Listen to the Hackesnsaw Boys on MySpace...
By: Dennis Cook
Just say the phrase old-time music and you can hear the creak of porches bouncing to clogging feet and bow shreddin' fiddle. It is the music of folks who came from England, Ireland and Africa and tilled earth and laid rail ties together. With wood and strings and tired hands, they created melodies and told stories that offered some respite in those rare hours when they weren't busting their hump. There's a good measure of wildness and homebrewed spirits hanging in these notes, which are awful good at stirring our blood and lifting our heels. Much as they try, not many contemporary bands dedicated to this music fully inhabit it. Thankfully, there's song farmers like the Hackensaw Boys to keep old-time from growing too old.
| Hackensaw Boys|
"The only way I can play this music is if my jets are fired. I don't get that fired up that many other times in my life like when we play our songs," says Jesse Fiske aka "Baby J." Each Boy has a dustbowl nickname, something Huddie Ledbetter (Leadbelly) would approve of. "It's remarkable how it can transform you that way, especially when you see old people get up and shuffle around dance style. I've seen some people make fools of themselves in a most delightful way. We play at ridiculous tempos, screaming and hollering, seemingly doing musically questionable, possibly atrocious things by pop culture standards, but if you're there and involved with it there's raw excitement. You can't package that."
However, the Hackensaws have given it a solid go with their fifth studio album, Look Out! (released June 19 by Nettwerk Records), which goes a long way towards capturing their boisterous live energy in a studio setting. You can almost feel their sweat hitting you as it plays.
"Absolutely. We knew what we wanted to do when we went in. Anytime we had a question we'd just try to keep it as close to real as possible," says Robert Bullington aka "Mahlon." Fiske adds, "We set out on tour planning to go into the studio immediately afterwards, and it worked. We went in all warmed up and most of it we got in a couple takes. Obviously, you can do different things in the studio and the stage but the kind of band we are we can't go do a bunch of tricky production stuff."
| Hackensaw Boys|
With the Hackensaw Boys there's a strong sense of being in the moment in even their recorded music. "That's pretty much how we survive and exist," offers Fiske. "I would like to be more organized in my thoughts and plans but at the same time you have to let things come your way. You can put your intentions out there in the world and hopefully they'll meet up with the grand plan of things. It sounds hippy-dippy but a lot of people have worked hard at what they do, stirring it up and seeing where it lands. That's a lot of what we do and we hope people catch onto it."
The photo on the back of Look Out! says a lot about the band without a single word. It's the Boys, instruments held high, pushing their way through a wall-to-wall barroom full of grinning, spent looking people. These guys surely take it out of a crowd.
"And they take it out of us. It's a mutually beneficial workout," Bullington comments. "That's Morgantown, West Virginia – 123 Pleasant St., which used to be the Niabinghi Hall back in the day." There's an extraordinary amount of give-and-take at their shows. "A lot of grabbing, too. When we walk onstage or into the crowd – and this is at the very core of what we do – it's our job to get people's attention in an entertaining fashion. As entertainers we're trying to get your attention, hold it and justify it. A good movie can be serious but it should be entertaining as well. You have to have a good story to get your deep, life-affirming message across. That's what we're trying to do, tell some entertaining stories that maybe on the side slide in a little of that pathos, ideology and whatnot."
"In that shot we were playing on the floor like we used to play on the streets every night. Every night we do that, no matter what venue," says Fiske. "And man, it makes it so much better when you get down off the microphone and all the pretensions of a P.A. system. People always love it. Promoters say, 'These people over here couldn't hear you,' but if those people couldn't hear it they didn't want to. You just give it to them and hope they'll listen."
That urge to erase the wall between the stage and audience, to be close to the listener, is indicative of string bands in general but especially prominent in the Hackensaws.
"You're playing an instrument that makes awesome sounds and better sounds when it's not being manipulated by electronics. So, it's sort of a treat to play your instrument at the end of the night and not worry about the P.A. feeding back or anything," Fiske offers. "With this many twangy instruments it's a challenge to make something nice, pleasant to listen to, but still has the drive."
The current configuration of Boys is one of the happiest lineups since they began in 1999. Besides Fiske and Bullington, there's Jimmy Stelling ("The Kooky-Eyed Fox"), Ferd Lionel Moyse IV ("Four"), Ward Harrison ("Spits") and Justin Neuhardt ("Salvage"). Notable former Hackensaw members - who all sit in whenever possible - include roots music cult figure Pokey LaFarge and Tom Peloso ("Pee Paw") who plays with Modest Mouse and contributed two songs to Look Out! While each has a favorite instrument, there's little point in listing them since the strings change hands almost every song, so the mandolin picker on the last jig-and-reel now holds the stand-up bass. It's one of the signs of their unbridled enthusiasm for what they do, a jittery excitement that's freakin' contagious for anyone watching them.
Continue reading for more on Hackensaw Boys...