The Hackensaw Boys: Keep it Simple (Harvest Moon)

But these are authentic, timeless compositions that show real musical talent at work somewhere in them Virginia hills.

When I want to hear roots music, I want it to sound rootsy, gol’ dang it. I enjoy bluegrass and good country music enormously at times, but there’s no need for slick and formulaic—the sound that most country radio stations favor these days. We need music that evokes rural life, music that conveys its makers’ simple values and beliefs and their joy at whoopin’ it up on the weekend, not the bland professionalism and homogenized hitmaking that comes with multi-million dollar recording contracts and annual CMA awards.

That’s why I tremendously enjoyed the second album by the Hackensaw Boys, Keep it Simple. These boys hail from Charlottesville, Virginia, and over the course of a few days in fall 2002, they indeed kept it simple as their old-fashioned string band recorded this homespun 14-song collection. I was immediately delighted with the liner notes, in which the band states that “On this circuit The Company consisted of Peepaw, Uncle Blind Bobby, Skeeter, Salvage, Mahlon, C.B. Belouse Legosee, Kooky-eyed Fox, Jig-saw with Slate Hill Phil and Roscoe.” Mighty pleasin’ names, y’all! Instrumentation includes guitars, banjos, dobro, double bass, mandolin, fiddle, accordion and washboard. This is straight-up bluegrass/jugband music of the most relaxed kind, neither flashy nor stylistically insular, just sincere, catchy and sung and played with tremendous warmth and exuberance.

First of all, there is a high degree of craftsmanship in the songwriting itself. The upbeat numbers like “Ruby Pearl,” “Miner,” “Nashville,” and a real gem of a title track are infectious toe-tappers with sing-along choruses and rollicking arrangements. But perhaps more impressively, some of the slower numbers, like “Smilin’ Must Mean Something,” “Grandma,” and “When You Said I Love You"—a charming, fiddle-graced tale of true love—are so memorable and heartfelt that they sound like old-timey standards, and they deepen the emotional response to this whole disc. The primary individual songwriting credits go to R. St. Ours, T. Peluso, and D. Sickmen, and your guess is as good as mine which ones are Peepaw, Shiner, Skeeter, or Salvage—or someone else altogether.

But these are authentic, timeless compositions that show real musical talent at work somewhere in them Virginia hills. The sound quality is as clear as an Appalachian stream; the Hackensaw Boys and Roderick Coles produced the disc jointly. The origins of the band are apparently not agreed-upon; their Web site amusingly states various possibilities, such as the one that “would situate the group’s origins somewhere on the American highway where Robbie St. Ours discovered that hitchhiking is easier with a banjo and a song (because good looks will only take you so far).”

But whatever the circumstances, this is an outfit that truly makes a joyful noise together. I’m not sure who wrote the description of the group on the website, but it says that their music, “pure as a mountain stream and sweet as a jar of syrup, is a guaranteed anodyne for the aches and pains of modern life.”

Keep it Simple certainly fulfills that goal; it’s a smile-inducing platter that oughtta make the Hackensaw Boys a whole bunch of new friends. This is the real deal, folks—if you like backwoods music that sounds like it was actually recorded back in the woods, don’t let this gem pass you by.

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