"This thing has happened to us as much as we've happened to it."
So says David Sickmen about the odyssey of his bluegrass and folk contingent, the Hackensaw Boys. Now, after six years and many line-up changes, hard miles on the road and three self-released discs, the surviving sextet has released their first album for the Nettwerk label, "Love What You Do."
Speaking from a Denver diner as the band travels to Boise, Idaho, Sickmen observes, "All the pieces are finally in place, which is ironic because at this stage of the game you know, we're run down." He quickly adds, "That's the nature of a business where you have to strike while the iron is hot."
It took many a long mile in crowded vans, taking turns sleeping on motel room floors and working for short dough to create a situation where that iron would get hot.
First formed as a quartet in Charlottesville, Va. during the fall of 1999, the Hackensaw Boys - whose name is a comic allusion to musically hacking at a mandolin and sawing away at a fiddle - made their professional debut as street performers.
"Yeah, we had a few practices and said, 'Well, let's go see what it's like to play these in front of people,'" chuckles Sickmen. "There's a pedestrian mall in Charlottesville - the old main street that they blocked off and put trees and a walkway through. The four of us went out there, and we had about 10 songs, and we played 'em three times in a row. We actually made a little bit of money. We were like, 'Wow! That was pretty easy.'"
A lengthy in-door gig at the local Blue Diner helped the Hackensaws develop their sound and various on-stage personas. They also took on more members.
"We played a lot in this diner, and if people showed up with an instrument, they could play," Sickmen recalls. "So, a buddy would show up and say, 'I want to play the spoons.' So we'd say, 'Well, get some spoons.' Within a week, we had another guy who came on to play harmonica, and within a month, it was all the way up to 12 members on-stage. In a very beautiful way, it just gelled and formed."
Despite enthusiastic audiences and plentiful regional bookings, roots music is not the best paying gig in show-biz, and a 12-man group wasn't a profitable venture.
The extra personnel also exacerbated the myriad of personal problems and conflicts that routinely crop up in a working band.
"It's difficult to relate to other human beings in close quarters over and over again," Sickmen explains. "So, in the same way it morphed into 12 members, it kind of morphed down again on its own through natural selection and personal needs."
As a 9-piece band, they recorded their first disc, 2000's "Get Some," on a home reel-to-reel recorder. By the time of 2001's "Keep It Simple" and 2002's "Give it Back," they were an 8-member ensemble that depended heavily on the multi-instrumental talents of Robbie St. Ours and deft songwriting chops of co-founder Tom Peloso.
Together, they toured the country in a beat up '64 GMC bus, played festivals worldwide and shared stages with the likes of Cheap Trick, Flaming Lips, Marilyn Manson, Del McCoury, Modest Mouse and even country legend Charlie Louvin.
Asked how the Hackensaws fit in with such illustrious company, Sickmen quips, "We just stepped up to the mike and played. We've been accepted everywhere we go."
By the time of their signing with Nettwerk, Peloso and St. Ours apparently had endured enough, and the Hackensaws became a sextet.
The band now consists of mandolinist Robert Bullington, bassist and fiddle-player Ferd Moyse IV, banjo man Jimmy Stelling, charismo (a "found art" percussion instrument) player Justin Neustadt, bass, fiddle, accordion and harmonica player Jesse Fiske, and guitarist Sickmen. Within the band, the 30-ish guys are respectively known as Mahlon, Four, Kooky Eyed Fox, Salvage, Baby J, and Shiner Hackensaw.
Sickmen, remembers how he came by his band nickname. "On one of our first trips, we were just outside of Eugene, Ore. We had an old bus, and we were doing some engine repair, and at the end we were washing the motor off, and Tom missed a spot on there and I was being a little anal and kept saying, 'Spray that spot right there, you keep missing that.' Finally I said, 'Give me that hose!" He was about to warn me that the hose has about 2500 PSI. Me, being the stubborn jackass, I took it from his hand and pulled the trigger on it, and it literally cold-cocked me. It gave me a black eye, and I was immediately bleeding from the mouth. It was a lesson I learned that I have to slow down - I have a fast personality. So, that's where 'Shiner' came from."
The new line-up makes Sickmen and Bullington the band's chief songwriters, but the former insists that the group has no official leader.
"By theory, it's a co-op. Everybody's leading in their own way. It's kind of a group of leaders co-operating."