May 02, 2007 News & Features » Cover Story


On the Set Lists of Giants 

Reinterpreting the traditional, the legendary and the "Huh! Hit me!"

It's been said that most music is plagiarism of a sort.  For a classic example, just look at Bob Dylan, who originally became a star by reinventing folk hero Woody Guthrie for beatniks and hippies.  Plenty of local bands draw from well-established genres and acts — sometimes performing as a tribute or cover band, other times by cutting original music from traditional cloth.

With members primarily from Charlottesville and Richmond, The Hackensaw Boys take a traditional, old-time acoustic style and inject it with a collective mash of modern sensibilities to create original tunes.  The musical roots of this bluegrass band include everything from country and rock to metal and punk.

"We're not trying to put a new hubcap on an old wheel," says the band's newest member, local guitarist/vocalist Ward Harrison, aka Spits.  "We're trying to redesign the wheel and make it faster."

See the Boys live and you'll understand what he means.  They're basically a rock band with acoustic instincts, or what No Depression magazine once labeled a cross between The Carter Family and The Ramones.  Live performances are full-blown barn-stomps, and the band often plays encores in the midst of the crowd.  "If it were church, we skip the sermon and go straight to the revival," Harrison says.

One might think the band would be pulled in too many directions by the different members' tastes, but Harrison says it ain't so.  "There is no one captain of this ship," he says.  "But everybody definitely has corners they defend."

While the Hackensaws write original songs with old-school roots, other bands are happy just to recapture the past.  Take The Big Payback, a local 10-piece tribute to the Godfather of Soul, James Brown.

As founder and musical director for the band, drummer Dusty Simmons thinks that audiences who come to their shows want to see the classic funk covers played straight.  Perhaps more important, they're looking for a dance party.  The difficult part, he says, is capturing that primal energy of a JB show, although most of the time the audience comes prepared.

The Big Payback tries to conjure the distinct vibe of a Brown show from 1965 through 1971 — when Brown was funky but with a furiously upbeat pace.  

"We've all done our research, almost like researching a character for a movie," Simmons says.  "We've heard the music and watched old videos, seen what dance steps and moves they had going on.  For example, [trombonist] Reggie Pace sort of plays the Bobby Byrd character, or James' sideman."

That doesn't mean the band members aren't given free rein to play their own solos, he quickly adds.  That's where The Big Payback differs from its inspiration, because Brown was known as a legendary slave driver, often penalizing his band members for not watching him for changes or flubbing notes.

As far as capturing the spirit of those big personalities onstage, Black Cash and The Bad Trips have their hands full channeling Johnny Cash.  The country-rock outfit plays rollicking covers of classic Cash, with a few Nick Cave and Ween tunes thrown in.

Lead singer Matt Litton, who started the band a little more than three years ago, says that since the beginning, the band mates didn't want to try to sound exactly like Johnny Cash, which would simply be "sacrilegious."

"It was just a matter of not dishonoring the songs, not bastardizing them," he says.  "Our goal was to make them listenable for new audiences and interesting for ourselves."

Litton says the main thing he has taken from Cash's songwriting since starting the band is a profound respect for Cash's ability to find hope in humanity, even when consistently dealing with the darkest subjects.

"[Cash] made a career out of singing about murder and mayhem," Litton says, "but yet he did so in a way that was not glib, or depressing, but actually fun."

Although he has a deep voice, Litton concedes that he doesn't sound exactly like Cash, and wouldn't want to.  "I mean, I think Elvis impersonators are great," he says, "but I don't want to be a Johnny Cash impersonator, … you lose the leeway we have at that point."

The Big Payback

Kelli Strawbridge (seated), singer

Sound like: 1971's "Live From Paris: Love, Power, Peace."

Favorite Brown lyric: "We're people, we're just like the birds and the bees/We'd rather die on our feet/Than keep livin' on our knees" — from "Say It Loud (I'm Black and I'm Proud)"

Favorite vocal performance by James Brown: The whole "Payback" album.

Favorite Brown dance move: "Just the way he danced at the mic, his footwork.  The way he grooved."

Dance move Strawbridge is known for: The splits.

Favorite James Brown vocal trick: The high-pitched scream.

JB album the band has most emulated: "Revolution of the Mind."

Best crowd-pleasers: "Everybody loves the hits, but the historical James Brown cats want to hear the more rare tracks.  I like 'I Got the Feelin" and 'Papa Don't Take No Mess.'"

The Hackensaw Boys

Sounds like: Nitro-fueled Appalachian porch party.

Subjects tackled in song: Girls, kinship and drinking.

Sample modern lyric from a tune: "City underwater, it's plain to see/who's lookin' out for you/who's lookin' out for me?" — from "FDR" (a traditional-based song that comments on lack of Katrina aid), written by Ferd "Four" Moyse

Best band member name: Pee Paw.

Most famous connection: Pee Paw (Tom Peloso) joined Modest Mouse, which recently had the No.  1 Billboard album.

Best lyric to get the crowd fired up: "Palms face the sky/Hands in the air!"

Black Cash and the Bad Trips

Matt Litton, singer

Subjects tackled in song: Love, God and murder.

Favorite Cash lyric: "The judge said 'Son, what is your alibi?/If you were somewhere else, then you won't have to die.'/I spoke not a word, though it meant my life,/for I'd been in the arms of my best friend's wife." — from "Long Black Veil"

Favorite cover of "Long Black Veil": Mick Jagger backed by The Chieftains.

Best crowd-pleaser: "We don't usually have a June Carter Cash counterpart, but when we do get a guest female singer, the place goes nuts for 'Jackson.'"

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