Hackensaw Boys,
Look Out!
(Nettwerk, 2007)

The Charlottesville, Virginia-based Hackensaw Boys are a high-energy string band whose approach fuses the sound of old-time mountain music with jittery rockabilly and punk-rock rhythms. Look Out! is their fifth full-length album, the second on the Nettwerk label, and the first of any I've heard.

Among the cultural surprises -- I mean, the happy ones as opposed to all the others -- of the past decade, the revival of interest in Southern string bands among younger people is one not many of us who've known this music most of our lives could have seen coming. Rather than merely recreating the classic 78 recordings of the 1920s and '30s, which was what the first generation of revival outfits did, the young bands -- with varying degrees of technical proficiency -- have embarked on a multiplicity of approaches. Some have sought out more arcane, less familiar songs and tunes, fashioning an approximation of pre-recording-era folk music, while others have filled their repertoires with original material and more contemporary frames of reference. Nearly all have brought fresh arrangements that have either burrowed deeply into forgotten traditions or used antique styles simply as a launching pad from which to propel themselves into heretofore-unexplored sonic spheres. Some treat old-time music as if it were punk rock's crazy uncle.

In the end, as the saying goes, there's only good music and bad music, and I like it -- conservative or radical or wherever it falls on the spectrum -- if it works. It works on this album, which I would think it would be impossible to dislike. On the other hand, I recall a conversation a year or so ago with a late-middle-aged bluegrass disc jockey whose demeanor changed abruptly for the worse at my passing mention of Old Crow Medicine Show, of which the Hackensaws will remind most informed listeners. A (metaphorically speaking) red-faced, spittle-spewing eruption followed and did not recede soon.

So I suppose that if you are one of those dreaded purists -- you know who you are -- whose function is to serve as a bad example and living, wheezing fuddy-duddy, maybe you'll dismiss these guys for their rock associations, their generally irreverent manner and their self-composed material (only a spirited reading of the traditional "Gospel Plow" is a non-original). To my hearing, however, the Hackensaws catch the spirit of the old bands, which were there to show themselves and their audiences a good time. While this is a successful album, it does inspire one to reflect the boys must be hell on wheels live, and live is probably their natural habitat. In any event, their songs are well written and, pound for pound, they're better than the original compositions of most bluegrass bands.

Not, I suppose I ought to add, that the Hackensaws are a bluegrass band (banjos, fiddles and Southern accents do not in themselves a bluegrass band make, folks), but I'm sure they're thrilling crowds at the more open-minded bluegrass festivals when they're not sharing stages with rock bands such as Camper Van Beethoven, Modest Mouse and Flaming Lips. God bless 'em. Bands like the Hackensaws are good for everybody.

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review by
Jerome Clark

15 September 2007

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