I’m in a rush. In the middle of a balmy Saturday afternoon in late July, lumbering across acres of music-happy-with-no-place-to-be crowds at the world music and arts festival FloydFest, twenty minutes outside the sleepy town of Floyd. Minutes pass as seconds at these things, and I don’t want to be late for an interview. Having just photographed the first handful of songs of New York folk outfit Donna The Buffalo at the festival’s main stage, I’m now in the center of the festival grounds, finally descending towards a stage at the base of a hillside, sloping off an idyllic Virginia mountaintop. Wedging my way between a mesh fence and the stage structure – carrying at least forty-plus pounds of camera equipment on one’s back takes a toll over the course of an extended weekend – I’m finally backstage with a minute or two to spare.
Catching my breath, I walk into a tent and introduce myself to David Sickmen, one of the founding members of rowdy old-time folk act Hackensaw Boys, who returns an acoustic guitar into an open guitar case at his feet and stands to greet me. Sporting a driving cap, he is the face – and voice – of the Hackensaw Boys, donned in the workmanlike attire of the modern old-time musician, one that would not look out of place swinging a hammer by day and picking up a musical instrument when the workday is done. In Sickmen’s case, it’s the acoustic guitar and the microphone. After we make introductions, he apologizes, as he believed the other band members were supposed to be present for the interview as well. He asks about moving forward with interviewing only him.
Gladly. No worries at all.
I shrug off any earlier concern of being late as fast as I removed my backpack, settling into a folding chair beside Sickmen’s guitar case. Nearby sits bassist John Miller, clutching an upright bass. Prior to my arrival, they had been rehearsing a tune together for their show later that afternoon. One of the group’s four founding members, Sickmen helped start Hackensaw Boys in 1999, along with violinist/mandolinist Rob Bullington, fiddler Tom Peloso and multi-instrumentalist Robert St. Ours, all friends that met by sharing an interest in old-time Appalachian folk music.
The group started busking on Charlottesville’s downtown Mall district, landing a regular spot playing the venerable Blue Moon Diner in town soon after. As a joke, Peloso coined the group’s name after the sound one makes hacking on a mandolin and sawing on a fiddle. The name stuck, as did the shows. One gig led to another, and suddenly the band that started with four members grew to twelve, and began stringing a run of shows together for a nationwide tour, playing a spirited and rebellious sound all their own.
“Well, we’re still looking for that part,” Sickmen says with a laugh, of the group finding a unique old-time sound. “I think we’re always gonna be looking for that part. As long as people keep writing songs hopefully it’ll progress. Basically, it was a few of us guys that got together, and we started playing some tunes, and realized that we were kind of the old style of trying to play songs and write songs, and we went and played on the Mall one day and made eighty dollars and we’re like, ‘Well, shit, man, let’s go do that,'” he recalls, smiling. “And we started doing it, and basically, Tom Peloso – Tom led the charge and started booking things for us, and pushing it forward, and it just started to roll along, you know.”
With roots in Charlottesville, the group’s members now range from all over the East Coast, from parts of Southwest and Central Virginia to West Virginia and down to North Carolina, Tennessee and Louisiana. Influenced by accessible, workingman’s music that was believable and authentic, the Hackensaw Boys are symbolic of the past while putting a modern spin on music founded on the everyday livelihood of the musician.
“Well, to be honest, my knowledge of old-time music is very limited,” Sickmen admits. “I have a certain set of guys, and gals, that I like to listen to, whereas some people know a helluva lot more about old-time music than I do,” he laughs. “That being said, I’ve always been drawn to primitive sounding music, and not primitive in like, the maestro, but more primitive in old recordings and the way they sound and the way they feel, and the fact that the voices and the playing is really believable. That’s what I like about old-time music. I feel like that guy did go coal mine all day and somebody recorded him on his porch that night,” he adds, smiling.
The group embarked on a nationwide tour in 2000, supporting their debut Get Some, touring nonstop across the United States. From the start, they have always been a group of songwriters, each bringing one’s own perspective to strengthen the dynamic of the band.
“Well, back in the day, in the beginning of the band,” Sickmen recalls, “Bobby and Tom had a large party of pre-existing body of work, so in the beginning we did a lot of their songs, and then Rob and I started to slowly leak songs in, and then – we’ve had Ward Harrison write songs with us, Jesse Fisk…we’ve had like – John [pointing to Miller] even had a song we were playing for a while, so we’ve…back in the day it was kind of like a race, to throw a song out, to try to get everybody learn it,” he says, laughing. “And you could always tell if it was gonna catch or not, by people’s enthusiasm towards trying to learn it. So there’s been some hit and misses for all of us, you know, pitches that we’ve thrown, that haven’t landed.”
