By Greg Tutwiler
SavingCountryMusic.com said this about our feature artist, the Hackensaw Boys; “Before string bands were a “thing” in popular culture, there was the Hackensaw Boys. Before The Avett Brothers were selling out arenas, before Mumford & Sons were becoming the biggest band in music in a given year, before everybody and their brother was growing a beard and wearing suspenders and playing in jug bands, the Hackensaw Boys were mixing bluegrass and old time music with a punk attitude, and reshaping what a modern old school string band could sound like.”
“It wasn’t like we set out to become this popular string band,” founding member David Sickman told me. In fact, you could almost say they jammed their way into it.
Sickman, a native of Nelson County, VA moved to Harrisonburg, VA in his early 20s. A café on the north end of town called the Little Grill, friendly towards open stage and jam nights, was a popular hangout for the emerging string music scene. (It’s also where the band Old Crow Medicine Show has its roots) David and fellow musician Rob Bullington became friends at the Grill where they would often jam together. They eventually found their way to Charlottesville, VA where they connected with David’s old high school mate, Tom Peloso, and the fourth of what would become the founding members of the band, Robert “Bobby” St. Ours.
Takin’ It To The Streets
“The band actually came together in the back of the Jefferson Theater. (Before it was a music venue, it was a two dollar movie theater),” David told me. “I shared an art studio in the back with a friend. We met there to practice the first time as a band. We practiced for a few hours and then decided to go out on the downtown mall there in Charlottesville and play for a while. I think we made 80 dollars that evening. We were astonished. We just made money! And here I am all these years later still trying to figure out how to do that,” he laughed.
So literally, their first practice was the first day they played their first show, “which is kind of funny,” David said; “because I don’t think many bands can claim that. And then of course, we never really practiced again, we just played shows. Certainly we learned a lot in front of people, but the crowd has always been a big part of what makes Hackensaw Boys shows fun anyway.”
The guys all kept jobs on the side to help pay bills but the band quickly became a focal point for everyone. The atmosphere around the group and the way the band played lent itself to growth. “We kept adding people,” David recalled. “We didn’t really set out to do that. But somebody would jam with us and we’d end up inviting them to join in at our next show. Before we knew it, we had 12 people in the band.”
Tour To The Top
In 1999 the 12 band members and a photographer set out on their first six week tour. “That’s when we all fully committed to it,” David said. “There was always this founding father vibe in the band but we tried really hard to be a democracy about it. It all seemed to work itself out, but there was always two or three guys that seemed to do the thinking/business things for the band.”
Following that tour the band returned home with focus and a pretty busy local/regional performance schedule. And then they got the kind of break every up and coming band hopes for; a chance to open for a headliner in front of a large crowd. “A good friend of ours was set to open for the band Cake,” David recalled. “She decided that she couldn’t do it and recommended us as the opening act in her place. We ended up on stage for a sold out show with basically nobody in the crowd knowing who we were. Honestly, we really kind of blew the place up. It was crazy. Not long after that we were invited to do some additional dates with them. We were immediately playing better venues, which was really nice.”
The Cake tour led to a big package tour in 2001 and 2002 with several other bands of different genres. “That took us to even greater venues, which was amazing. It really expanded our fan base and set the stage for who we are as a band today.”
Maintaining The Vibe
How does a band stay together for 17 years and still stay current, I asked? “If you are a Hackensaw Boys fan, it’s likely you saw them when I wasn’t in the band,” David noted. He was with the band for six and a half years in the beginning, left for five years, and has now been back with the band for the past five years. I suggested maybe the band was like an institution, and David said, “yes, sort of. I think of it like sort of a folk franchise,” he mused.
“We’ve had upwards of 20 members in the band over the 17 year history,” David said. “Over the course of the years people have been fired, quit, and just drifted away, and then some have come back to the Boys as well, like myself. I don’t think there’s ever been anyone in the band that hasn’t tried to honor the original intent of the band though, which is good time music; and a fun time for people to come hang out at a good party with good music. And it’s always been based on a high energy vibe along with some ballads mixed in to mellow it out every once in a while.”
“And I think the band has always been about songs too.” Although David and Ferd Moyse are the two main songwriters at the moment, “We’ve always been lucky to have good songwriters in the band, in my humble opinion. When you have multiple songwriters you can reach out to a lot of different people. It adds a dimension and a diversity that you can’t always get if you’re relying on just one songwriter, or songs written outside the band. If your songwriter leaves, it’s hard for the band to go on. If you have multiple writers, the band can continue on easier even if one of the writers moves on.”
Songs again are the focus for their latest CD project, Charismo, their first studio recording in ten years. “We’ve been recording all along we just haven’t been able to get much out to the public. Guys would leave the band before we were finished, or timing and scheduling would get in the way.”
The latest project was funded through Kick starter, “which is a great way to involve your fan base in what you’re doing,” David commented. They asked noted producer Larry Campbell to help them make the record. “Thanks to our fans, we got the project funded and we went to New York to cut the new material.”
The album is named after a percussive instrument invented by former bandmate Justin Neuhardt (who played with the band in its early days). The instrument has been used nightly since the band’s initial tour 16 years ago. According to the band’s press material, “the charismo is made of recycled wood and scrap – tin cans, hubcaps, and so on – and is constantly broken down and re-assembled as the parts wear out and new ones are found. Much like the fluid, ever-changing nature of the instrument, Charismo shows us that The Hackensaw Boys are always moving forward like a mighty wheel turning, continuing to spread the (not quite) bygone spirit of down-home music to old and new audiences alike.”