Photo Credit: Aaron Farrington
Rob Bullington of the Hackensaw boys
The Hackensaw Boys are a high-energy young bluegrass group that formed almost haphazardly in Charlottesville, Va. Blue Ridge Country interviewed Rob Bullington, one of the group's original members.
Cara Ellen Modisett: First of all, and I’m sure you’ve never been asked this question before, but what does “Hackensaw” mean?
Rob Bullington: It – like a lot of names, it started out as sort of a half-funny joke that stuck. It means as in “to hack and saw,” as in like hacking at a mandolin and sawing at a fiddle, that sort of activity. So it’s a slightly clever play on words, but perhaps not, depending on who you are.
CEM: Do you each have stage names, like the one you mentioned?
RB: Yeah, well, as with any group of people that spend enough time in a confined space together, nicknames are bound to happen, so we’ve all got nicknames. Mine’s Mahlon, and that was actually the name of my great uncle, who was in the Roanoke Jug Band back in the late 1920s. Other guys have names like Salvage and Shiner, and the Kooky-Eyed Fox. One guy’s simply called “Four,” ’cause he’s the fourth member of his family to carry the Lionel Moyse name. There’s Baby Jay, ’cause he’s the youngest, and that might be about it, I think. That’s the whole group.
CEM: What exactly is a jug band?
RB: A jug band, back in the ’20s and ’30s, I guess, was any band that had a jug in it, and referred to a particular type of music. It was essentially string band music. The funny thing about the Roanoke Jug Band – and they were around from roughly 1927 to 1930 – was that they didn’t really have a jug in the band – they just thought it was kind of a funny or clever way to name the band. So I actually have a picture of the Roanoke Jug Band, and there’s six members, and they have a jug sitting on the floor in front of them, but nobody plays it. But they had a couple guitar players, a couple banjo players, one guy that played the banjolin, and then a fiddle player, of course, ’cause it was fiddle–driven string band music that they were recording back then.
CEM: I guess you’ve heard that they’ve recently revived the Roanoke Jug Band.
RB: Yeah, I did hear that they revived it, though I haven’t met either of the guys that did it, so I’d be real happy to meet them someday and find out what they know that I might not know, actually.
CEM: I haven’t heard them yet, but I’m looking forward to it.
Were you an original member of the Hackensaw Boys? I know there have been some personnel changes since then.
RB: Yeah, we started with – there was 12 people in the band when we first started out, really, and I was one of the original 12, so absolutely, I’ve been there from the definite dirty, poverty-stricken beginning, and, you know, continue to push on. There’s six of us now, so we’re exactly half the size we were five years ago, which is a lot more manageable in terms of things like hygiene and pay scale and that sort of thing, yeah.
CEM: What about musically?
RB: Musically, it’s obviously – there’s one thing to have –
Say you’re sittin’ in a club in, you know, Birmingham, Ala., and 12 guys roll in, each with an instrument, and they just immediately start playing. I mean, there’s a certain group energy there that you just can’t recreate unless you have 12 guys in the band who are just sort of pell-mell, out of control, rolling around the country.
On the other hand, with six guys, you can really hone in on the individual parts, it gives more chances for individual people to step up and be heard, and there’s a lot more creative control and give and take that you can do with six people that with 12 you just can’t really even approach.
CEM: And you’ve gotten past the poverty-stricken stage?
RB: I wouldn’t say we’ve gotten past it – I’d like to say that we’ve hopefully reached the end of the poverty-stricken highway. We’ll see.
CEM: Why Charlottesville?
RB: You know, I moved to Charlottesville because I had spent a few years – four or five years – living in Harrisonburg, Va. and then I’d moved up to Alexandria, right outside of D.C., for almost a year before I just couldn’t stand it anymore and I had to leave. I’d always heard good things about Charlottesville and I’d liked it when I’d visited, so I just really went there on a whim – it seemed like a place that I would enjoy, and it was.
The other guys, you know, for various reasons – Charlottesville in the 1990s was definitely…settling down, and sort of solidifying and, you know, the downtown mall was really happening, and the corporate giants hadn’t moved into the downtown area, and you could still drive your car around without getting stuck in traffic.
