Hackensaw healing: Dutch tragedy yields international friendships

By Richard Alblas

Life can sometimes take you to unexpected places. Just ask the Hackensaw Boys. The popular Charlottesville-based bluegrass band recently traveled to Kinderdijk, the Netherlands, where they launched their latest album titled For the Love of a Friend. It was the second time in one year the band passed through this small village, a UNESCO World Heritage Site famous for its beautiful countryside and historic windmills, and they were there with good reason.

In February of 2012, well before The Hackensaw Boys had ever heard of Kinderdijk, tragedy struck the small community when a local villager named René Verkerk died in a windmill accident. The 47-year-old Verkerk, a miller by trade, was known throughout the town not only for his passion for windmills, but also for his love of bluegrass music, particularly the Hackensaw Boys, whom he'd discovered when he attended a concert they'd played in Amsterdam a decade earlier. Soon after his death, his grief-stricken best friend Peter Paul Klapwijk sought a personal way to celebrate Verkerk's life.

"I felt I had to do something," he says, "and that the Hackensaw Boys had to be involved.’’

Without knowing exactly what to expect, Klapwijk wrote the band about the circumstances surrounding Verkerk’s death, hoping the band members might be interested in meeting the family and friends of a man who so highly regarded their music. "At the time, that’s exactly what we expected,’’ says David Sickmen of the Hackensaw Boys. "Hang out, meet new people, make some music and hear about René. We didn’t plan to play an actual gig."

But Klapwijk had other ideas. "At some point it hit me," he recalls. "If the band is here, why not play a tribute concert just for close family and friends? René would have loved that! As soon as that idea hit me, I was off and running."

Dozens of villagers took part in planning the event. Klapwijk invited a professional filmmaker to create a documentary of the band’s stay and also made sure the concert could be recorded.

In late May, just three months after Verkerk’s death, the Hackensaw Boys arrived in Kinderdijk. "What a stunningly beautiful place,’’ says Sickmen, a longtime Charlottesvillian who relocated several years ago to Lynchburg. ”The people were very friendly and hospitable.’’ 

The warm feelings were mutual, says Klapwijk. "When the band arrived here, something amazing happened. At some point everybody knew the guys were here. There was a vibe going around in Kinderdijk. For the first time after René died, people started smiling again."

On May 25, the band played a sold-out show in a small venue in town. "It was emotional. It was a first for us that everybody in the audience knew each other and that they were there for the same reason. That put a little pressure on us, especially during our song 'Box of Pine,'" says Sickmen. "The family requested we play that.’"But everyone agreed the performance was exceptional.

"Better than we thought when we heard the recording later," Sickmen says.

Call it a fluke, but the recording turned out to be of excellent quality. ”It didn’t take us long to decide to release it,’’ says Sickmen. The CD, accompanied by a DVD of the band’s stay in Kinderdijk, was released in the U.S. earlier this month. The CD is in part meant as a permanent reminder for Verkerk’s eight-year-old daughter,  ”so that in 10 years, she realizes what happened with the Hackensaw Boys and her hometown after her dad died," Klapwijk explains. The band has decided to donate half of the proceeds of the CD sales to Verkerk’s family.

"In the end," says Klapwijk, "the band did much more than just play a concert. They helped us overcome our grief. They gave us a sense of closure."

Sickmen and the Hackensaw boys look back on the experience with a sense of humility and gratitude.

"Just imagine what that family and town went through," he says. "The fact that we could help was amazing. If we’ve given them some closure, that’s fantastic. We have found friends for life in that small village. Kinderdijk is now our home away from home."


Richard Alblas is a freelance journalist who reports for both Dutch and American publications. 

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nice just makes me love the "Boys" more. I need to get that CD.

What a touching story. I expect nothing less from the stellar, amazing people that make up the Boys.