The new newgrass revival: With bluegrass on top in Nashville, two local bands look to break through

The Hackensaw Boys on stage at the Lockn’ Festival in Arrington earlier this month. Nearly a decade after the band first shared national stages with acts like Old Crow Medicine Show and the Flaming Lips, the bluegrass-punk collective is back in the spotlight. Photo: Jay Blakesberg The Hackensaw Boys on stage at the Lockn’ Festival in Arrington earlier this month. Nearly a decade after the band first shared national stages with acts like Old Crow Medicine Show and the Flaming Lips, the bluegrass-punk collective is back in the spotlight. Photo: Jay Blakesberg

It’s Friday night at Starr Hill Music Hall on West Main Street and the people are packed so tight it’s amazing they can get their feet off the ground to stomp the beer-slicked floor. But they can, and they do, and it feels like an earthquake, like the second story might just collapse onto the first until the crowd, still rocking, spills out onto the dark, empty street. The year is 2004.

Often described as the Carter Family meets the Ramones, The Hackensaw Boys’ live shows have always been fist-pumping barnburners. Audiences can’t help but cut loose as a gaggle of bearded busker-looking minstrels pummel their string instruments with rhythmic abandon, layering husky harmonies overtop that swell to bursting. A decade ago the band was selling out Charlottesville’s main music spot regularly and finding green pastures for its brand of punkgrass on the national scene as well, occupying bills with a diverse lot of big acts including Cake, Modest Mouse, and the Flaming Lips. The band finished the year opening for bluegrass legend Del McCoury at Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium. Ever heard of Old Crow Medicine Show? Could have been them.

Fast forward. Now it’s high noon. Day three of the Lockn’ Music Festival earlier this month, and the late summer sun is shining down on the grounds of the Oak Ridge Estate. Approximately 25,000 people traveled from near and far to this 4,500-acre property in the tiny town of Arrington for the inaugural event. In the sprawling national festival landscape, Lockn’ (neé Interlocken) was a late addition, announced in mid-May with less than four months lead time. But its hyper-focus on jam band heavyweights engaging in promised rare collaborations made the four-day bash an irresistible option to many die-hard improvisational rock fans.

After close to 48 hours of festing, the folks wandering toward the side-by-side main stages looked a little bit worn down. Legs were dusty. Eyes glassy. The recreational overindulgences of nocturnal life in a tent city are hard to disguise.

Later in the evening John Fogerty would chug through Creedence classics, including “Bad Moon Rising” and “Fortunate Son,” with Widespread Panic behind him, and Phish guitarist Trey Anastasio would unify the hippie universe by sitting in with former Grateful Dead members Bob Weir and Phil Lesh. But the first act on the lineup was an unexpected—for out-of-towners—local act.

At first glance, the members looked like a standard six-piece string band, armed with fiddle, banjo, mandolin, acoustic guitar, upright bass, and dobro. But when the group launched into a hopped-up and harmonized take on Dire Straits’ “Money for Nothing,” the crowd, somewhat less faded, sang along heartily with the anthemic outro “I want my MTV,” and then danced to a tightly picked acoustic rendition of the Beverly Hills Cop theme “Axel F.”

By the middle of the set, the ’80s hit parade had really taken hold, and an ever-increasing gang of music fans gradually filled in the green space in front of the stage. In one quintessential moment, a burly guy with the build and beard of Rick Rubin, noodle dancing in a kitschy tie dye and a skirt, shouted along at the top of his lungs to the Human League’s “Don’t You Want Me.”

Such is the power of Love Canon. The band—stacked with some of Virginia’s best string slingers—reboots music from the decade remembered for John Candy and nose candy through the primitive tones of wood and wire. Charlottesville has been enjoying the group for the past few years, and that’s why the Lockn’ organizers picked it and The Hackensaw Boys to represent the local scene at their national festival.

“We thought it would be a great tradition to start here,” said festival founder Dave Frey. “These are some of our favorite bands coming from the local area; we wanted to expose them to a larger audience.”

The two shows a day apart were pregnant with symbolism. Love Canon formed from the ashes of Old School Freight Train. And about the time The Hackensaw Boys looked poised to launch in the stratosphere of the Americana explosion, Old School was recording an album with Dave Grisman in Petaluma. In the years since, The Avett Brothers and Old Crow Medicine Show have taken the stringbuster genre to the top of the charts, and somehow, our bands missed the bus.

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