Tripping hillbillies: Hackensaws take on the world

Roll call at a Hackensaw Boys family reunion sounds like Cletus on The Simpsons gathering his kinfolk from yonder hollow: Pee Paw! Shiner! Mahlon! Skeeter! Jigsaw! Salvage! Dante J! C.B.! Uncle Blind Bobby! Kooky-Eyed Fox!

Add a grizzled hound named Lulu and a few jugs of 'shine, and the gathering is purty near complete. Commence with the pickin' and the grinnin'.

An energetic acoustic string combo that once crowded 12 members around the microphone, the Hackensaws have gradually whittled their clan down to a spry sextet. Specializing in Appalachian-informed roots music, the outfit combines fiddle, banjo, guitar, mandolin, mouth harp, dobro, upright bass, and various percussive curios into a yodel-enhanced hootenanny. And even though love means never having to say you're related, each so-called brother, cousin, nephew, and uncle has a colorful, invented nickname.

"That all happened, and we're not exactly sure why," says Shiner Hackensaw, the band's guitarist and co-founder. "We were just kind of joking around. There were definitely a lot of players in country and old-time music who had funny names– like Lefty Frizzell. So we were just kind of having fun with the idea of being somebody else.

"I'd like to keep my own name out of it," he adds. "Not because I'm trying to hide, but for me it's kind of an activist tool."

Fresh off a swing through the Netherlands and Belgium– including three nights headlining the Paradiso, a 600-year-old church where the Rolling Stones play before they go on tour– and now sitting at his kitchen table in Charlottesville, Shiner sounds a mite militant.

In the land of goulash and hash bars, the Hackensaw Boys wound up acting as backwoods diplomats. A lot of the Europeans they met during their two-week tour gave them an earful about Operation Iraqi Freedom– not that Shiner needed any reminders.

"It was really mind-altering for me, because I don't think it's an easy time to be an American," he says. "They're definitely pissed at us over there. One woman told me that the Hackensaw Boys were ambassadors of good will, which I thought was pretty cool. 'Cause I did feel compelled to tell audiences one way or another every night that not everybody in America is into what's going on in Iraq. I spoke out plenty, but some of our speaking out is just in our music."

Shiner ain't whistling Dixie. "Cannonball Brokedown," for example, is a cautionary tale with a catchy refrain as timely as it is reproachful: "It took 13,000 horses just to keep her on the line/She ran on radiation at the speed of fiscal prime/In Alaska they got oil/But in Florida turpentine/We are paying for the wisdom of our crimes."

Before consigning his Boys to the fate of Natalie Maines and the Dixie Chicks, though, Shiner cools his jets.

"I should really say that these are my feelings," he admits. "In no way, shape, or form am I the voice of the band. It's not necessarily fair for me to talk about how enraged I am, because what if it does jeopardize the Hackensaw Boys? And the other guys are like, 'Wait, I didn't want you to say that!' Everything one member says is reflective upon the whole. So it's a struggle for me to have a balance.

"But I am really enraged," he continues. "I've been feeling it in my heart and it's hurting me– that I'm in a bad mood around my family. 'Cause I'm so frustrated and sick of it. And I do believe that we're controlled by a bunch of bankers and politicians, and I think the challenge is on. I think enough stuff is getting leaked out that they can't really hide it anymore. But what are we gonna do? I can't help but think that we're at what some people might call an apocalypse– or a serious crossroads in the history of humankind. It's not the first one, but is it the last one?"

Doomsday themes are nothing new in the annals of bluegrass. There have been countless tributes to the bloody Civil War, the great Galveston flood of 1900, and other debacles involving the devil.

But for every ancient story-song that suggests the sky is falling, another offers simple, upbeat advice: Be proud of the gray in your hair, never marry a widow, always be kind to your mother.

On their latest, self-produced long-player, Give It Back, the Hackensaw Boys resurrect 12 such anonymously penned traditionals, including "Cluck Ol' Hen," "Gospel Plow," "Cumberland Gap," and "Look Where That Sun Done Gone."

"The melodies started over in Europe and ended up over here," Shiner explains. "It's been an oral-story passing; on that level, I really respect bluegrass music. But we don't necessarily see ourselves as having to keep those traditions alive. We like those songs, and we play 'em the way we know 'em.

"I don't think that we're a bluegrass band," he adds. "I'm not being corrective. But I feel like we're starting to pull in a lot of different elements– like old-time and classic country. And I do think we can reach a broad range of people through our music."

The Boys did just that during their Unlimited Sunshine Tour two summers ago, sharing an eclectic bill with Cake, De La Soul, the Flaming Lips, and Modest Mouse, whose Isaac Brock recently enlisted Pee Paw (Tom Peloso) to guest on Good News for People Who Love Bad News.

 They've come a long way since their early days as the Blue Moon Diner house band back in 1999, when then-dishwasher Salvage joined up, playing his own hand-built device called a charismo with spoons.

"It's a found-object art assemblage that's also an instrument," Shiner notes.

Following their lo-fi debut, Get Some, the Boys sharpened their scope for 2002's Keep It Simple, an energetic burst of all-original material that caught the attention of several bluegrass and jam festivals– from Telluride to Bonnaroo and beyond.

Having logged roughly 750 shows in the last five years, the Hackensaw Boys remain as busy as a one-armed hippie in a lettuce patch. They crisscross the country in the Dirty Bird, their 1964 GMC touring coach and, as Mahlon writes in his touring journal: The sanitary condition of those who perform live music is so consistently worse than those who pay to see live music.

 Killer pot often brings out even more torturous entries: Sometimes inspiration is like a jellyfish – slippery and hard to see and ready to reject you with a painful, discouraging rebuke if you accidentally brush up against her. Other times, of course, she's more akin to a great blubbery cow walrus who sits astride your body demanding that you massage her bulbous rolls of fat in exchange for the barest shred of a song or scrap of a story. The most insulting and personally humiliating aspect of the muse in her walrus suit is, though, her immense mass presses you to the cold ground and the noxious, fishy expulsions of her nether regions overpower your olfactory sense, and you are terrified she will leave and never return.

The Boys will be leaving the bus behind when they return to Europe this fall; the band has already gotten 20 offers to perform in Holland and the U.K. come election time.

Shiner is stoked. It's an opportunity to spread more good will, not to mention push the Boys' growing legacy.

"I definitely see music as a means of change and as a uniter," he says. "It's weird, because history always will rewrite itself and write itself anyway. It could be a hundred years from now and the Hackensaw Boys are– God!– like what I consider Dock Boggs, you know. Like he's the reason I even know this music. And it could be that I'm fortunate enough, or the Old Crow Medicine Show or Split Lip Rayfield is, that one day maybe we were good enough that people will look back on our songs and say, 'Wow, man– that's when this or that happened.'"

This story originally appeared in Westword, an alternative paper in Denver, in anticipation of the The Hackensaws' June 2 concert at the Boulder Theater.

Jimmy Stelling, aka The Kooky Eyed Fox, picks his banjo.

The Hackensaws opened for Modest Mouse last year in Athens, Georgia.

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The Boys rehearse with Michelle Shocked on a front porch before this year's South by Southwest music festival in Austin. Shocked invited the Boys to be her backup band during her festival performance.

Tom "Pee Paw" Peloso rocks out on his fiddle as Robert "Mahlon" Bullington listens in during a Modest Mouse/Hackensaw Boys show.


David "Shiner" Sickmen at the South By Southwest music festival in Austin in March.

The Hackensaws whoop it up before a road trip on board the Dirty Bird, their 1964 GMC bus.