So Charlottesville was sort of a natural gathering point. Really the downtown, the pedestrian mall in Charlottesville was really the genesis of the group ’cause we decided we were gonna learn 10 songs and go down and make some money playin’ on the mall, and a lot of groups still do that, for sure.
CEM: How did the first 12 Hackensaws all meet each other?
RB: Well, there were kind of – four of us – for about two or three weeks, which sounds weird ’cause it doesn’t even seem like that happened anymore. We sort of started it with down on the mall – we played a bunch of songs.
And then there was a diner in town, the Blue Moon Diner, on Main Street, that a friend of ours had opened up, and we started playing there kind of every Friday night – every other Friday night, it was really loose. Every time we would do a Friday night show, somebody who knew somebody who played an instrument would invite ’em down, and after, you know, four or five months of doin’ this, it was 12 people [laughing] in the band who were regularly showing up for shows.
When we went on our first tour, we booked ourselves onto a tour ’cause we had a big 1964 GMC touring coach that a friend of ours had given us, and we decided, you know, that we’ve got this great vehicle, we better hit the road. So we booked a tour all the way around the country for six weeks, and on the day it came to roll out of Charlottesville, 12 guys showed up, so that was the band.
Plus there was a friend of ours who was a photographer, too, who took a bunch of pictures of that tour.
CEM: That was Aaron Farrington?
RB: Aaron Farrington, exactly right. We’ve got a lot of photos of his on our web site from that tour and other tours that we’ve done.
So really it was 13 guys sort of throwing themselves out into the country – and I mean all the way out and back, around, essentially in a big circle, on you know, this old bus that we really kind of figured out as we went along. It was – I don’t know if I would do it again, you know, but it was definitely something I was glad I did at the time.
CEM: Do you all still play a lot in Charlottesville?
RB: Surprisingly, no. We play in Charlottesville once every three or four months, maybe – part of that is because there’s really only one club in Charlottesville to play, Star Hill, and part of that is just that we spend so much time on the road all over the country that Charlottesville’s unfortunately become just one more stop along the way, you know. We visit Charlottesville about as much as we visit Chicago, anymore. It is definitely a much more edifying and definitely a special experience when we play Charlottesville, though, because it feels more like a reunion, you know, a bunch of people gettin’ together that we haven’t seen in a while ’cause we’ve been away.
CEM: What happened to the Blue Moon?
RB: The Blue Moon Diner, like most restaurants, sort of ceased to be profitable at some point. The guy that we were friends with, he and his partner still own it, and they run a catering business out of it, which was the side of the business that was actually making money.
[NOTE: The Blue Moon has since reopened under the management of Laura Galgano and Rice Hall]
It is interesting – there’s an extreme parallel between starting up a band and starting up a restaurant. I mean, they both take all of your time, they both drive you into really horrible habits that you wish you hadn’t gotten into – they very rarely make money and yet you can’t stop doing it. So, it was sort of natural that we would grow up with the restaurant, that way.
CEM: I also recently interviewed one of the members of another bluegrass group in your area that’s doing some things similar to you – King Wilkie –
RB: Oh, yeah, King Wilkie – they’re great guys!
CEM: Do you all consider each other competition or colleagues?
RB: We’ve done some shows with King Wilkie over the years. They’re fantastic, I don’t think we consider them competition, maybe they consider us competition, I don’t know.
What we do is so much more nontraditional – we play – it’s a different style of music within the same genre, I guess, so we’ve never really felt like we were competing with each other in that sense. Their strengths are different from our strengths.
We actually did a bill with them on New Year’s Eve at the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville – it was them, and us, and a couple other bands. The Del McCoury Band was headlining, and each of the bands were just different enough from each other that… there was no competition or anything like that, it was just sort of everybody getting together, doin’ what they did best, and it worked really well. We had a good time.
CEM: Can you go into a little more detail about the differences between what you do and what others are doing, especially King Wilkie?
RB: Well, I mean, the three or four times I’ve seen King Wilkie, what they do that I guess is similar to us is they really focus on songwriting, on developing original material. What they do differently is they’re – I’d say they slightly skew more towards the traditional bluegrass sound of the tight, two–part harmony, um, the sort of almost virtuosic soloing that goes on sometimes in bluegrass music, and to that extent they also tend to favor a more slower-paced, mid-tempo feel.
