The Same, Only Different 

Like their label mates Old Crow Medicine Show, Hackensaw Boys reach back, but in service of a broader vision

Like their label mates Old Crow Medicine Show, Hackensaw Boys reach back, but in service of a broader vision

Hackensaw Boys

Playing July 14 at Ryman Auditorium

Perhaps there's something about the turn of a millennium that makes people want to reach backward in time. Maybe it's the surreal sensation that we've stepped into the pages of yesterday's sci-fi novel, or the fear that civilization is hurtling toward some Revelation-style ass-whuppin', that makes us want to grasp at a tree whose roots are planted in firmer soil. That might explain why, as we were looking down the barrel of Y2K, two loose flocks of young musicians weaned on grunge, Game Boys and Beavis and Butthead forwent Les Pauls and Marshalls for banjos and fiddles—to play music that was long out of fashion when their parents were born.

Or maybe it was just the music itself—urgent, joyous and direct. Whatever the case, Old Crow Medicine Show have struck a nerve with fans of all styles, earning thunderous receptions from both the well-scrubbed folks at the Grand Ole Opry and the unwashed legions at Bonnaroo. Though lesser known in these parts than Music City's recently adopted favorite sons, Charlottesville, Va.'s Hackensaw Boys have similarly blurred audience boundaries, touring with indie-rock mainstays like Modest Mouse and Flaming Lips while also backing country legend Charlie Louvin. They open for bluegrass torchbearers the Del McCoury Band Thursday night at the Ryman.

Due to their parallel trajectories, it's hard to discuss the Hackensaw Boys without mentioning OCMS. Label mates at Nettwerk Records, both acts succeed largely because they've eschewed the solemn reverence of other revivalists and the sometimes off-putting complexity of newgrass and other derivatives. These are musicians unconcerned with breaking new ground or winning certificates of authenticity. Their guiding impulse is as primal as breathing: having a rollicking good time. Both bands do it so effectively that they've passed the musical equivalent of the old Life cereal "Let's Get Mikey" test—conjuring smiles on the faces of the terminally cool, shaking the hips of the most sedentary shoegazer.

But, as their upcoming album Love What You Do makes clear, the Hackensaw Boys are a little less chained to the prewar sound. While not exactly modern, the record's opening track, "Sun's Work Undone," is the type of laid-back folk song you might hear on a Steve Earle record. In fact, songs like "Bordertown," "Mecklenburg County" and "All Good Dogs" are not so much old-timey as timeless, recalling the acoustic work of Neil Young and Son Volt.

And whereas OCMS run primarily on piss and vinegar (not a bad thing), the Hackensaw Boys soften their edges with a bit of molasses. They all have unique singing voices, but they share a raspy warmth that's as comfortable as a pair of old jeans. They blend as effortlessly as good bluegrass singers, yet they preserve a craggy spontaneity that places feeling before perfection, which may explain their wide appeal. Indie fans, roots rockers and the jam-band crowd all share a preference for DIY charm over glossy production (and the last group surely enjoys the band's inclination for expanding their arrangements in live performance).

The Hackensaw Boys are less obsessively retro than Old Crow, instead using their influences as a jumping-off point for a broader artistic vision. Still, good times are at the core of the Hackensaw experience, even when contemplating America's demise in "Cannonball." The full-tilt bluegrass stomper puts a fresh twist on the runaway train song, the titular iron horse a metaphor for a country spiraling out of control: "In the glory of combustion, they heard her final cry / All the way from downtown Nashville to the halls of Columbine / No future feeling sorry for the creatures great and small / Who rode atop the mighty Cannonball." To paraphrase another band with roots in old-time sounds, we're all going to hell in a bucket, but at least they're enjoying the ride.


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