Two years later, the group released their follow up album, Keep It Simple, touring the first two years of the Unlimited Sunshine Tour with Cake, De La Soul, The Flaming Lips, and numerous other acts. This led to appearances sharing the stage with such artists as Modest Mouse, Cracker, Charlie Louvin and Railroad Earth, appearing at major festivals such as Bonnaroo, Telluride Bluegrass, All Good and FloydFest, and festivals across Europe. It was during these early years that Peloso departed Hackensaw Boys and began playing in Modest Mouse, beginning a not uncommon practice for bands, yet seemingly an unfortunate one for Hackensaw Boys, due to their unique style of old-time music and the instrumentalism needed to play it: members leaving the group for various reasons. Many of the band’s musicians have left and returned through the years, most notably Sickmen; others, in the case of Peloso, have left for other successful acts.
Having undergone numerous lineup changes since the group’s inception, I ask Sickmen if there is a means for maximizing every musician’s talents – musicianship and songwriting – within the group. “I wish I could say yes to that, but honestly, it’s been a pretty big setback,” he says, offering a laugh at the thought. “When you start a band with four guys then take it to twelve guys and all the way back to…you know, a couple shows this summer, we played as three guys, and then, now we’re building it back up again. So it’s kind of stressful to be honest.
“In most bands it’s a good idea to try to hold people together,” he continues. “We’ve had a lot of different reasons why the band’s had so many members, including me – I was in, I was out, and I was in again – and I’ll probably be out again, who knows,” he ponders, adding a laugh, “so I wish there was some…I wish it was probably more beneficial than it probably has been. That being said, the guys that have stuck around, you know, like, Ward and Ferd – I should’ve mentioned Ferd earlier. Ward was in the band eight or nine years and had a lot of songs get in the catalogue, and Ferd, of course…It’s really like I say, it’s just been about, ‘You put a song out there and guys either respond to it or they don’t, and you kind of know pretty quickly,” Sickmen laughs.
What about the potential of egos getting bruised?
“Well, all humans have egos, so therefore all bands have egos,” he muses, smiling. “And, yeah, I think we’ve tried hard to learn…you know, for awhile we were making records, we had four songwriters, so you’ve got to have at least 12 songs on a record, so each guy got 3 tunes,” he continues. “‘Give me your best three shots, and let’s learn them’, and sometimes they were vetoed, we said, ‘OK, what else you got?’ There’s always kind of a democracy to trying to make guys feel their songs were important.”
Now well into their fifteenth year, the Hackensaw Boys have released a total of six full-length albums and three EPs. With such a discography of music over a decade and a half, there must be an intriguing evolution of influence on the band’s music over the years. I press Sickmen for his influences these days, knowing at one time he held the likes of Townes Van Zandt and Bob Marley in those roles.
“Once I heard Nicki Minaj…” he replies, a wide grin growing with laughter. “All bets were off.”
I join in on the laughter, and make a mental note to wipe the imaginary egg from my face afterwards.
One of the most interesting scenarios about old-time, bluegrass, and Americana music is that is has gained a foothold in Europe. The Hackensaw Boys have gained a following across the continent, most notably in the Netherlands, where a longtime fan of the band, René Verkerk, was tragically killed in early 2012 from a windmill accident in his village of Kinderdijk. Subsequently the group honored Verkerk by playing a show in Kinderdijk, and from that night’s performance came the group’s 2013 live album and documentary, “For the Love of a Friend,” which the band donated half of the album’s sales to Verkerk’s family.
The band leaves for Ireland in September, beginning a month-long European leg of the current tour which Sickmen and the group are looking forward to once more. All things considered, how do the Hackensaw Boys’ European shows stack up to the band’s shows in America?
“Depending on the amount of alcohol, or which country you’re in, the audiences can vary, just like anywhere else,” Sickmen tells me. “A lot of times there may be a little more curious about it, because it hasn’t always necessarily been around them, so when they do hear it, they’re more studying it, it seems, you know – as they’re listening to it, they’re figuring it out, you know – and there’s the people that just get it. and they just go for it, but I would say that European audiences respond really well to it. I’m looking forward to it.
“These guys – John [Sickmen looks over to find John Miller] went to Japan with a band called Foxhunt and another guy Ben (Townsend) that was in the band with us, and they’re a similar vein – maybe a little more traditional bluegrass than we are, of course – but they’re also songwriters in that, and they went to Japan and had a really good reception, so, it seems like folk music can tread water just about anywhere.”
