-- From the tour diary
of Mahlon Hackensaw
Only in the hill-country wail of the Hackensaw Boys do Faulkneresque narrative, Appalachian traditionalism, and punk-rock rapture unite in a mysterious and evocative harmony. The six-man band from Charlottesville, Virginia, plays old-time string music on vintage acoustic instruments, and their rowdy, jig-reeling twang hits the gut like a swig of moonshine. While most modern bluegrass bands step lightly in Birkenstocks and ponytails and strum meandering, milquetoast newgrass, the Hackensaws stomp through their repertoire with a purposefulness that can be described only as blue-collar.
"That stuff bores me to tears," mandolinist Mahlon Hackensaw says of his newgrass contemporaries. "It's just kinda wanking off. There's no melody or something you hum walking down the street."
Tight, fast, and punchy, the Hackensaws play with a raw intensity that's caught the attention of the rock 'n' roll intelligentsia. During 2001 and 2002, California smarm-rockers Cake hand-picked them for their Unlimited Sunshine Tour, pairing them with De La Soul, Kinky, and Modest Mouse, who took a shine to the 20-something pickers.
"Yeah, Pee Paw's gone to play with Modest Mouse," Salvage Hackensaw says of the band's departed fiddler. As he speaks from the band's Richmond, Virginia, rehearsal space, he's busy wire-wrapping a bell to an air conditioning filter, outfitting the chest-mounted, spoon-played percussion contraption called a charismo. "We gotta have a fiddle, so we're gonna get someone else to fit in there: Ferd, a buddy of ours from Black Mountain, North Carolina."
OK, Pee Paw? Mahlon? Salvage Hackensaw?
"They're nicknames, just for fun," reveals Mahlon, who's mom calls him Rob Bullington. The Kooky-eyed Fox on banjo; Dante J. on harmonica, accordion, and bass; and Shiner on guitar round out the Boys. "There's no great myth; it's just what happens when you spend enough time together."
Continually romanced by the open road, they played some 250 shows last year, traveling in a 1964 GM motor coach dubbed the Dirty Bird. As in their rootsy musical predilections, the Hackensaws ("like hacking at a mandolin or sawing at a fiddle," Bullington explains of the fictional family name) have a strong affinity for history. Bullington keeps an insightful tour diary at hackensawboys.com, which chronicles the several cross-country treks made since the band formed in 1999.
From the tour diary of Mahlon Hackensaw:
"Smokey Fontaine is doing his best to maintain the Dirty Bird's equilibrium on this lonely stretch of Utah interstate. Gusts of powerful wind, blown from the mouth of Zephyrus himself, attack our aging bus as it makes its way across this stark, lunar landscape. Pee Paw, on the other hand, is doing his best to disrupt what little equilibrium we are able to achieve by relentlessly sawing away at a particularly dissonant version of 'Black Eyed Suzie' on his Depression-era B&H fiddle. I've decided to add my own sort of chaos to the moment with my Cold War-era Smith Corona manual typewriter."
"There is an epic quality, in the sense that it's an American or uniquely human thing to go out and carve out your own place in the world," Bullington says. "[Creating something] with your friends is a lot more rewarding than going into an office and punching a clock."
Both of their studio releases, 2000's Get Some and 2001's Keep It Simple, fire their studied, rustic vocal harmonies and deft picking with a hell-bent vitality "to bring that old spirit to the new times in some way," says Salvage, who signs his checks Justin Neauhardt. On 2002's live Give It Back, it's tough to differentiate century-old, string-band standards like "Walking Boss" and "Cumberland Gap" from originals like "Lonesome Train" and "Cannonball Brokedown."
"I think we're just kind of wanting to find a simpler reality of life and music," Neauhardt says. "Not to say that's the only type of thing we're pursuing, but it's really beautiful music if you have ears to hear it.
"It's just like the spirit; it's something that people feel and maybe hear too," he continues. "But a lot of times, it's that feeling that they get from it, like having a smell from when you're a kid. People just relate to it, anywhere from nursing homes to punk-rock clubs."
It's a pretty wide audience to span, but the Boys' sincerity and dedication make it possible. There's an uncomplicated sweetness and lack of artifice in the music.
"We played Mahlon's grandparents' nursing home once," Neauhardt says. "All those folks, from the early part of the century on up to the '50s, they recognize that spirit, and we feel like we're keeping with that sensibility. We called our second album Keep It Simple, and that's sort of it."