Since their formation in Charlottesville, Carolina around 19 years ago The Hackensaw Boys have gained a couple of reputations. One concerns the sheer number of musicians who have passed through their ranks over the years. Another more pertinent one is of being one of the most joyful and rambunctious live bands around, raucous and great fun, “head banging string band music” one reviewer said of their shows. This month sees the release of their latest album, Charismo (on Freedirt Records) which is named after their preferred percussion gizmo, a contraption composed of tin cans, hubcaps, car licence plates and other “junk”. A Heath Robinson like contrivance that’s like a steam punk washboard the Charismo has been an integral part of their set up since the first one was hammered together by one time band member Justin “Salvage” Neuhardt. Coinciding with the album release the band are setting out on a lengthy European jaunt which started in The Netherlands and includes four UK shows this week including a slot at Maverick Festival.
Charismo is their first full-length release in almost ten years and features the current line up of David Sickmen on guitar, Ferd Moyse, fiddle, Jimmy Stelling, banjo and Brian Gorby on Charismo and drums. Produced by Larry Campbell who has worked with Dylan and Levon Helm it has 11 songs (all written by Sickmen and Moyse) which can ripple and ring with an old time Appalachian swing, swerve into folk territory or just generally rip it up. Songs like Ol’ Nick and Limousin Lady are simply exhilarating while The Sweet is a folky number that could have been penned by Ewan MacColl. There are whoops and hollers aplenty but some reviewers have commented that the album is just that bit more mellow than they had come to expect from The Hackensaw Boys. Certainly C’Mon Baby Don’t Bet Against Me and Flora roll sweetly along, the former reminding me of The Nitty Gritty Dirt band in their heyday but even in mellow mood the Boys still have a fine rustic rawness.
Blabber’n’Smoke had the opportunity to speak with original band member David Sickmen while he was in Pittsburgh in between shows. David was happy to talk about the meandering history of the band along with some discussion about the current parlous state of politics (which I’ve left out here, suffice to say we both dislike blonde buffoons peddling lies and fear) but first of all I asked him about the album and those comments on the band mellowing somewhat.
Well we had this batch of songs we took into the studio and that’s different from playing live. In the studio there’s the temptation to shine every diamond but really we just tried to make every song sound great and with Larry Campbell producing it was just a very natural and easy process. As for the songs however I’d be lying if I were to say that I’m not getting older and maybe a bit more mellow so a lot of what I think about writing about is on the softer side of things, more ballady if you like. But the live shows are definitely energetic and we want folk to come out and party and leave all the bad shit, the Donald Trump’s and that behind and come out for a couple of hours and dance and party and drink beer.
Larry Campbell’s probably best known for being Dylan’s guitarist for several years on The Never Ending Tour and for producing Levon Helm’s last albums. How did you hook up with him?
Through mutual friends. We reached out to a friend who got some demos we had recorded in Amsterdam to Larry. He thought they were great and he agreed to produce the album.
This is your first full-length album in around ten years, why so long?
Well we’ve had EPs and such but yes, this is the first album in about ten years. Why? Well, life, poor management, people leaving the band and then we were spending so much time on the live circuits that we just didn’t have the time. But I think it’s been worth the wait because we’re more mature now.
The band’s always been something of a shape shifter, people coming and going and then some coming back again. You were one of the original members then you left and then came back again. There’s four Hackensaw Boys right now, is that right?
Yes but we’ll have a fifth member when we get over to Europe, we’re currently looking for an accordion player. I helped start the band in 1999 and then in 2005, well, I guess the pleasant way to say it is I couldn’t think straight anymore so I had to step out for about five years and then some of the other guys had to leave and I came back in, by then I was a lot healthier.
I read that at one point you had about 12 people on stage.
