Dave Schools shows no signs of slowing down. Even as Widespread Panic approaches its 30th anniversary, the bassist is involved in a myriad of projects with a diverse group of musicians. He spent most of Panic’s 2012 hiatus working with Mickey Hart, and the Northern California transplant has become a regular at Bob Weir’s TRI Studios (The Grateful Dead co-founder described the well-spoken and always thoughtful musician as “quick on the coach” during his Weir Here broadcasts.) In 2013, wry singer/troubadour and lifelong Widespread Panic fan Todd Snider also drafted Schools to join his new jamband super group Hard Working Americans, an all-star band featuring Chris Robinson Brotherhood/Ryan Adams & the Cardinals guitarist Neal Casal, Great American Taxi keyboardist Chad Staehly and Flannel Church drummer and fellow Col. Bruce Hampton student Duane Trucks. The musicians burned through a set of covers at TRI Studios last year and just released a self-titled album on Melvin Records/Thirty Tigers.
The resulting record works material by Hard Working Americans features 11 tracks written by a range of artists that include Randy Newman, Lucinda Williams, Kevin Gordon, Hayes Carll, Kevn Kinney (Drivin’ ‘N Cryin’), Gillian Welch & Dave Rawlings, Brian Henneman (The Bottle Rockets), Will Kimbrough, Tommy Womack, Kieran Kane, Chuck Mead (BR5-49), Don Herron and Frankie Miller (Elizabeth Cook) into a conceptual record and outsider story.
Schools and Snider split production duties while longtime Panic producer and Athens, GA musician John Keane mixed the record, leaving his fingerprints on several tracks. John Popper also makes a guest appearance on the album. After a warm-up show in December, Schools turned his attention back to Panic for two high-profile New Year’s run gigs and an appearance at Atlanta, GA’s Fox Theatre as part of a Gregg Allman tribute. (The members of Panic also spent a few days in the mountains collaborating on a batch of new songs for their next studio project.) Schools recently spoke about the Hard Working Americans who just wrapped up a few dates with more to come later this month.
Can give us a little background on the original idea for the Hard Working Americans project?
Well, Hard Working Americans is sort of the dream of Todd Snider. He wanted to take his songwriting sensibility, material by people he thinks have written what he calls “perfect songs,” and sort of collide them into the jamband sensibility. Basically, he said, “Me and my friends can spend 10,000 hours learning how to write songs, and these cats like Neal Casal, Dave Schools and Duane Trucks and other sort of jamband people spent 10,000 hours learning how to connect their fingers to any sound they desire. Why can’t we work together?” And that’s sort of the whole thing—that and using the music to elevate these songs that were written by friends of his.
It was pretty easy to get together, record the record and understand how to do that. We deconstruct the song down to its most empirical melody, and then rebuild it with a different feel that seemed to work with Todd’s rhythmic sensibility, and the key that will work best for him to sing the melody in. By doing that, we became a band in the studio. It was easy to mix a record like that. We played it live in the room, so we just recorded it really well. And then the challenge became: How do we do this live?
Hard Working Americans played a warm-up date in December. Given that this group was created as a studio project, what did you take away from that gig?
We got together in Boulder right before Christmas and rehearsed the material for the show, which was a benefit at the Boulder Theater for Colorado flood relief, sponsored by the Boedecker Foundation. I know that the receipts were matched by a lot of other people. But really, it was, “Okay, so we got these tunes, and we’ve built them in our own image. What do we do now?” And it’s sort of a quandary most bands don’t face because they’re busily writing their own material, learning how to be a band, playing for disinterested bartenders, doormen and maybe some girlfriends, in little bars for years.
We’ve already been through that individually, and we had all this great material that we knew we could play. So it was really like, “We’re gonna walk out on stage in front of 1,200 people who’ve never heard this material done this way or this band before.” It was kind of daunting. But it went really well, and I think it went well because we decided that we were gonna not worry about stuff.
Instead of recording as set of originals, the super group’s first album is a set of conceptually linked covers. Can we expect some original material when you perform live?
In the inimitable jamband tradition, we were going to let the music play the band, as it were. We made some room in some of the arrangements for improv. We brought in a sixth member, Jesse Aycock, an amazing guitar player-songwriter from Tulsa, to flesh out the vocals and other guitar parts.
We also integrated some of Todd Snider’s familiar songs and gave those the Hard Working Americans treatment. Then we made sure we were going go out with a bang by having Hayes Carll come join us on stage for the song of his that we do on the record, “Stomp and Holler.” And so that is the long-winded answer to your question, but that in a nutshell is the next steps. We’re going to add new music; we’re busily writing new music. Todd’s got lyrics, we’ve got songs, we’re going to rehearse and try to add some more stuff. There we’re going to go into the studio in Chicago and start working on the next record after the February sling.