The Hackensaw Boys are a string band formed in 1999 and based in central Virginia. The band has drawn on many musical influences and are "[k]nown best for rowdy, energetic live shows." Over the last fifteen years, the band's live performances have earned a measure of notoriety in the Mid-Atlantic region. They have performed at premier outdoor U.S. music festivals including Bonnaroo, Lock'n, Floydfest, and the All Good Music Festival. The band has toured continuously since formation, but also claims at least twenty former and current members over the same fourteen-year period. The current four-piece lineup contains only one original member, David Sickmen (Sickmen rejoined the band in 2012 after quitting the band in 2005).
The Hackensaw Boys were founded in the Fall of 1999 by Rob Bullington, Tom Peloso, David Sickmen, and Robert "Bobby" St. Ours who were all living in Charlottesville, Virginia at the time.
Prior to forming Hackensaws, Sickmen and Bullington met in Harrisonburg, Virginia in the early 1990s. At the time, Bullington was playing in a band called Fried Moose. Peloso formed a band with some friends in the same decade called Chigger, in which he played the doghouse bass and was the lead singer. Sickmen played in a band called Pieboy with future (now former) Hackensaw Boy, Ward Harrison. All had performed as young musicians on the open mic stage at the Little Grill diner in Harrisonburg, as well.
The Hackensaw Boys formed in August 1999, when Sickmen, Bullington, Peloso and St. Ours met at Miller's restaurant in Charlottesville. Sickmen and Peloso had previously been talking about other possible music projects. The four decided at that time to form a new group that would become known as The Hackensaw Boys. They would develop their sound busking on the streets of Virginia.
"The Dirty Bird"
In the Fall of 2000, an enlarged group of twelve musicians departed from Virginia in a 1964 GMC motorcoach, nicknamed "The Dirty Bird", on the six-week Get Some Tour of "theaters, bars, street corners and alleys." The bus had been given to the group by Charlottesville developer Oliver Kuttner, together with a second one dubbed "Ramblin' Fever," which went to Mark S. Hahn, then owner of the Blue Moon Diner. Hahn briefly served as manager for the group.
The group took part in the Unlimited Sunshine Tour the first two years. The 2002 tour included headliner Cake, De La Soul, The Flaming Lips, Modest Mouse, and Kinky. In addition to Cake, the 2003 tour featured Cheap Trick, "garage rockers" The Detroit Cobras, and "country legend" Charlie Louvin of the Louvin Brothers. In 2003 they served as Country Music Hall of Fame member Charlie Louvin's backing band on one of his last nationwide tours. They opened for Modest Mouse twice (a group founding member Tom Peloso eventually joined). The group continued to gain "a following as it traveled." It has performed with such major acts as Cracker, Camper Van Beethoven, and Railroad Earth. A tour in Europe featured events in Belgium and the Netherlands. Overseas they have performed in such cities as Antwerp, Amsterdam (Paradiso), London, Dublin, Brussels, and Utrecht. At the height of their popularity they have played venues in major music towns like Seattle, Asheville, San Francisco, Minneapolis, Knoxville, New York, Portland, Baltimore, Atlanta, Chicago, and Los Angeles. Although, more recently the band has been relegated to clubs and bars in small markets, often struggling to draw more than a sparse crowd.
Prior tours included appearances at the Bonnaroo Music Festival (2003 and 2004), Telluride Bluegrass Festival in Colorado (2003), All Good Music Festival (2004 and 2006), FloydFest in Virginia (2003), and Pickathon in Oregon. Appearances at European music festivals include Pukkelpop in Belgium (2005) and Bergenfest in Norway (2007 and 2008).
They came up with nicknames for each other because it seemed all of the old country and blues performers had them. This became a big part of their act. Original members included Robert "Mahlon" Bullington (1999–2011), Thomas "Pee Paw" Peloso (1999–2004), David "Shiner" Sickmen (1999–2005; rejoined 2012), and Robert "Uncle Blind Bobby" St. Ours (1999–2003). Phillip "Jigsaw" St. Ours played washboard in both Hackensaw and Old Crow early on (1999–2001), and then for Hackensaw in (2008). Other early members included Jesse "Baby J." Fiske (1999–2011), Phil "Slate Hill Phil" Gianniny (1999–2001; d. 2006), and Jimmy "Kooky-Eyed Fox" Stelling (1999–2007). Others to join the ever-evolving group have included Chris "Sawzall" Johnson (1999–2001), Justin "Salvage" Neuhardt (1999–2010), David "Bellows Lugusi" Goldstein (1999–2004), Charlie "C.B." Bell (1999–2004), and Shawn "Plantain" Galbraith (2007–2012). Ferd "Four" Moyse joined in 2004, Ward "Cousin Spits" Harrison in 2006, Brian "Nugget" Gorby in 2010, and Ben "JuJu" Jacobs in 2012.
