Calvin James Pynn
Hailing from just up the road in the northeast direction from Radford, The Hackensaw Boys have built their reputation on deviating from the traditional restrictions of bluegrass and old time music. Consisting of seven gritty, bearded guys wielding the standard fiddle, banjo, mandolin and guitar that have guided the genre in its 120 year existence, The Hackensaw Boys bring an unmistakably modern energy to their sound. Awful Arthur’s Seafood Company in Blacksburg had the chance to witness such chaos this past Thursday, Oct. 20.
The Hackensaw Boys originated in Charlottesville, Va. in the fall of 1999, following a meeting at Charlottesville’s Blue Moon Diner. Since then, the group has enjoyed a career of persistent touring and prolific album releases. Originally formed as a quartet, The Hackensaw Boys started out with founding members David Sickmen, Rob Bullington, Robbie St. Ours, and Tom Peloso. While Bullington is currently the only founding member left in The Hackensaw Boys, Peloso now plays guitar for the popular indie rock outfit Modest Mouse, with whom the band has toured as an opener. In that respect, The Hackensaw Boys have also shared the stage with a number of other high profile groups, including The Flaming Lips, Cheap Trick, Cake, and Railroad Earth.
The band currently consists of Bullington on mandolin, Ferd Moyse on fiddle, percussionist Justin Neuhardt, upright bassist Jesse Fisk, Shawn Galbraith on banjo, and guitarists Ward Harrison and Brian Gorby. At this point, The Hackensaw Boys have released six albums, the most recent being the two-volume “The Old Sound of Music.” In 2005, the band signed to Nettwerk Records, known for distributing artists such as Shiny Toy Guns and k-os.
With a packed career and an intensely loyal following, The Hackensaw Boys had a welcome presence in Blacksburg. The band has a history with the area, shaking the floor at venues all around the New River Valley, including the Dogtown Roadhouse in Floyd, the oncepopular Lantern in Blacksburg, and Radford’s own Nesselrod on the New River. More recently, The Hackensaw Boys have appeared at the annual Floydfest, where they have earned a majority of their fans in the area.
Their set started off with a bang, as the band launched off with the opener “Oh, Girl” and followed with a number other crowd pleasing favorites. A majority of the audience was made up of an equal mix of familiar listeners and newcomers who were completely unaware of the musical maelstrom they were about to witness. Within a moment of the first song, the floor was packed and moving as the crowd danced to the music. As The Hackensaw Boys played, the concert became an amalgam of a punk-rock basement show and a drunken hoedown. By the end, no one left unsatisfied.
Throughout their set, The Hackensaw Boys delivered a hefty load of other fiddle and banjo-laced tunes. These ranged from the rapid fire picking of songs such as “Cannonball,” and “Lookout Dog, Slow Drown Train,” to the melody of the softer “Alabama Shamrock,” which had the audience singing every word throughout the song’s entirety.
The Hackensaw Boys have always been known for their energetic live show, and their performance at Awful Arthur’s did not undermine that reputation. As the crowd swung and stomped while raising their beers in the air, the Boys exerted their enthusiastic sound, never once staying still throughout the whole performance.
Like most bluegrass, old-time, and Americana bands, each member of the Hackensaw Boys shared vocal duties. At some points of the show, they even switched instruments. The most notable one out of those instruments, though, was Neuhardt’s charismo, a homemade percussion instrument made from tin cans, license plates, a hubcap, and book bag straps, and then mercilessly beat with wire-brush sticks. While old-time music is generally marked by its strict absence of percussion, the charismo has an almost symbolic presence in The Hackensaw Boys’ music and live shows, and is an irreplaceable aspect of their sound. Overall, it remains consistent with the unconventional elements that The Hackensaw Boys have built their career upon.
While progressing forward in the gradually increasing popularity of the current folk music scene, The Hackensaw Boys stand out as the rowdy and haggard black sheep among a tame, soft spoken herd. While they preserve a sound that has existed over a multitude of generations, they blend it with the energetic touch and rustic mentality of those who played it years ago, thus making them innovative as well as traditional. As proven by last week’s performance at Awful Arthur’s in Blacksburg, their live show is one to behold. As they have proved time and time again, the New River Valley has not seen the last of The Hackensaw Boys.