At first, I was annoyed none of my fellow critics assigned to Todd Snider’s latest album, Hard Working Americans, mentioned its obvious and essential older brother: Neil Young and Crazy Horse’s Americana. But then I remembered that I’m not actually a critic, just an amateur living in a small world of Robert Christgau’s creation - a world outside of which 2012 Dean’s List-winner Americana is just a bag of oregano to Psychedelic Pill, its long-lasting if not altogether potent follow-up. So in the likely event you aren’t experienced, let me be the first and definitely the only to explain.
It’s a weird truth made sad by a lack of attendant surprise that the two living kings (or, uh, elected officials) of Americana are a Canadian and a (seemingly) lapsed former junkie - a hint maybe that what’s left of New Deal populism and its sound is these days the stuff of our cultural edges. You might even rename the whole genre Amarginalia.
Appropriately then: like Young with Crazy Horse, Snider teams up with a band of peoples white America forget: Dave Schools of Widespread Panic, Neal Casal of somesuch and whatever, Chad Staehly of Great American Taxi, and Duane Trucks of, says the official website, a renowned music college. Apparently one of these guys is affiliated with someone who once played with the Allman Brothers, or knew a guy who knew a guy who played with them one night… it’s not clear. I disparage not to be a dick (listen, they’re a good band) so much as dissent from the ‘super group’ label NPR and RS and everyone else slapped onto Hard Working Americans - as if Widespread Panic and The Allman Bros. Connection (ABC?) deserve league with Dylan/Harrison/Petty/Orbison or, hell, whatever managed to get Wings off the ground. No. This is Americana: this is class-minded attenuation. These guys ain’t super stars; ain’t even regular ol’ rock stars - just a bunch of hard working Americans… and their drugged-out genius frontmen, both of whom remain busy in spite of the needle and the damage done. PS. We squares and solid citizens are better off for it, no matter what They say.
So that’s form; as for content: both Americana and Hard Working Americans are cover albums, each of a different sort. We take from Americana what you might expect: oldie folk traditionals with a twist: which is to say infused with ragged electric and front-and-center drums, plus a few sly nods to the present day: the US’s Great Recession and Canada’s weird post-imperial (but not quite) constitution.
Whereas today’s Hard Working Americans rely on a little more on the neighbors, borrowing mostly from contemporary acts. The intro track, “Blackland Farmer,” reaches furthest back - all the way to Frankie Miller. This is a deliberate move: to show right off how southern/midwestern living, specifically commercial and subsistence farming, has evolved from Frankie’s honest day’s work to today’s sinking antiquity. If you can’t hear the struggle and meth when Todd spits “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,” you aren’t paying attention… to anything.
But otherwise, these’re modern yarns - taken from Hayes Carll, Will Kimbrough, Drivin’ N Cryin’, Dan Herron and Chuck Mead, and Kevin Gordon, and the like. If you don’t recognize these acts, well, I reckon that’s the point. I like to believe that both Americana and Hard Working Americans honor in their ways recently departed Pete Seeger, who we can thank for an Americana mission statement:
I like to say I’m more conservative than Goldwater. He just wanted to turn the clock back to when there was no income tax. I want to turn the clock back to when people lived in small villages and took care of each other.
While Young uses what’s left of his star to hearken wayward boomers back to pre-modernist communalism with his folk revivals, Snider’s latest shares the wealth of his outsized audience with his odd assemblage of, uh, ‘superstar’ musicians and all the fringe-dwelling Americana outfits they cover. Hard working Americans working hard for hard working Americans. I have no idea how much money this record and its tour’ll bank Mr Snider, but I can promise it’s less than the effort or time I’d’ve spent or you’d’ve spent trying to find half of these bands. And thank Todd for that, because a handful of these songs - and their originals - are pretty great.
Unfortunately, class purity or not, Todd Snider (and usually his forefather Young) can write a better tune than any song gathered here before he bothers to shit, shower, or shave in the morning - which is why even the sloggiest come-down on 2012’s immaculate Agnostic Hymns & Stoner Fables rouses deeper and truer for today’s permanent revolutionary. Not to mention, he’s funnier than you and everyone you know - which helps… alot. So, let’s hope he gets back to writing originals soon; like his craft, the man may not have much left to give.