The Hackensaw Boys derived their name "from the actions you perform on a mandolin (hack) and a fiddle (saw)." Says Bullington "it was one of those jokes that sort of sticks . . and after about a week and you've played six or seven shows during the course of that week, you have no choice but to keep the name."
The first two Hackensaw Boys albums were released by the Valley Entertainment label: Get Some in 2000 and Keep It Simple in 2002. The releases proved to have limited commercial appeal.
"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.'"
"Keep It Simple, is packed with vigorous, pitchy bursts" notes Amanda Petrusich in her Pitchfork review, noting the album "doesn't perfectly reflect the band's fast-and-fierce live show . .
". . but it offers a solid glimpse of their proclivity for catchy melodies, classic harmonizing, and stringy noodling. Somehow, the band infuses their grassy tornado with brazen punk attitude and catchy pop structure, while simultaneously remaining vehemently sincere; tracks like "Dance Around" feature prototypically bluegrassian lyrics ("Dancin' with the girls/ That's a mighty fine thing/ You ain't gotta buy no wedding ring") without mocking the traditions from which they came.
Get Some was recorded by Rhoderick Cole in his Charlottesville mansion. Keep It Simple was recorded in Sickmen's apartment in Charlottesville's Linen Building, also by Cole who did the sound engineering on both recordings. Give It Back, released in 2004, was self-produced.
The group signed with the music label Nettwerk for the 2005 release of "Love What You Do". Their second release for Nettwerk Records, Look Out! in 2007, was a "celebratory but defiant sound culled from old-time mountains, backstage doorways and punishing drives through the evolving American landscape" according to Isthmus/The Daily Page.
"In many ways (Look Out!) is a return to classic Hackensaw form, the punk-amped, old time foot-stompers and ragged harmonies that gained the band its reputation in the live setting when it formed seven years ago. One of the best additions is fiddler Ferd Moyse, who tears through the opening 'Look Out Dog, Slow Down Train!' with blazing fury."
Another reviewer concurred, stating the album "is the Boys at their best, a perfect medium between their raw early years and the more polished sound of their previous release." Bullington states Look Out! "was definitely an attempt to capture sonically and as beautifully as possible, the sound of the Hackensaws onstage." The group went into the studio "with the defined intention of . . trying to capture the live performance as best as we possibly could. And I think we totally succeeded in doing that." The album "got to No. 6 on the Americana music charts" and "contained nine originals including a couple from the sometimes Modest Mouse, sometimes Hackensaw Tom Peloso."
Following the release of Love What You Do and Look Out!, The Hackensaws departed from Nettwerk Records to release two independently produced six-song EPs, The Old Sound of Music, Vol. 1 and The Old Sound of Music, Vol. 2 These two collections are "recommended for anyone who feels that time, popularity and (maybe) Don Was has watered down Old Crow Medicine Show, The Hackensaw Boys bring the Appalachian string band roots with punk rock flowers hard and raw." The albums resulted from recording sessions held at the Sound of Music studios in Richmond, Virginia. They were mastered by Grammy award winner Charlie Pilzer. As with Look Out! in 2007, all songs were engineered by Bryan Hoffa, archival audio restoration specialist at the Library of Congress. The titles, bestowed by Ferd Lionel Moyse IV were inspired by the fact that these were the last two recording projects to come out of the old Sound Of Music facility, which has recently moved to a new building in Richmond. The Old Sound of Music, Vol. 1 and The Old Sound of Music, Vol. 2 are available for sale at live Hackensaw Boys shows, in select record stores, and can be purchased and downloaded in digital form from The Hackensaw Boys official website.