Well we started off as just four guys but within a week or so a friend of ours jumped in on harmonica and then we started doing thses shows in Charlottesville, in a place called the Blue Moon Diner, another guy would come up and say, “I play banjo can I come on up” and we’d say sure and it just kept on growing. We embraced anyone who wanted to play, we just said come on. So yeah, at one point we had 12 guys playing. We did our first tour in a 1964 GMC motor coach, an ex Greyhound bus. 12 of us on the road and we did that for about a year, then people would fall away over time. Some would act up too much, we did fire some people, one of the guys passed away, so yeah, we have a kind of wild history with the line up but I don’t shy away from that, it’s part of the beauty of it all. The thing that’s kind of risen to the top is that the spirit of what we try to do musically has always been there no matter who’s playing in the band.
That’s the spirit of the band but how would you describe the sound of the band?
It’s not truly old time music. If it’s old time at all it’s in the spirit of encouraging people to dance, to come out to the barn if you will and have some fun. It’s maybe our interpretation of what guys in the 1920s might have been like, you know, travelling around, going to different places in like a three county area doing barn dances. Obviously it’s folk music but a lot of us grew up on rock’n’roll and punk and that is filtered into it but really, even after all these years I still don’t know what to call it to be honest. Maybe just say it’s hard rock and folk music that rolls. Some songs rock hard, some are quieter and some just roll along. I mean what do you call it?
Well we talk about old time music, string bands, bluegrass and folk but with a lot of bands it’s all mixed into one. I’m trying to avoid the word Americana here.
Yeah, we get the bluegrass moniker and that’s mainly based on the instrumentation but honestly I don’t think we’re a bluegrass band, traditional bluegrass might share the same instruments but it sounds different from us. We don’t sound like the Stanley Brothers where there’s no percussion, there’s certainly no “badam badam badam!”, the drive is different. When we started out we were listening to traditional music. Our original banjo and fiddle player was into old time music, he was taught by a guy in Harrisonburg called Two Gun Terry. Tom (Peloso) was coming from a background where he listened to Tommy Makem and The Clancy Brothers, his grandfather was an old Irish guy who listened to that stuff, he can probably to this day sing you every one of the Clancy Brothers songs. Me, I grew up around my uncle and he had a lot of records of gospel bluegrass so I heard a lot of that. In addition, my mother was from the coalfields of West Virginia and when we went there to visit family I would hear the Baptists singing in the church. Of the original four of us Robert Bullington, well, his great-great uncle played in a jug band that actually recorded back in the twenties, they were called the Roanoke Jug Band out of Roanoke Virginia and Rob still had his uncle’s original mandolin. So we all had this background but then we were all also into punk and rock’n’roll so that’s really the origins of the band. Another original member was Robert St. Ours who was good friends with Ketch Secor and Critter from the Old Crow Medicine Show, they were in a band together in Harrisonburg called the Route 11 Boys before he joined up with us. We had a guitar, a mandolin, a banjo and fiddle and an upright bass and we learned some old songs like John Hardy and that but we were also all songwriters and we wrote in that direction. It wasn’t fake or contrived, we were trying to honour our perception of Uncle Dave Macon, Doc Boggs, Roscoe Holcomb or Tommy Jarrell and of course the Blues guys, Howlin’ Wolf and such. We were into all of that and we all loved Bob Dylan and we all knew about folk music.
There’s a long list of past and present members of the band on your Facebook page, some 25 folk I think. How do you keep the essence of what it is to be a Hackensaw Boy?
Well the psyche and the story of the band are all these different souls coming in and out of it and while we used to shy away from it somewhat, I mean it was like well who’s in this band, well, the world. It’s a world band.
I sometimes think that if we discovered America today and found all these guys playing banjos and fiddles we’d find it exotic and file it under world music.
Deep down we’re all human beings, genetically we’re all the same but through time and history we’ve all developed different characteristics and I kind of see what we’re doing as similar to that, it’s all one style of music but played in so many different ways. We’re a multi dimensional band, musically, spiritually, even politically, I mean I’m more political than some of the other band members but ultimately you can get trapped by words and descriptions. In many ways we’re still trying to figure out who we are. I’ve found that in my writing sometimes. I’ve written something and I start to think, “is this a Hackensaw Boys song?” and that’s a really stifling, limiting feeling. It’s anti music in a way because it’s all about growth and I feel that this band, 19 years and 25 members later, well, we’re still trying to see who we are. I mean we’ve played everywhere from The Ryman to the shittiest bar in America, we’ve done it all but we’re still searching and I think that’s why we’re still a good band.
