Break time: Hacks get a record deal
Back in November, the owner of a local recording studio predicted a bright future for the Hackensaw Boys.
"I think this band is definitely going to be Charlottesville's next big thing," said Kevin McNoldy of Crystalphonic Recording Studio, where the Boys recorded much of their upcoming album. It seems McNoldy may also own a crystal ball.
In mid-May, the Hackensaws signed with mega-label Nettwerk Records. With offices in Vancouver, New York, L.A., London, and Boston, Nettwerk is home to big acts including Sarah McLachlan and manages such stars such as Dido, Avril Lavigne, Barenaked Ladies, and Sixpence None the Richer.
"We're in good company," says a still-surprised David Sickmen, known in the band as Shiner Hackensaw. But while this is what he and his band-mates– Robert Bullington, Jimmy Stelling, Justin Neuhardt, Ferd Moyse, and Jesse Fiske– have been hoping for, he says the road to a record deal hasn't been all fun and games.
"We've done hundreds and hundreds of shows in the last couple of years," says Sickmen, father of two. "It's very hard. I love playing music, but I also love picking up my son from school."
The traveling, however, isn't going to let up anytime soon. After gigs in the south and midwest, the band returns to Charlottesville to play Fridays after Five on July 1. They're the opening act for Del McCoury at Nashville's hallowed Ryman Auditorium in mid-July. And later in the summer, the band heads back to Europe for a full slate of festival appearances.
"One of the things that Nettwerk was excited about," says the band's New York-based manager, Jon Birge, "was they can tour Europe and the U.S. without tour support."
That may have been a plus, but it was their talent and catchy Americana and bluegrass tunes that won them the deal.
"Their music is real, honest, and speaks to the soul in all of us," says Ric Arboit, Nettwerk's president.
In fact, the band already has fans in high places.
"We wish them the best and are so happy that more great bands from Charlottesville are getting recognized," says Bruce Flohr, an executive with the Dave Matthews/Coran Capshaw label ATO, based in New York and Crozet.
Sickmen says that while a record deal is the ultimate goal for many bands, he wanted to make sure he found a label that would be a good fit– one that would allow the band to maintain creative freedom.
"It's a fine line between the holy grail and the concrete shoes," says Sickmen. "If you have a good label, which I think we do, they know how to promote the product."
Flohr says the Boys have nothing to worry about.
"Nettwerk Records is one of the rare labels like ATO that focus on artists and developing those careers," he explains. "We're really excited that they were able to get out there and through hard work stake a claim."
Life after "the deal" has already improved, says Sickmen. These days the band– slimmed down from 12 members to six– moves from gig to gig in a 2005 Econoline van, spending nights in hotels rather than aboard the Dirty Bird, the 1964 GMC bus that was an early symbol. Unfortunately, the Dirty Bird lived up to its name.
"The sanitary condition of those who perform live music is so consistently worse than those who pay to see live music," wrote Bullington, aka Mahlon Hackensaw, in a 2004 journal entry.
And unlike some other bands who parlay a record deal into limo rides and bling, Bullington says he the Boys went decidedly more low key. "Our splurge was buying captain's seats for the van," he laughs.
The retired Dirty Bird is currently for sale, though Sickmen won't name the price. Interested buyers, he says, should visit the band's website hackensawboys.com.
Indeed, the future looks bright for the Boys, and McNoldy doesn't hesitate to make another prediction.
"I think they're the type of band that's in it for the long haul," he says. "They're going to be a long-term Cinderella story."
The band will find out if the glass slipper fits when the new album, Love What You Do, is released September 1.