The Hackensaw Boys Hack and Saw

The boys from Virginia take traditional music apart and put it back together in their own way

The Hackensaw Boys, a six-piece band from Charlottesville, Va., that plays ramped-up old-time string music on traditional instruments, will be pulling double duty in Knoxville on New Year's Eve.

"Classy show first, and then the party later," says vocalist/bassist Jesse Fiske, referring to the group's headlining slot on the Tennessee Shines bill at the Bijou Theatre and its late-night set across downtown at Preservation Pub. "I've had a bunch of friends in different bands play Tennessee Shines and they all said good things about it. We did a show for WDVX's 10th anniversary last year at the Bijou with [Tennessee Shines host] Jim Lauderdale, and this sounds like it's similar."

The Hackensaw Boys have already played in the Knoxville area four times this year—opening for singer/songwriter Josh Ritter at Sundown in the City, with Chris Knight at the Bijou, a Blue Plate Special at the WDVX studio on Gay Street, and a headlining show at the Shed in Maryville. Local shows number five and six will come at the end of a long run of regional touring before the band takes a month off in early 2009 to start work on their sixth album, the follow-up to 2007's Look Out!

"We've been working on demos for the new album," Fiske says. "We'll see if we can make something out of it. We're going to take January off and do some woodshedding for the record. It's pretty early to tell what it'll be like, but I think it might be a little more diverse than the last one. There'll be some fast-tempo fiddle songs. We're just starting to get the songs together and see how they work. Some of the stuff we've been playing for a while and some of it's brand new."

Since forming in 1999, the Hackensaw Boys have done a bunch of fast-tempo fiddle songs. That is, in fact, what they specialize in. The group's music is a ragged and frenzied update of old mountain music, not quite bluegrass, not quite country, not quite folk, but with notable similarities to each. The band maintains the speed of bluegrass but minimizes the importance of solos and instrumental virtuosity, instead opting for the locked-in rhythms of a rock band. It's no coincidence that founding guitarist Tom Peloso, who still occasionally writes songs for and performs with the Hackensaw Boys, is now a member of Modest Mouse.

"I think we all started out playing rock 'n' roll or blues or whatever and sort of found the old-time music along the way," Fiske says. "I was pretty young when I started playing it—I was 19 when I joined the band—but that doesn't mean I grew up in a family like the Carter Family.... On Look Out!, there's a song called ‘Lookout Dog, Slow Down Train' that's derivative of traditional music. Everybody plays the same melody, and it's a blast. But [Rob] Mahlon [Bullington] can write a song that's got a lot of parts, a bridge, something that's really intricate."

That sort of approach—drawing influence from several different styles and paring it down to its roots—allows the Hackensaw Boys to fit into a broad community of traditional musicians without being defined by any particular boundaries.

"It's extremely rewarding," Fiske says. "You can really have a relationship with lots of different people playing the same songs."