An hour later, the hillside crowd grows at the Streamline Stage at Hill Holler, one of several shows at the festival where the band is playing throughout the weekend. When the Hackensaws take the stage, from left to right is Jimmy Stelling on banjo, Ferd Moyse on the fiddle, Sickmen on guitar, Miller on the bass, and Brian Gorby with arguably the most unique instrument in music, what’s known as the charismo. Crafted by Hackensaw member Justin ‘Salvage’ Neuhardt, the charismo is a handmade instrument worn by the musician playing it, and resembles a suit of chain mail armor, that is, if one replaced the armor with tin cans, an automobile rim, and other sorts of metal jangle. They sing in the same manner they play their instruments – raw and full of highs and heartbreak, emotions bound tightly in their sweat-soaked sleeves, a whirlwind of old-time, bluegrass and punk rebellion.
In another nod to old-style musicians, with each member the group has called its own, there’s a nickname in tow. Sickmen’s nickname is “Shiner”, Stelling is “Kooky-Eyed Fox”, Moyse goes by “Four” and Gorby is also known as “Nugget”. Sickmen talks about an enlightening encounter he had recently with another aliased individual while touring.
“It’s funny, because just the other night, we played in Avon, North Carolina, and the sound guy’s name was ‘Mole’, and I asked him, I said, ”Mole’, is that your real name?’ He goes ‘It’s an alias’. He goes, ‘sometimes you have to leave things behind,’ and that’s all I’ll say about nicknames,” Sickmen says, now rolling with laughter.
Ever the group on the move, I ask Sickmen about plans for a new Hackensaw Boys album, believed to be in the works. “Well, through the touring process, and that, throwing the songs out there, we’re starting to get a few – we’re not to an album yet – but we’re close,” he admits. “And if we could just buckle down, we can get it, and we’re going to. But basically, we’ve been introducing new material, and slowly but surely gaining traction. But we’re hoping to record in November, actually, and if all things go well, we’re going to record with Larry Campbell up in Woodstock.”
In fact, Campbell, a three-time Grammy Award-winning producer, invited the group north to Woodstock, New York to record their new album – planned for a 2015 release – with he and engineer Justin Guip at the legendary Levon Helm Studios. Recently the band launched a Kickstarter campaign to raise funds up to $25,000 to cover the expenses of recording the album, providing a numerous offering of rewards to backers, from copies of the new album as a download or on vinyl, to meet and greets before shows, even having the group play an acoustic gig right in the donor’s backyard, for the top gift of $2,500.
As for a preference on playing rowdy, beer-soaked bars to outdoor festivals, Sickmen says there are good and bad of both. “Well, I won’t lie about it. Some bars are like, ‘Damn, I don’t want to go in that bar.’ Some bars are like, ‘Damn, I can’t wait to get inside that bar’, you know? And we’ve done all those, and we’ve done a lot of the festivals, and they all have their highs and lows, you know. Festivals are kind of crazy, it’s very high stimulus, so there’s kind of that, which I’m getting used to that. I feel like an old man, like ‘I can’t take this shit, man!'” he laughs. “All these songs, everywhere.
“There’s certainly [an awesome experience], like playing in a really good, cool bar that’s jam-packed and people are excited,” he continues. “That’s an awesome feeling. There’s a lot of them. I feel bad mentioning any certain single one, but there’s one we played up in Pittsburgh – this really small place, called the Thunderbird – and every time we play it, we have really great shows. It’s this small little place, but it just has a vibe.”
Afterwards, Sickmen invites me to hang out as he and Miller continue working on tunes they will play that afternoon, before a packed hillside. Moyse enters, surveying the scene before Sickmen, gracious host and interviewee, introduces us. While band members may come and go, the original ideal and old-time music of Hackensaw Boys keeps pushing forward. At one point during their show a little boy no older than two or three stutter steps to the front of the stage, standing to the left of Gorby, watching in awe of him playing the charismo. Perhaps the boy is expressing his interest in joining the band someday. A moment later, he covers his ears, still watching the band play. As for now, Sickmen plans on keeping things simple for the future.
“Just trying to get these songs [for the planned new album] nailed down, you know? I’d love for us to go into the spring with something to show musically, and people can drive around listening to. We’ll keep making live records, which is good – a lot of people think that’s when we’re the best – and we might be, but there’s something about taking time to construct a song in a thoughtful way, and that’s what I’m hoping our immediate future is.”