having to ask for the help of a leader who's too lofty-minded to listen, let alone care.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MR. PRESIDENT, HAVE PITY ON THE WORKING MAN")
SNIDER: (singing) We have taken all you've given. It's still tough just to make a living. Mr. President, have pity on the working man. You don't even have to love us. You can put yourself high above us. Mr. President, have pity on the working man. Yeah. Uh-huh.
TUCKER: The sound of this quintet is a canny fusion of folk, rock, and the sort of languid yearning at which so-called jam bands excel at their best. These range from the Allman Brothers band to Widespread Panic, whose Dave Schools plays base here. Snider's influence keeps the music tart and springy and he's also a fine editor and musical anthologist, cherry-picking appropriate material and then working out new arrangements with the other four members, as on this version of the Bottle Rockets' "Welfare Music."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WELFARE MUSIC")
SNIDER: (singing) It's welfare music. Watch the baby dance to that welfare music. Will she ever stand a chance? Quit school when she was 17, senator on TV calls her welfare queen. She used to be daddy's little girl. Now she needs help in this mean ol' world. Buys cassette tapes in the bargain bin. Loves Carly Carter and Loretta Lynn. Tries to have fun on a Saturday night, Sunday morning don't shine so bright. Yes, welfare music...
TUCKER: On an earlier solo album, Snider had a song with the line: There's a war going on that the poor can't win. And that's really the subtext of a lot of Hard Working Americans' music. But rather than try to elicit pity or to self-identify with numerous characters who lack luck, money, and power, the band gives its subjects an energy, passion, and withering humor that infuses the music with those same potent qualities.
For Hard Working Americans, the medium is the message.
GROSS: Ken Tucker reviewed the debut self-titled album from the group Hard Working Americans.
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