By Noah Hubbell
By Kiernan Maletsky
By Tom Murphy
By Noah Hubbell
By Alex Distefano
By Darryl Smyers
By Jon Solomon
By Britt Chester
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 twelve 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 that 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, Virginia, 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."
"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, ŒWait, I didn't want you to say that!' Everything one member says is reflective upon the whole. So it is 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 donnybrooks 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 twelve 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 are 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."