What we do is definitely a lot more informed by old-time music, old-time fiddle style and sort of contemporary song structure – a lot of our songs really have, you know, pop music song structure in terms of verse and chorus and that sort of thing, and we do a lot more group harmonies as opposed to sort of tight duo harmonies, which makes it a little wilder sounding but you know, revs it up a little bit more. Which is funny because I think recently they’ve started to go more towards high energy numbers and we’ve started to introduce a lot more folk ballad kind of numbers into our set, so I don’t know – maybe we will end up being in competition – we’ll see!
CEM: Who are you listening to?
RB: Wow, that’s a big question. I could just go through the list of records that are sitting next to my record player right now...
RB: I have Modest Mouse, Whenever You See Fit, I have Ray Charles Modern Sounds and Country and Western Music, I’ve got my Rough and Rowdy Waves by the legendary Jimmy Rogers, and I’ve got the Wu Chronicles, Chapter Two by the Wutang Clan sittin’ there too. I try to keep it interesting. There’s a real good public radio station, community radio station I should say, here in Richmond, that just started up, so I actually find myself listening to the radio a lot more than my albums, just ’cause I’d like to hear somethin’ different after each song, and radio usually tends to do that better than I can do.
CEM: Are you all in Richmond now, or Charlottesville, or between the two? Where is everyone?
RB: I’m in Richmond. One of the guys is in Staunton. One of the guys technically has a house in Charlottesville that he rents, but he spends a lot of his time in Los Angeles, ’cause that’s where his girlfriend is. One of the guys lives in Ruckersville, north of Charlottesville, and one of the fellows – the newest guy – lives down in Asheville, N.C.
CEM: How do you all rehearse?
RB: Rehearsing is one of those luxuries for a band when they reach our stage, wherein you can’t really afford to take time off of your second job to go rehearse, so you sort of do a little bit on the road, a little bit when you can grab it. I mean, the ultimate goal I think for a lot of bands is to get to the point where they can pay themselves to rehearse, which is sort of the ultimate luxury. We generally rehearse on the road, and sometimes when we have a big show coming up we’ll just make sure we set aside a day to get together and really woodshed it for about eight hours.
CEM: What are your second jobs, and how much of the year are you on the road?
RB: I’d say any more we’re on the road three quarters of the year, which doesn’t leave much time for second jobs, and you have to be very creative with it, I mean, scratch a musician and find a carpenter, most people will say.
I do a lot of house painting, I do some writing for a company that does novel summaries for college students and high school students. One of the guys works at a camp for troubled youth, and he can sorta sub in there when they need extra help, so you really just sorta have to find something you can do when you’ve got the time, not necessarily when they need you.
CEM: For you, personally, why the mandolin?
RB: It’s easy – I had one. When we started playin’ together, I had a mandolin – it was actually my great uncle’s mandolin – the one who had been in the Roanoke Jug Band. I knew a few chords on it, so about five years ago when we started playin’ together I was the mandolin player ’cause I had one. And I’ve sorta been figurin’ it out ever since.
CEM: I’m seeing a trend in young musicians – and by young I mean 30–somethings, 20–somethings, eight–year–olds – they’re going back to the traditional bluegrass, the old–time music. Why do you think that’s happening?
RB: I don’t know. It’s interesting though, because I tie it into an article I was reading in, I think it was Rolling Stone recently, about a lot of the alternative rock radio stations starting to change their format, or starting to be forced to change their formats by their owners, to either hip hop or Spanish, like Spanish industrial music. They were sort of lamenting the decline of essentially alternative rock radio, which sort of exploded in the late ’80s, early ’90s with Nirvana and that whole slew of bands.
So why – I don’t know why this happened – maybe people are getting bored with what’s on the radio, or maybe they’re figuring out that it’s a lot more fun, really, to sit down with a bunch of instruments and some friends and play than it is to go out and buy a bunch of equipment and turn it up to 12 and make a bunch of noise. Which actually I kinda miss, you know [laughs].
