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

The Hackensaw Boys arrived on the scene playing rollicking sets in the tightly packed confines of the Blue Moon Diner. Founding member David Sickmen, pictured in “the Dirty Bird” in 2003, has never felt totally comfortable with the touring musician’s life on the road. Photo: Aaron Farrington
The Hackensaw Boys arrived on the scene playing rollicking sets in the tightly packed confines of the Blue Moon Diner. Founding member David Sickmen, pictured in “the Dirty Bird” in 2003, has never felt totally comfortable with the touring musician’s life on the road. Photo: Aaron Farrington

Loading the Canon

Love Canon was never supposed to be a full-time band. The initial impetus was boredom. Guitarist Jesse Harper and his friend, banjo player Adam Larrabee, were driving to Charlottesville from Boston, and to help pass the time down I-81 they started singing along with ’80s songs on the radio. Larrabee pulled out a mandolin, small enough to pick in the passenger seat, and the possibilities gained a purchase.

When Larrabee and Harper finally arrived in town on a Thursday night, they immediately headed to Miller’s where jazz great John D’earth was doing his regular gig. During a set break, the duo was itching to test out the highway experiment in front of an audience, so D’earth gave them the stage to bust out an acoustic reading of Cyndi Lauper’s “Girls Just Want to Have Fun.”

It became a fun, occasional side project—reserved for select gigs and weddings—for Harper, Larrabee, and their friend Zack Hickman (the mustachioed bassist for singer-songwriter Josh Ritter). At the time, Harper and current Love Canon members Darrell Muller (bass) and Nate Leath (fiddle) were still flirting with bluegrass stardom as members of Old School Freight Train. The versatile Charlottesville-based newgrass outfit formed in 2000 and, thanks to a diligent road ethic, eventually gained traction on the national acoustic scene. The group could cruise through standards like “I Know You Rider” but also explored Latin jazz, taking clearly detectable influence from the improvisational “Dawg Music” purveyed by David Grisman.

It turned out the mandolin master was paying attention. Grisman invited the band to record at his Dawg Studios in Petaluma, California, and released the final product on his Acoustic Disc label. He put the band through a challenging live recording process, but the result, 2005’s Run, was a record to be proud of. It flexed chops through string odysseys like “Lookee Here” and showcased Harper’s soulful vocals in originals like “Dance” and a cover of Stevie Wonder’s “Superstition.”

“I’m not sure we were ready to make that record,” Harper recently reflected over pulled pork at The Barbeque Exchange in Gordonsville, where he has lived, on and off, for much of his life. “But we were better after the experience.”

Despite slots at premier festivals like the late Doc Watson’s Merlefest, Old School gradually disbanded in the following few years as key members pursued other life interests. In a bit of foreshadowing, the group’s final album, Six Years, included a cover of Blondie’s “Heart of Glass.”

“They were serious students of music pushing bluegrass forward,” said Punch Brothers’ guitarist Chris Eldridge. “As someone trying to do something similar, I always admired them. They played acoustic instruments in a wide-open way.”

Since Old School covered vast musical territory, the idea of Love Canon—only playing songs written in the ’80s—could be construed as confining.

“Sometimes I feel guilty about playing cover tunes,” admitted Harper. “But a lot of folk and bluegrass is adaptation of what people have already heard before.”

After Old School’s break-up, Harper rallied Larrabee, Muller, and ace mandolin player Andy Thacker (Nate Leath and dobro player Jay Starling play select shows), and in the summer of 2010 Love Canon started doing a weekly residency in the front bar area of The Southern Café and Music Hall. It soon moved across the Mall to Rapture, and as local buzz spread, the wild shows became too packed for comfort.

As a sold out gig at The Jefferson Theater last March confirmed, the band can throw an epic party. The members rile up audiences by donning neon jackets, headbands, and other hideously hilarious fashion statements from the era. Drunken sing-alongs of familiar staples like “Centerfold” and “Don’t Stop Believing” routinely drown out the band.

But Love Canon is full of accomplished musicians, and whether it’s arranging harmonies in “Sledgehammer” or compensating for an off-kilter rhythm in “She Blinded Me with Science,” the members take the songs seriously. Interpreting music characterized by overproduced glittery synths on acoustic strings takes work. A way to appreciate the nuances that go into the band’s attention to detail is to spin through its two studio albums Greatest Hits Vol. 1 and Greatest Hits Vol. 2. A maze of strings intertwines through the infectious melody of A-ha’s “Take On Me;” a nimble-fingered breakdown gets infused into ZZ Top’s “Legs.”

“A lot of music geek homework makes this happen,” said Harper. “My musical heroes—classical guys and jazz players like Miles Davis—have always covered other great musicians. We play songs by great songwriters like Peter Gabriel and Mark Knopfler. We’re in a tradition of playing other people’s music and using it as a vehicle for improvisation.”

A bevy of cover bands are currently filling clubs across the country. Dark Star Orchestra recreates entire Grateful Dead shows; Zoso brings the missed rock dramatics of Led Zeppelin back to the stage. Love Canon, though, isn’t in the business of imitation. Like many bluegrass players before, the band reinterprets songs through a new lens. Flat-picking legend Tony Rice didn’t have an original on his debut album. Sam Bush plays a Bob Marley medley at most shows. The Punch Brothers have reworked a range of artists from Bach to Radiohead.

Days before Lockn’, the classically trained Larrabee, who teaches music classes at the University of Virginia, Virginia Commonwealth University, and James Madison University, was grabbing a burger with his wife at The Local in Belmont when he overheard someone call Love Canon a “gimmick.”

“It’s hard not to react,” Larrabee said. “I think anyone who says that hasn’t actually seen us play. We’re not a tribute band that tries to play like Guns N’ Roses. Bluegrass repertoires are commonly regurgitated. Different artists do different things with it. I’m not suggesting ’80s tunes could become a traditional legacy, but that’s the concept of our group. We want to make a canon—or a body of work—and treat it the same way.”

But is the material worthy? Harper gets just as excited reminiscing about seeing the video for Def Leppard’s “Pour Some Sugar on Me” as he does when recalling hearing Grisman’s album Dawg ’90 for the first time.

“Pop music doesn’t have the reach now that it did back then,” he said. “People were excited to lineup and wait when Thriller came out, and I don’t think that’s happening anymore.”

The best compliment the band gets from people after shows is that they hated ’80s music until they heard it from Love Canon.

“That’s the only way I can listen to music from that era,” said Peter Jones, folk music director for WTJU. “They’ve made it bearable for a lot of people.”

Not content to just be a local favorite, the band is moving forward—now getting consultation from Red Light Management and touring regularly throughout the East Coast with ambitions to break into the larger acoustic scene where Old School Freight Train once dwelled.

There’s a goal to play 100 songs, all by different ’80s artists, and currently the band is less than 30 away. Members also don’t rule out playing original tunes in the future. For now, though, they just want to play the hits.

“It’s obvious people are enjoying what we do,” Harper said. “I don’t see anything wrong with playing songs people want to hear.”

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