Festival favourites The Hackensaw Boys return with no-holds-barred Appalachian string, bluegrass, country, and indie-pop.
The highly influential Central Virginia musical collective The Hackensaw Boys has been around since 1999 with enough lineup changes to rival The Fall. It is hard to overemphasise their importance to the roots community in and around Charlottesville, extending out to the wider bluegrass and string band festival circuit. Founder, songwriter, and guitarist David Sickmen has helped a lot of young musicians who have made their way into The Hackensaw Boys, including Pokey LaFarge and John R. Miller. The Hackensaw Boys have a reputation as a hard-playing, dynamic, fun live act. They have worked as Charlie Louvin’s backing band and opened for a diverse list of artists like Old Crow Medicine Show, De La Soul, and Modest Mouse as well as Cheap Trick, which in certain parts of the Midwest is the equivalent of receiving a knighthood.
The one constant member of The Hackensaw Boys has been Sickmen. Following a six-year hiatus, he seems to have hit an impressive new stride in his writing. Their new self-titled album, released on the Washington, D.C.-based roots label Free Dirt Records, will probably go down in the band’s history as a watershed moment. His music has been compared to punk, more specifically the Joe Strummer bloodline of folk-based, relatable, uncomplicated songs in which working people can easily see themselves.
Strummer would certainly have loved former member Justin Neuhardt’s invention of the “charismo,” a new musical instrument – arguably also a sustainable art project – that consists of (usually metal) found objects that are collected, worn like a washboard, and played with wire brushes.
‘The Hackensaw Boys’ is heavy on trad roots music but has a few songs that qualify as indie pop-rock: ‘Mary Shelley,’ ‘On Your Time,’ ‘Strangers,’ and ‘Only On The Brightside.’ ‘Mary Shelley’ is an insightful and compassionate song to the iconic, ill-fated Romantic writer and the mark she left on modern mythology: “Damn you Mary Shelley /All the seeds you planted in our minds /That have galvanised throughout time / Now we are living it.”
The swaggering ‘The Weights’ classifies people as lightweights, middleweights, and heavyweights, not just in terms of how much liquor they can hold but, on a deeper level, how much pain, struggling, and suffering throughout life they can endure. “They try so hard, they go so fast /There’s no way they will ever last /They’re lightweights.” There is an exceptional version of Bob Dylan’s ‘All I Really Want To Do.’ The sad Texas two-step ‘My Turn’ features a nice duet with Sara Beck. Closing track ‘Rye Straw’ is a fierce instrumental with frenetic fiddle playing by Caleb Powers that gives listeners an idea of how wild their stage performances can be.
Like the diverse, ever-evolving band itself ‘The Hackensaw Boys’ is a melting pot of different genres and approaches, smooth but not overachieving. Sickmen and his collective collaborators have respect for traditions but with a resolve to write their own eclectic, original canon.