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

Love Canon’s frontman Jesse Harper (left) doesn’t think there’s any problem with playing ’80s covers because the bluegrass genre has always been about repurposing songs from the popular lexicon. Andy Thacker (right) is famous on the bluegrass scene as one of the best mandolin pickers around, but he’s never wanted to become a session musician in Nashville, preferring to play in an array of acts locally. Photo: Tom Daly
Love Canon’s frontman Jesse Harper (left) doesn’t think there’s any problem with playing ’80s covers because the bluegrass genre has always been about repurposing songs from the popular lexicon. Andy Thacker (right) is famous on the bluegrass scene as one of the best mandolin pickers around, but he’s never wanted to become a session musician in Nashville, preferring to play in an array of acts locally. Photo: Tom Daly

The Boys are back

When the Hackensaw Boys took the stage to open the Lockn’ Music Festival’s final day on Sunday, the band’s members were understandably exhausted. They had just finished a three-week European tour and had only flown home the day before. Playing until their fingers bleed, though, has always been the Hackensaw way. When they first formed back in 1999, the band picked ragged folks songs wherever it could, busking on the Downtown Mall or piling into the Blue Moon Diner. The group eventually hit the road in a weathered 1964 GMC motor coach, affectionately known as “the Dirty Bird.”

“I used to see them leaving a smoke trail up and down Main Street,” remembered Red Light’s Danny Shea, who designed the cover art for the band’s album Keep It Simple. “The fact that they’re still together is a great testimony to what bluegrass means to this area.”

Staying together hasn’t always been easy. Considering it has featured 20 different members through the years, the Hackensaw Boys is more of a collective than a band. The sound, though, has always been conducive to passing the torch to other players—much like passing around instruments on a front porch.

“With the Hackensaw Boys, it’s never mattered whether it was six people or 12 on stage,” said founding member David Sickmen. “We’ve always prided ourselves on being the band that shows up and plays well. That spirit is always there.”

Less than a year after the band played the Ryman, it released a debut on Nettwerk Records, Love What You Do. In songs like Sickmen’s “Suns Work Undone,” tasteful dusty balladry surfaced alongside the gritty string aerobics. Just prior, the Hackensaw Boys’ friends and occasional tour mates Old Crow Medicine Show released O.C.M.S. on the same label. There was a sense in the air that the groups were on a similar trajectory —proven road warriors both gaining fans with a grassroots groundswell. But Old Crow settled in Nashville and was able to use some of Music City’s muscle to push the song “Wagon Wheel.” Old Crow’s de facto front man Ketch Secor put the song together by adding verses to a leftover Bob Dylan chorus, and the catchy melody in the wanderer’s anthem contained an undeniable sing-along appeal. It shot into the country charts earlier this year thanks to a new version by Hootie-cum-country star Darius Rucker.

Today Old Crow plays for crowds in the thousands while the Hackensaw Boys typically play for hundreds. Sickmen doesn’t dismiss the idea that one song made the difference, but initially he also concedes he never stuck around long enough to find out. By late 2005, he was burned out by road life and fellow original member Tom Peloso had left to join Modest Mouse, so he quit at the time many thought his band was headed for greater success.

“It takes a band a while to gel,” said Peter Jones, who saw the band’s first show at Blue Moon Diner. “They’re a talented band, but when you keep rotating members as frequently (as they did), it’s hard to keep moving to the next level.”

Sickmen moved to Lynchburg, where he could afford to buy a house and establish some new roots with his wife and children. With the Hackensaw Boys’ familial spirit, though, the stage is always open. Old members like Bobby St. Ours still sit in when the band plays locally. By 2012 Sickmen couldn’t resist and decided to rejoin permanently.

“The balance between family and the band is hard,” he admitted. “What it takes to be in a successful band scares me sometimes. You have to play your ass off.”

Now with the popularity of folk rock acts Mumford & Sons and the Lumineers, there’s a sense the Hackensaw Boys could make another run toward greater success. The band has found consistency with its current six-piece line-up that features familiar faces Ferd Moyse (fiddle) and Ward Harrison (guitar), alongside new members Ben Townsend (formerly of Old Sledge) and bassist John Miller. Crowds are getting bigger again, too, abroad and at home. Even though certain members only live in town part-time, Sickmen said the Hackensaw Boys will “always be a Charlottesville-based band,” and recent full houses at The Jefferson Theater definitely prove it.

On the recent Europe stint the band recorded new songs in Amsterdam; more sessions are planned for the near future at home in Virginia. By spring Sickmen is hoping to release the band’s first proper full-length studio effort since 2007, and he thinks the latest material is going to give listeners a new perspective on the Hackensaw sound, which is taking on hints of polish.

“It’s still wild but a little more refined around the edges,” he said. “It’s our number one description, but for someone to call us bluegrass is a disservice to actual bluegrass players. We flirt with it; I don’t really know what to call us.”

Many believe that “Father of Bluegrass” Bill Monroe, who passed away in 1996 at the age of 84, would not have appreciated acts like Mumford & Sons and the Avett Brothers being branded as bluegrass. But it happens frequently.

“People see a banjo, and they immediately say bluegrass,” Sickmen joked.

Some purists still want to codify the genre as the exact sound Monroe and three-finger-style banjo pioneer Earl Scruggs brought to the masses on the stage of the Grand Ole Opry in 1945—tightly traded technical solos and harmonized high tenor singing.

There have always been acts willing to mess with the formula; John Hartford loosened things up with quirky edge on the groundbreaking 1971 album Aereo-Plain, and Sam Bush, Bela Fleck, and John Cowan brought rock attitude into the mix with their popular ’80s outfit Newgrass Revival. But as the broader community as a whole seems to be breaking free from a recent impasse, these examples feel less like outliers. Instead, the idea of bluegrass is becoming a big inclusive melting pot.

Chris Pandolfi, banjo player for the Grammy-nominated band The Infamous Stringdusters, recently wrote a column on The Bluegrass Situation (a website started by actor and genre champion Ed Helms) called “The Music is In Our Hands Now.” In it he writes: “The examples of bluegrass icons venturing outside the genre are countless, but the reasons are simple: Real artists strive to create and evolve, and they need to find an audience that will sustain them. The legacy of innovation that once seemed a threat is now defining the music for a younger generation.”

Pandolfi is widely recognized as one of the young masters of his instrument, and he’s used his credibility to articulate a vision of open-mindedness. The establishment couldn’t help but take notice when he was invited to deliver the keynote address at the International Bluegrass Music Association in 2011. He also proved his point when he opened the Lockn’ Music Festival’s second day with the Founding Fathers, a side project that features fellow Stringdusters member Andy Falco. Normally known as acoustic innovators, the duo shattered perceptions by manipulating the idiom with laptops and electric instruments, including an old Stratocaster that Pandolfi converted into a banjo. The message was clear when the pair looped a beat and added backdrop ethereal soundscapes while picking the traditional instrumental “Angeline the Baker.” Pure playing converged with technology in the hills of old Virginia.

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