Hackensaw Boys hammer the Anvil

by Sharon Armstrong

Is it me or did winter happen overnight here in Greensboro? WTF?

But last Thursday inside the Flying Anvil, while the frost settled white on the parked cars outside, local music lovers kept warm by hoe-down dancing to the high-octane sound of the Hackensaw Boys, one the best bands to happen to Americana in a long time.

The polished, the dreadlocked, the shivering masses who braved the cold and came downtown were rewarded by a show that made them want to start taking those fiddle lessons, pick up that old banjo, steal the washboard from your grandmother’s kitchen, lay your hands on some strictly illegal, home-bottled booze and join in the fun. The Hackensaw Boys were back in town.

Bluegrass or punk? Old-time or rock ‘n’ roll? Country or dance? Take your pick and you still won’t have your bird pigeonholed. The Hackensaw Boys have been a work in progress since just before the millennium, strangely prophetic for a band that, it could be said, has brought bluegrass into the 21st century. From a starting point of four musicians, swelling briefly to 12 or thereabout and now sort of stabilized at five, the band’s blend of flint-edged, bluegrass-driven élan and achingly haunting old-style mountain melody is like nothing you have ever heard before. Imagine a cabin, a mountain porch, snowy woods and a black sky hung with stars – that’s the heartbreaking melodies. Now imagine the cabin floor shaking itself to pieces with the sheer energy of the moonshine party inside – that’s the live gig.

The name of a band can tell a lot about them. According to Robert “Mahlon” Bullington, the band name Hackensaw Boys derived from the “hacking” motion used to play the mandolin, and the “sawing” of fiddle bows.

Ward Harrison, AKA “Spits”, says that the back-and-forth nature of the bands nome de guerre sums up the spirit of the music.

“We’ve been called rock-and-roll country,” he says. “Justin is punk/indie, Jimmy backs the traditional; he keeps the roots strong. The band is made of disparate elements. We are all kinda waiting for someone to coin a phrase that could describe our music. There are lots of push and pull within the band about what this band actually is. But there is no contrivance. As soon as we are up on stage there is no pretend. It’s genuine joyfulness. I can be in the worst mood and as soon as the first note is played, as soon as I see the first person dancing, when you make eye contact with people who are there at the gig, then it all goes away. Bottom line is that you can have a hit record but if you can’t be joyful on stage what is the point? We want people to enjoy the show, never to be disappointed.”

Disappointed is not a word that springs to mind when the Hackensaw Boys play live. From the first song to the last they give off enough energy to light up the whole Triad, even with all its twinkling little Christmas lights flashing off and on.

The boys took the stage, beers in hand, and blasted off with songs from their latest album, Love What You Do. It’s obvious that they do love what they do. It’s also obvious that the crowd loves what they do as well.

The first bar was scarcely launched when a large man, nattily turned out in denim overalls, grabbed his girl (I assume it was his girl) and whirled her around the floor in a hair-flying, audience-scattering, band-grinning, dervish-channeling burst of enthusiasm. It was funny; it was kinda scary; and it was just the start. The crowd didn’t stop moving until the last note on the fiddle, the last bang on the silver cans, the last rasp on the washboard, the last pick of the banjo, throb of the bass and strum of the guitar faded away. They only stopped dancing to cheer on the next song. Then they started all over again.

The Hackensaw Boy effect is primordial; hard, fine-grained musical quartz tempered by the indomitable heat of the human condition and thrown out of the mountains into the world with complete disregard for those expectations which try, without success, to pin them down to an easy classification, genre, fan-base, whatever. The Hackensaw Boys are what they are.

Bluegrass or punk? Old-time or rock’n’roll? Country or dance?

Who knows? Who cares?

In the blood, in the bone and in the dancing feet, their music resonates.