A distinctive aspect of the Hackensaw live-performance experience is the percussion instrument known as a "charismo". Invented and played by former band member Justin "Salvage" Neuhardt, who also performed on spoons and the musical saw, it is described as "a home-made tin can contraption." Calvin James Pynn of The Tartan (Radford University) notes, "Neuhardt's charismo" is the "most notable" of their instruments:
". . a homemade percussion instrument made from tin cans, license plates, a hubcap, and book bag straps, and then mercilessly beat with wire-brush sticks. While old-time music is generally marked by its strict absence of percussion, the charismo has an almost symbolic presence in The Hackensaw Boys' music and live shows, and is an irreplaceable aspect of their sound."
In an interview with Scott Simon of N.P.R. Neuhardt himself explains how it came to be:
"Q: Salvage . . now you say you play a pile of junk? A: That's right. Q: We're looking at your instrument now has . . like, half a dozen tin cans, a punctured aerosol can . . A: A coconut milk can, tea can, breath mints, bike bells . . Q: Hubcap is that? A: Hubcap, yep, found on the border of Colorado. Most of it has just come from where ever we've been, and various recycling centers around the United States. Q: So you keep adding to your instrument? A: Well, I, uh, usually just make 'em and break 'em, and then make a new one. It's kind of ever-evolving, sort of ever-changing."
Brian Gorby, Neuhardt's friend and former band-mate in the percussion-heavy jam-band Humble Sacrifice, has carried on the charismo's tradition in the Hackensaw Boys as their touring percussionist. With funk influences, Gorby uses the charismo to bring a rambunctious flair to the band's old-time style.
"Like the name dictates, the Hacksensaw Boys are all about finger picking banjos, fiddles and baritone harmonies run through the punk rock blue grass ringer. They are as likely to hit home with hippies as rockabillies, or anyone who wants to raise a glass and stomp a hole through the ole wooden dance floor."
As former member and founder Bullington puts it "we can play an old folks home in the afternoon and then play for a bunch of punk rockers, or whoever else might still be up and ready for a good time, or some music at midnight. They all seem to enjoy it equally." Fellow founder Sickmen claims "the original intent of the band . . was to bring old-time Appalachian country punk rock." Band member Jesse "Baby J." Fiske questions the importance of assigning a specific style: "We're not really an old-time band either. As long as we speak to someone, it doesn't really matter what the genre is." The group largely performs original material, with a traditional feel. As former member Shawn Galbraith, banjo player, puts it: "We play original material provided by different members of the band. There are some traditional elements to our sound for sure, but we always try to maintain some uniqueness." "I don't think many people would call us a traditional oldtime band," states bandleader David Sickmen: "I'd say our songs are about ninety percent originals. Then we have some old-time songs we play in our own way."
"As always, the band has been touring across the country like a pack of mad dogs, delivering the old-time, front-porch sounds of the Blue Ridge Mountains through a filter of punk angst."
Awards, honors, distinctions
The Hackensaw Boys served as Country Music Hall of Fame member Charlie Louvin's backing band on a nationwide tour in 2003.
The Hackensaw Boys opened, along with King Wilkie, for The Del McCoury Band at that group's 2004 New Year's Eve bluegrass blowout at Nashville's Ryman Auditorium (former home of the Grand Ole Opry). The bill also featured the Waybacks and Whitey Johnson.
The Hackensaw Boys have performed at many prominent U.S. music festivals, including All Good Music Festival (2004 and 2006), Bonnaroo (2004), Telluride (2003), and FloydFest (2003).
The Hackensaw Boys appeared on National Public Radio's Weekend Edition Saturday on November 26, 2005 with Scott Simon. Making Their Own Kind of Music featured interviews and performances Robert Bullington, David Sickmen, Justin Neuhardt, Jesse Fiske, Jimmy Stelling, and Ferd Moyse, IV.
The Hackensaw Boys have twice performed at the prestigious European music festival in Norway, Bergenfest, where they shared the stage with Marianne Faithfull, Pet Shop Boys, and Shooter Jennings--in 2007--and Delbert McClinton, Mary Gauthier, Patti Smith, and Southside Johnny & The Asbury Jukes--in 2008.
The Hackensaw Boys were nominated for the Independent Country Music Awards "Best Bluegrass Band, Duo, or Group" category, 2012.
Current "tour lineup" as of January 2014:
Brian "Nugget" Gorby - percussion
David "Shiner" Sickmen - guitar
Jesse "baby j." Fiske - banjo
Ferd Moyse - strings