The album’s named after the band’s unique percussion instrument, the Charismo which was originally built by Justin Neuhardt who hammered together some tin cans and hubcaps which he then beat with wire-brush sticks.
Yeah, again back in the early days when we were playing in the diner Justin joined in and he was playing spoons and when we were about to go on that tour I mentioned earlier he was like, “I don’t want to play spoons for six weeks”. He’s an artist and sculptor so he showed up a couple of days later and said “check this out”, this contraption and so that was the first one. It’s great, it has the qualities of a washboard but so much more and so we called it the Charismo because it had so much charisma. It really fit in with our sound, pretty soon the audiences in the diner grew until there were folk queuing up outside who couldn’t get in.
I hear that it’s been rebuilt, hammered together, taken apart over the years.
Well I believe that he’s actually built about a hundred of them by now. A lot of them are actually on Justin’s wall back in LA where he’s a full time sculptor.
By the time this is published you’ll be in the early stages of a lengthy European tour.
We’re doing the lot, Belgium, Germany, Netherlands, Czech Republic, Italy, Switzerland, France and The UK. We’ve been over several times and I really like playing to the European audiences, they seem to get really excited about the music. Sometimes in the States we play and people just stand around but in Europe maybe we seem more… exotic, perhaps that’s the word. There’s a festival over here, Floyd Fest in Virginia, which was originally a world music type festival and I went to the first one, 10 or 12 years ago and there were these African musicians and I just stood there in awe because I’d never seen or heard anything like that, so maybe that’s how some folk in Europe see us. We go down really well in Germany and Spain; in the UK we’re not as well known. When we play a place like the Cluny in Newcastle it’s packed but in London the crowds are smaller. We’d really like to crack the festival circuit there. We played Clonakilty in Ireland and it was crowded but in Dublin there was only a couple of dozen there. It’s hard, I mean it’s not hard like a Syrian refugee’s life is hard or how life can be hard in the real world but to keep on doing this and be creative is a struggle. Maybe the UK are still mad about the revolutionary war!
It amazes and also dismays me that bands like yourselves, unless it’s part of some big festival or there’s been some kind of hi-res publicity like a TV show, can play to audiences of less than a hundred over here.
That happens to us in the States as well but we’ll play to small crowds and then big crowds, we’re still slugging it out. We play the exact same show no matter how many people are there, if it’s a really small crowd we might just forget the mics and stage set up and just come down and play on the floor. That’s usually a part of our show anyway. We’ll come off the stage and just break it down to its rawest form and people really like that. It all boils down to making a living and we’ll have some merchandise at the shows, Tee shirts, records. Charismo is out on vinyl and we’ve got a 7″ single we recorded in Amsterdam which is two of the demos from the album. It’s our first foray into vinyl and we’ve actually been selling as many of those as we do CDs.
Finally, can I ask a dumb question? Where does the band name come from?
It started almost as a joke. When we started playing at the Blue Moon Diner the guy who ran it took us on as our manager for a while and we didn’t have a name and he wanted to know what to call us. And then Bobby and Tom said well we’re kind of like hacking and sawing away here, hacking on the guitar, sawing on the fiddle and I think it was Tom who said Hackensaw and then Boys was just a sort of traditional moniker for a lot of Appalachian bands. So that was that but I sometime wish we had left the Boys bit out.
Tuesday June 28 Boston Music Arms London
Wednesday June 29 The Moon Club Cardiff
Thursday June 30 The Cluny Newcastle
Friday Juyl 1 Maverick Festival Easton
All European dates are here
Pictures of The Charismo courtesy of Justin Neuhardt. Thanks to Free Dirt Records and Ark PR for facillitating the interview and many thanks to David Sickmen for a really enjoyable chat.