Hard Working Americans marks the debut of a promising quintet fronted by agitprop singer-songwriter Todd Snider. In these muscular adaptations of 11 of Snider’s favorite songs by other artists, jam-band euphoria chafes against working-class blues; it’s a Workingman’s Dead for the new millennium. They limn a loose portrayal of a poor soul beaten down by the Great Recession and cut loose every now and again — as on “The Mountain Song,” with its Garcia-esque soloing, and the rambunctious “Stomp and Holler.”
The songs range from a sinewy take on Frankie Miller’s oft-covered “Blackland Farmer” to David Rawlings and Gillian Welch’s “Wrecking Ball,” a perfectly pitched tale of a baby Deadhead’s downfall. No one with a conscience will exit the doomed-child tracks “Straight to Hell” (Drivin’ N’ Cryin’) or “Welfare Music” (the Bottle Rockets) unscathed. But no matter how dark the story (and BR5-49′s dubious ode to a statutory rapist’s great escape, “Run a Mile,” is a bummer on many levels), Americans maintains an intrinsic optimism, thanks mostly to Chris Robinson Band guitarist Neal Casal and thunderous Widespread Panic bassist Dave Schools, who also co-produced. The frustration of the American underclass is an old story, certainly, as demonstrated by Randy Newman’s still-applicable “Mr. President (Have Pity on the Working Man),” which he wrote when Nixon was in office. Whether anyone’s listening, though, is another matter.