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Hanging out with the Hackensaw Boys

We caught up with the old-time bluegrass band about their first record in ten years, and just what a "charismo" actually is

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Since 1999, the Hackensaw Boys have been making old-time string band music influenced by their home in the rolling hills of Virginia. The Boys came back strong for this year’s Charismo, the group’s first album in almost a whole decade.

Mike Cobb, the musical mind behind the “1st Place Radio” Podcast, interviewed David Sickmen & Brian Gorby about the Charismo, the songwriting process and the challenges of being on the road.

Listen to the 1st Place Radio Podcast episode with the Hackensaw Boys HERE, and read an excerpt from the interview below.

Elmore Magazine: How do you write songs?

David Sickmen: Some come instantly, and those are normally the best ones, and then there’s the hard part, sitting yourself down and trying to do it, which I no longer do. I try to just let them come to me. Really all you gotta do is take notes during your day to day. There’s a lot of things being said that are lyrical when you’re talking to people, and with a phone in your pocket, you can type it in or sing it. And I have a phone full of those kinds of things, and then you’re terrified– what if it gets zapped? So it’s strange, what you gain in efficacy and quickness, you lose in permanence. Maybe having a suitcase full of lyrics on bar napkins is a good way to go too. [Laughs]

EM: Is it harder to make a living today than when you started out?

DS: I think it’s equally difficult. Yeah, we drove up from Virginia for six hours, but then you get to play music. So that part is joyful, and that’s what I’m trying to focus on, because the rest of it is kind of a pain in the butt, especially since I’m not a good businessman!

EM: Brian, tell me about Charismo. Beside the name of your record- and a play on the word charisma- how would you describe the thing itself?

Brian Gorby: It’s a percussion instrument that you wear made out of recycled cans, wood, bottle caps, hubcaps, a backpack strap, and I play it with wire brushes. Metal on metal, you know?

EM: And that’s on the cover shot, right?

DS: Yeah, well we figured that’s the one thing that’s been constant with the whole history of the band. I consider it found art, like functional art. We were in Europe with our buddy Thomas Oliver, who plays with the band when we go there, and he was like, “Man it’s gotta be about the charismo!” So we just decided to call it that.

EM: What do you think it is about Americana that continues to resonate throughout time?

DS: Well, hopefully there’s an honesty in it. When you boil things down to their simplest components, it’s easy for people to hear it. I think the reason why there’s still an appeal, is that it’s the same as it ever was.

EM: Is it a challenge being on the road, away from family?

DS: Yes. That is the hardest part of this job. We love our kids, and it puts a lot of burden on our wives. That’s the hardest part.

EM: Can you tell me about working with Larry Campbell?

DS: I’m glad you asked that; it was awesome. We went to Justin Guip, who was the engineer at Levon’s barn, but he has his own little studio just outside of Woodstock, NY. We were a bit nervous, but the moment we arrived at Justin’s, Larry came out with a big smile on his face. He treated us like old friends.

EM: What was it like working with him?

DS: The thing about Larry is that all the rhythm tracks are live. We did some overdubbing. But what Larry does is, he’s in the room with you the whole time. He literally counts you in, smiles, and keeps the beat going. He’s a conductor. He’s such a nice, normal human being. I really think Larry was such a positive vibe that it shows up in the takes.

EM: Do you feel like you’re getting better at making records?

DS: I don’t know. I’ve never made the exact record I want to make. I don’t know if anybody has. But Larry provided a space that you trusted him, and when he said that’s good enough, we were like, that’s cool.

EM: Did you feel the presence of Levon?

DS: I feel Levon now. Of course he’s a hero, and the Band as well.

BG: I did. My son’s name is Levon, and I play the drums and sing.

DS: Of course we asked Larry all the questions like, “Is Keith Richards cool?” He was like, “Yeah, he’s really fucking cool!” [Laughs] I mean, Larry’s played with everybody: Cyndi Lauper, Phil Lesh, Paul Simon, Bob Dylan… He’s like a cosmic cowboy, and he brought that vibe to the record. He plays on two or three tracks, like the simplest little mandolin part that just made the song. I was like, do more! ‘Cuz I wanted to watch him play! [Laughs] But he was like, nah, man. He could just play effortlessly. I’d like to work with Larry again, for sure.

EM: Sounds like it was an enjoyable experience.

DS: Yeah! We also decided before we went there, that we were gonna shut the fuck up and listen, which is hard to do when it’s your song. But you get over it! First world problems. But by the end of the process, he was giving us a little more space to try stuff.

EM: I guess it’s all about whatever works, right?

DS: Yeah man. It’s about trying to be true to ourselves, and that’s a hard thing to do. Just trying to be a good person. It’s tough out here, and we need to spread as much love as possible, and that’s my goal in this band. It’s not about a whole lot of other things. It is nice that people care about the records, but any good that comes from that should only be used to create more good. And that’s always been the Hackensaw Boys’ goal.

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