I think it’s probably just more accessible. Like you say, it’s almost like a snowball effect, the more the younger bands that sort of get recognized doing it, the more, I don’t know, hip? The more cool, the more accessible the sound is, because people always wanna be able to identify with the people makin’ the music that they listen to, so I guess it’s just maybe changin’ that way.
CEM: What’s your opinion of New Grass and the music that’s evolved from that, that’s taken bluegrass in different directions?
RB: Well, I’ll be honest – I’ll be frank – I’ll cut right to the chase. We’ve toured with a lot of bands that – I won’t name names, but a lot of bands that sort of take bluegrass – and I think this was a big movement in the late ’70s, ’80s – they take bluegrass, and they sort of turn it into jazz, and it sort of becomes this place for individual players to sort of show off these sort of mad skills. And after a while that kinda starts to sound like a car commercial, or background music for a documentary, and you sorta lose a sense of is there a song here? Is there a chorus, is there somethin’ that after I’m done listening to it that I can walk down the street humming?
And so, from the very beginning, I mean, first of all we sort of lacked the virtuosic skills, and second, I mean, it was just kind of frankly, boring. We wanted to be able to play songs, you know, that lasted three to four minutes and had a verse and had a chorus and when you were done you could teach it to somebody just by humming it to them. So that has been sort of – I mean, that’s really the style of music that people would make in the ’20s and ’30s and ’40s and ’50s, I mean, it’s really all we ever wanted to play, that way.
CEM: I’m asking everyone this question – in your opinion, what is it about mountains and the mountain geography that makes mountain music what it is?
RB: You know, I can honestly say I’ve never been asked that question before. Living in Richmond, you know, I live right on the Piedmont plains, I’m about as far from the mountains as you can get in Virginia without actually being at the beach, and I used to live in Charlottesville and the mountains are definitely present in Charlottesville.
I think it’s maybe that sense of separation, a sense of being a little bit more isolated from the pell-mell events of the world. I was talking to a friend recently that had lived in Hawaii for a while, and she said one of the things she missed most about moving back to the East Coast was that in Hawaii there’d be all these crazy political events and rock star trials and you know, horrible news from Washington, and living in Hawaii she just felt completely disconnected from it, as though she were living on the other side of the world.
I think that’s maybe what the mountains did in a very key way, particularly a hundred years ago when you truly were isolated and maybe news of some assassination or some scandal reached you, but it was two months old at that point and what did it really matter, because there was a storm comin’ or because there was a fire on the other ridge or because you know, you had to sit down and figure out how you were gonna pay your taxes that year, so...
I think the mountains did that if nothing else – they created isolation when it was needed most.
CEM: Whose work are you admiring, and who do you hope to play with or tour with?
RB: I’ve been listening to a lot of Wilco, I definitely admire their work, and the other side of that equation, Jay Farrar – I definitely enjoy what he’s doing too – I’d like to play with him. You know, we’ve already been out on the road with a lot of the people we really admire and respect – everybody from Modest Mouse and the Flaming Lips to the Del McCoury Band. We’ve had some really great experiences with a lot of different musicians from different styles, so to answer the question it’s just you know, bring it on, and let’s see.
I don’t think we’ve had any truly bad experiences playing with other musicians, and recently went out with David Lowery and Johnny Hickman from Cracker, who are kind of based out of Richmond. And we had done a tour with Camper van Beethoven, which was David Lowery’s previous band in the ’80s, and really found a deep sense of connection with those guys, which led into the second tour and probably led into David coming out to a show we’re gonna do in Richmond here in May and playin’ some songs with us. So we definitely like once we’ve played with somebody, we keep in touch. You know, we like to keep rolling with it ‘cause it’s too much fun not to.
CEM: Anything else you’d like to talk about?
RB: I don’t know how you want to work it into the conversation, but we do intend to have a new album out in August, September, somewhere in that neighborhood, and we’re real proud of it. It was recorded essentially over the course of the last two or three years, at four different studios kind of on the run, you know – some of it in Amsterdam, some of it in San Francisco, some of it in Virginia – and so just tell people to look out for that. We’re gonna call it “Love What You Do.”
The Hackensaw Boys' website www.hackensawboys.com