Tattoo Artists by Day, Country-Rock Band by Night:
Old Heavy Hands explore themes of home and restlessness
It’s possible that Old Heavy Hands is the only band of its kind. That is, it might be the only band made up entirely of tattoo artists. The guys in the band, which is essentially a country outfit with southern-rock tendencies, all work at Legacy Irons, a tattoo parlor in Greensboro. The band name, it turns out, is sort of a ball-busting in-joke for those in the inking trade. It suggests someone who maybe leans in a little too much with the needle, making for tattoos that hurt more than usual on the receiving end.
Nate Hall is one of the two main songwriters in the band, and he runs Legacy Irons. Old Heavy Hands is a trio of guitar players and singers; on their forthcoming self-titled debut being released by Crooked Creek Holler, out of Asheville, the trio was assisted by a rhythm section and some excellent dobro and pedal steel playing in the studio. Sometimes the band plays acoustic sets, sometimes they have bass and drums join them for live shows. Old Heavy Hands plays a show April 9, at the Mothlight in Asheville, to celebrate the release. They’re planning a Greensboro release event for later in April.
The band was helped out in the Wilmington studio where they recorded by the Dynamic Sound Works team, with engineering from Brandon Hackler, and production by Jordan Powers and Josh King. Hank Barbee supplied the ultra-tasteful pedal steel and dobro work.
You might think that working at a tattoo shop would be rock-and-roll enough to satisfy one’s desire for badass behavior, that maybe the needle-and-ink-wielding guys would pursue staid hobbies like golfing or reading about the Civil War in their downtime, instead of playing loud music in bars, but Hall and his colleagues/bandmates might be hardwired for this stuff.
“I left home at 18,” says Hall, who grew up Greensboro. “The day I graduated high school, I left.”
What followed was a rowdy stretch into his 20s, playing in a band out of Chicago, with Larry Wayne, one of the other main songwriters of Old Heavy Hands. That other band, Tom Sawyer, toured the country. Hall characterized the sound as “a lot of screaming.” He describes his time in the band as “a good 6 or 7 years of raising hell.”
“I acted a fool as much as I could,” he says.
Wayne eventually joined Hall back here in N.C., where they both became tattoo artists, and the two met David Self, the third member of the group, through the tattoo-shop connection.
Anyone who’s hung around with dudes who were super rowdy in their 20s knows that, if they make it that far, by the time they start edging into the middle of their 30s those same guys can sometimes take on some clouds of gloom. The rambunctious excess sometimes dovetails into something more somber. Which is another way of saying that, for some reason, a lot of people who love punk and metal in their 20s become country fans later on. It’s not a rule, but it happens often enough to be a thing. There’s something about the way country music handles the themes of home, of longing, heartache, regret, retribution, redemption, the crushing weight of the working world, family, faith, infidelity, highway miles, nostalgia, dignity and death that resonates with people as they mature.
As Hall puts it: “When you’re an 18-yearold listening to punk rock, the only thing you give a shit about is punk rock. When you get older, things change.”
Jobs, family, and fatigue can alter one’s view. Or, even if one’s perspective doesn’t necessarily change, sometimes the simple metabolic alterations associated with getting older make the shift from punk to country more natural. “It’s the same thing, it’s just slower,” says Hall.
For Hall, playing country-tinged music is sort of like returning to North Carolina after living in Chicago for a chunk of his 20s. It’s like coming back to something that’s familiar and comfortable, coming back to something you understand.
“I grew up on country music, on old country music,” says Hall. “My grandfather taught me how to play Johnny Cash songs.”
Old Heavy Hands sounds like a band that’s listened to Waylon Jennings, but they’ve also soaked up some inspiration from Drive-By Truckers, Lynyrd Skynyrd, My Morning Jacket and Neil Young and Crazy Horse. The tempos never get too jittery. Pedal steel, dobro and spare piano round out the songs, upping the lonesome feeling with yawning foghorn replies to vocal lines. Vocal harmonies mix a drop of honey in with the grit.
Songs like “Bird” point to the dangers of hard living and the toll it took on a childhood friend. And others, like “Gates Swing Wide,” suggest lessons learned from time spent behind bars.
Some of the songs on the band’s record — like “I’ll Come Home,” “Lake Effect Snow” and “Oh Virginia” — speak directly to the sense of longing for home, of a fondness for place, the South in particular. If Hall’s 18-year-old mindset was about putting distance between himself and where he’d grown up, now, with four kids and a business, he’s perhaps more capable of seeing the charm in where he’s from.
“I’ve traveled all over the country. There ain’t no place like North Carolina,” says Hall. “That’s why everybody comes to live here. You’ve got the mountains. You’ve got the beaches. Slow living — I love it.”
Old Heavy Hands played their first show about a year ago, and they’re set to release their debut record. But the band has a whole other album’s worth of material they’re ready to record.
The whole model of releasing albums and touring has been thoroughly complicated by the internet and streaming music services. Old Heavy Hands aren’t necessarily trying to circumvent the entire distribution and promotion system, but Hall says the band plans on using its tattoo-world connections as a way of reaching potential listeners. Loud music is often a big part of the experience of getting a tattoo. And if you hear a tune that catches your ear while gritting your teeth as you get inked up, the song might hold that much more significance to you.
“It’s our life,” says Hall. “You sit around tattoo shops listening to music constantly all day long.”
Hall and his bandmates travel all over, attending tattoo conventions, stopping in at other shops to be a guest artist for a day or a weekend. He figures if some of their fellow tattoo artists around the country crank up the Old Heavy Hands record in their own shops, that’s a pretty good way of reaching prospective fans.
If the connection to the world of tattoo shops and tattoo artists is something that might distinguish Old Heavy Hands from other bands, it’s also possibly the thing that’s likely to keep the band from focusing full time on music. They don’t have any youthful fantasies of dropping everything to hit the road.
“We all have jobs that we love, that we get to be creative at every single day,” says Hall. !