Hackensaw Boys love what they do

Ken Burke, October 2005

"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."

The guitarist further reveals that the Hackensaws have also developed a familial hierarchy. "We definitely have roles. I was laughing today because I feel that Robert is the dad, and I'm the mom. Kooky Eyed Fox is the eldest brother, and the rest of us are a series of brothers."

Their music is folk-influenced old time country and bluegrass fed with lyrics that addressed contemporary concerns with bits of punkish humor and eastern philosophy.

For their first album with the smaller line-up, Sickmen feels fortunate to be with Nettwerk. "The good news is that we have a great label with us right now, and I think they're truly interested in the music that we're making right now - which is absolutely the most you can hope for - that they're going to care about the art and help you find ways to promote it properly. I do think that Nettwerk will do that for us. They're a diverse company, and that's appealing to me." Nettwerk's roster includes such high profile non-country acts as Avril Lavigne, Barenaked Ladies, Sarah McLachlan, and Sum 41 on the company's Canadian side.

Do the Hackensaws feel like odd men out in such company? "No," laughs Sickmen, "there are several other acts in our field. The Be Good Tanyas, who I would say we're similar to in respect...The Old Crow Medicine Show, really good friends of ours, are on Nettwerk, so there's a lot of good stuff on that label."

Asked how their new album "Love What You Do" is different from the group's previous efforts, Sickmen is direct.

"Well really, it's not. We kind of went about it the same way. This album is definitely not as lo-fi as the other albums, which some people will embrace, and some people won't. That's obviously the risk you take. You can't please everybody all the time."

The album - with Peloso performing on several tracks - was recorded over the course of two years in four different studios all over the world, usually as a way to accommodate the band's busy touring schedule.

"Some of the songs, like 'Suns Work Undone' and 'Bordertown,' were recorded in a really nice studio in Charlottesville. Two of the songs, 'Kiss You Down There' and "Cannonball,' were recorded in Richmond, Va.," says Sickmen.

"'Alabama Shamrock' was recorded in San Francisco. We played the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival out there. That was with the likes of Steve Earle, Willie Nelson, Emmylou Harris and Hazel Dickens. We had a friend who said, 'Hey, do you want to come in the studio tonight and record?' And we did."

"We recorded two in the Netherlands just the same way. We were on tour, and we met this guy who had a really nice studio. So we recorded the songs 'Mecklenburg' and 'Parking Lot' in Amsterdam, and that was a crazy experience because it was in an old building that had been occupied by the Nazis during World War II. The basement where we played was where - and I hate to really say this - that's where they were bathing - that's the kinder way to say what was really going on.(an apparent reference to atrocities) So it was weird being in that space although it felt positive in the music. It was just knowing that it had actually happened in the building where we were standing."

Recording live when they could and overdubbing when they had to, the Hackensaws collaborated closely on arrangements.

"Normally, there's an outline - a chord progression, a vocal melody, and a chorus - and basically everybody starts contributing in their own way and through a democratic process," says Sickmen of the band's creative method.

"We all decide what works for the song. Sometimes that works out, and it happens quickly, and it's easy for everybody to agree on something. Sometimes it doesn't, and somebody feels passionately about something, and there's a process that has to occur then - and it's a debate. At that point, the best you can hope for is that people are rational."

"But then you're talking about passionate artists being rational - it's like an oxymoron. We have a bunch of really good musicians with strong ideas, so there's always that space where we butt heads. We all have opinions on every aspect of the process. In the end, it will funnel into one person actually carrying the task out."

The result is an album the band is truly proud of that has already picked up some college radio airplay.

In November, they will embark on their fourth European tour in the last year and a half.

Sickmen sincerely hopes that he and the band can keep success in perspective.

"A lot of times it's scary because we start to do things for money instead of necessarily what's good for the soul. So, it's a big concern of mine for sure. I think that we have a magical thing going on there, and I say that from a very humble space. That's why we're all tired. We're trying to keep this gift that we've been given alive. Hopefully it will translate into people's lives being affected positively in these very hectic times."

© Country Standard Time • Jeffrey B. Remz, editor & publisher • countrystandardtime@gmail.com