The Colorado Flood of 2013 impacted communities all across the state, creating significant hardship for hard-working Americans. To get them back on track, Hard Working Americans, a collaboration of all-star musical lifers from the jam-band scene, debuted their project at a benefit performance in Boulder.
Singer-songwriter Todd Snider fronted the group, which featured bassist Dave Schools from Widespread Panic, guitarist Neal Casal of Chris Robinson Brotherhood, Duane Trucks on drums and keyboardist Chad Staehly of Great American Taxi, the Colorado-based band he formed with Vince Herman when Leftover Salmon went on hiatus.
“Taxi had backed Todd in the studio and done a few tours with him,” Staehly said. “Todd and I developed a strong connection. I was always the guy in the band who handles the business end of things. He had seen what I was doing for Taxi and wanted that for his own career. I started working on Todd’s management team and set him up with Dave Schools to play a gig in California, and that led to the formation of Hard Working Americans.”
Snider was a cult hero in Americana circles, known for entertaining crowds with little more than an acoustic guitar, harmonica and his story-telling genius, delivering wry, politically charged sentiments about battered but unbroken outcasts and hippies. He had released more than a dozen albums in the past two decades. Reviewers called 2003’s Near Truths and Hotel Rooms, his first live album, closer to a comedy act than a concert; the track “Talkin’ Seattle Grunge Rock Blues” was recorded at a Boulder Theater show.
Snider had collected lesser-known songs from the folk circuit to cover, bound with notions of class-consciousness and the low economic trajectory that some people face. Hard Working Americans stemmed from the idea of celebrating his selections with a few pals and new bandmates.
“Todd’s always been one to root for the underdog; he has his own idea of justice,” Staehly noted. “His thing is peace, love and anarchy, and that rings true for me, too. Some people like to hijack the concept of patriotism and manipulate it for their own agenda. Todd had a clear vision of reclaiming it.”
“I wanted to poke fun at the flag-waving people who think that the name ‘hard-working Americans’ applies only to them,” Snider added. “It’s like Woody Guthrie said, ‘Music should comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.’”
Hard Working Americans’ very first concert was scheduled at the Boulder Theater, a sold-out benefit concert for Colorado flood relief.
“For ten years, I was the executive director of the Mark Vann Foundation (Vann, banjoist of Leftover Salmon, died of cancer in 2002),” Staehly explained. “An annual show started out small and grew into the Boulder Theater. December is usually a downtime for musicians, so all the great players from Colorado were home, and it was easy to call in favors.
“There were a few years off, and I missed handling the nuts and bolts of that benefit show. Colorado had just gone through that giant flood in September. It was an opportunity to do something for the flood victims and to get the band together for rehearsals and to play its first gig. We didn’t know how we’d play or how we’d sound or if we’d be any good. George Boedecker runs the Boedecker Foundation, which does amazing things in Colorado and globally. George said, ‘We should film it and call it The First Waltz!’”
The resulting documentary by Justin Kreutzmann (filmmaker and son of Grateful Dead drummer Bill Kreutzmann) captured the like-minded souls finding a fertile combination of creative drive and musical muscle. Guitarist Jesse Aycock was added before the band’s debut album was recorded; Hard Working Americans reached #45 on the Billboard 200.
“Todd had a vision of the album narrative being someone’s life story, a bit of gypsy wanderer who throws a backpack on his back and hits the highways and byways to get his education, getting to see what this country is all about,” Staehly said. “I was that guy, and so are a lot of other people in Colorado.”