For a scruffy string band that got its start four years ago playing for change on Charlottesville’s downtown mall, the Hackensaw Boys have polished their act. When they started packing the Blue Moon Diner on a regular basis, owners Mark Hahn and Rob Gustafson offered to manage the band. They even hired Stratos away from Coran Capshaw’s music empire to book and promote the group.
Though the Hackensaw Boys look like a bluegrass band (banjo, harmonica, spoons, dobro, fiddle) and their songs have old-time sensibilities, there is an underlying punk-rock energy and a pop structure that put them in more of a rebel Americana category. And their new twist on an old sound attracted surf-country rocker John McCrea of Cake. To date, the Hackensaw Boys have toured with Cake twice and McCrea co-produced the initial recording sessions for their latest compact disc, due out this spring. Mahlon says this album is more focused than the last three. “This one is very different because it’s been examined and cross-examined,” he says. “Our last albums we didn’t have the luxury of time to tweak. This one not only shows us as performers and songwriters, but also as producers.”
Despite their successes, the constant touring has been “mind-numbing” and “soul-crushing,” Mahlon says. To prevent stagnation, Mahlon, one of three songwriters in the band, writes journal entries that are posted at www.hackensawboys.com. In Part III, Mahlon describes the band in full party mode backstage at the Bonnaroo Festival in Manchester, Tenn., where the chances of running into performers such as Neil Young, Lucinda Williams or Sonic Youth are particularly high. Instead of staying and mingling, they had to pile back in the bus and drive to Kansas to play at another festival.
Mahlon says all the time in the Dirty Bird has made the band a battle-hardened outfit, but being exposed to all the different types of music at festivals hasn’t influenced the group’s sound as much as one might think. Instead, they’ve been more influenced by the Flaming Lips and Modest Mouse, bands they played with night after night on last Summer’s Unlimited Sunshine tour.
“You can’t make a banjo play like an overdriven guitar; the nature of the instruments we’re playing precludes that,” he says. “But going out and watching those bands every night influenced our songwriting.” Apparently the Boys have had an influence right back. Their bass player, Tom “Pee Paw” Peloso, will be playing upright on Modest Mouse’s new album.
If things get too cushy it might be tough for the Hackensaw Boys to keep their dirty, country-boy image. But not if they keep truckin’ in the Dirty Bird. S
The Hackensaw Boys play the Canal Club Nov. 8 with Meanflower. Doors open at 8:30 p.m. Tickets are $7 in advance (at www.musictoday.com or by calling 800-594-TIXX) or $10 at the door.
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