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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.
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"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."
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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.
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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.
"For a while there we did tame ourselves a little bit but in recent years it's kinda gone back to where we started," observes Fiske. "That's exciting that the original reason it was exciting is still exciting. Evolving is great, and I definitely want in my lifetime to pursue music in various forms, but I wouldn't want to lose what we have just for the sake of artistry. Art is great and creation is great and experimentation is great but you don't want to lose the original inspiration."
"We're on a trajectory that just keeps coming. The only time anybody ever has a plan for these sorts of things is in retrospect on VH1," says Bullington. "Most of the time we're concentrating on making the music as good as possible because at some point, if you want to keep doing it, this is your job. Really, the strategizing we leave to the managers, booking agents and record labels and just trust they know what they're doing. At the end of the day, all you can do is try to put on the best show or write the best song or get the best recording you can. The idea that we have a plan anymore is kinda silly [laughs,]."
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Their instinctive spontaneity jumps out at you on their latest release from the title right into the opening cut, which speeds along like the locomotive on the cover.
"[The title] has really grown on us," Bullington says. "We road tested it a little bit. We'd shout, 'Look out!' at the audience every now and then to see what the reaction was, and it was usually pretty positive. Sometimes it was really apprehensive because they didn't know why we were shouting, 'Look out!' [laughs]."
Some songs on Look Out! will be familiar to people who've seen them perform.
"It was, 'Well, we've been playing that one for a while. Let's throw it against the wall and see if it sticks.' Or make it stick, as the case may be," says Bullington. "It's about half that had been around for a while and half that came to life in the year leading up to the album. A good example of that is 'Oh, Girl,' which Jesse and Ward wrote. That's something they came up with while we were busking in Belgium. Girls kept walking by so they started yelling that. In typical Hackensaw fashion, the next thing you have to write a song, write a bridge, record it, go back and re-record the harmonies because they're all fucked up."
Fiske jumps in, "I had this little guitar in my hands and these three pretty girls walked by and I sang the chorus ["Oh, girl are you avoiding me"] and Ward was like, 'That's it!' He took it and wrote a cool bunch of lyrics. It's the same thing with 'Look Out Dog, Slow Down Train.' It's an old-time song with some old-time fiddle and off-the-cuff lyrics."
While total pros with great instrumental skill and pure, clean voices, the Hackensaws seem to live by that off-the-cuff ethos. They're rarely thrown off by a flub and readily embrace surprises as they play.
"If you want to win the race and you trip, you can't start yelling at the people around you. You gotta get up as quick as you can and keep running," says Fiske. "We've certainly had our moments where the mistakes have been more of a downer than others, but right now we're in a good place where no one has a chalkboard with notches on it. You just try to keep entertaining. Entertainment is a whole different thing compared to the music. It's a completely different facet of a touring band. I definitely don't know much about it but I know you can't just rely on the music or just rely on the entertainment. You've got two options to work out. The great thing about live music is the audience is with you. They're hanging out with you and you're the host of the party. All eyes are on you, and if you make a mistake and laugh they'll laugh, too."
| Hackensaw Boys by Aaron Farrington|
"I've been to a couple gigantic pavilion Budweiser Presents type shows with big famous rock bands," continues Fiske. "It sounds awesome, looks great, there's entertainment happening but it's just so goddamn perfect. It sounds just like the record except I gotta stand really far away. I've heard reports of Sheryl Crow's shows where you can hear the Auto Tune on her voice kick in. Ah, man. Just because you can buy the gear that makes it work doesn't mean you should be doing it, especially for $40 dollars a ticket. If there's a guy up there singing and it's honest and something he truly feels, even if it's terrible and I hate the song, at least I can walk away thinking he gave it everything he had."
One never doubts the Hackensaw Boys are giving you everything they have in them. It's refreshing in a world of half measures and empty talk. They have their sights on the right things and it always comes through in their music.
We offer the last word to Bullington, who again penned these brief, apt liner notes for the current album.
Look Out for barking dogs and braking trains – for drinks from the rail – for the fiddle bow flying past your nose – for the party after the show – for tourists – for the best barbecue in town – for bicyclists – for each other and everyone (especially when the big rain comes) – for cheap thrills – for the fire next door – for the joy of living expressed in the extreme tempo at which most of this album will careen from your speakers.
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