The Hackensaw Boys have the Blue Ridge Mountains in their DNA. An acoustic aggregation — upright bass, fiddles, banjos, guitars, harmonica, charismo, dobro, mandolin — the Hackensaws make primitive American music, born of specific place. Their songs are steeped in generations of melody and shadings of old-time mountain and string bands, from their original uptempo reels and jigs to bittersweet ballads and hymns of the working man.
On their second self-issued disc, Keep It Simple, the Hackensaw Boys aren’t jumping on any O Brother bandwagon — their origins predate the hype — nor are they re-creating days of yore for purist perfection. Rather, they infuse the idiom of their shared heritage with an urgent and hungry freshness, lifting their voices in tightly wound harmony, picking and singing with Pentecostal fervor. Their output takes on love, loss, good times and dancing, but also such topicalia as sympathy toward Seattle’s WTO protesters and Nashville’s ball-busting ways.
Highly competent writers, players and singers, the Hackensaws have the confidence, lack of ego and community-hewed ethic to underplay, eschewing technical proficiency for purity of feeling. Live, their sonic symbiosis is a joyful, redemptively spirited blessing. Collectively, they are Peter Pan and his shadow, too, clearly of a populist soul-set. Hovering around a trio of microphones, trading out instruments and solo spots as one hand will share a broom with the other, the Hackensaw Boys are all for one and one for all.
“Actually, at one point, I didn’t have a bass, and so Dave [Sickmen] had a ’63 Buick Wildcat that he traded for a standup bass,” recounts Tom Peloso of the Hackensaw Boys’ early days in the autumn of 1999. Newly relocated to Charlottesville from Richmond, Virginia, Peloso was encouraged by his old friend Sickmen to start up a band akin to Peloso’s former project, the bluegrass-inspired Chigger.
On Sickmen’s birthday that year, at an Old Crow Medicine Show gig, he and Peloso met up with the players that would complete the Hackensaw heart’s four chambers: multi-instrumentalist Robbie St. Ours and Rob Bullington, who came armed with a mandolin bequeathed him by his great uncle, a onetime member of the Roanoke Jug Band. Bullington recalls that by night’s end, the four of them were onstage jamming and having a ball.
Shortly thereafter, the quartet took it to the streets in the downtown Charlottesville mall, and forthwith, the Hackensaws had a standing weekly engagement at Charlottesville’s beloved Blue Moon Diner, where at one point the band’s membership swelled to twelve. There were nine of them when they recorded their debut disc, Get Some, in 2000.
Now trimmed to a solid eight-man unit, the Hackensaws spent the summer logging 15,000 miles on their mid-’60s touring bus (christened the Dirty Bird), weaving across the country as part of the Unlimited Sunshine package tour. Hand-picked by headliner Cake’s John McCrea, the Hackensaws shared a stage with such diverse acts as the Flaming Lips and De La Soul at high-profile venues such as Colorado’s Red Rocks and Los Angeles’ Greek Theatre.
Despite such exposure and positioning for bigger things to come, the band’s humble outlook makes the accompanying britches unnecessary. Peloso says of their current record’s title cut and centerpiece: “Our guitar player wrote ‘Keep It Simple’; there’s been some times where things seem to get so complicated with this whole thing. He wrote this song and played it over the phone, left a message, kinda sayin’, ‘Let’s not forget where we came from, let’s remember to keep it simple and not let things get away from us.’ We like that idea.”