By Charlie Deitch
Pittsburgh Current Editor
In the 20 years since the band was formed, the Hackensaw Boys have certainly gone through its share of changes.
The band’s sound is the first thing most longtime fans might take note of. Once a band solidly rooted in traditional-style bluegrass music, the Hackensaw Boys have, over time, developed a solid folk sound all while keeping its musical roots planted firmly in the soil that it grew out of.
The other major alteration to the band’s fabric over the years has come in the form of personnel changes. Since the band was founded in 1999, 25 different players have rotated in and out of the band’s primary lineup. In fact, the band has only one founding member remaining in the group, while at the same time not having one person in the group who has been involved for all 20 years.
“This band has definitely gone through a lot of adversity and still managed to keep its chin up,” laughs David Sickmen, the band’s guitarist, frontman and lone founding member. Born in Charlottesville, Va., the group still calls the state home despite spending a lot of the year touring the U.S. and Europe. In June, the band will release a five-cut EP, A Fireproof House of Sunshine, featuring its current lineup of Sickmen, Caleb Powers, Chris Stevens, Beau Dodson and Thomas Olivier.
The songs on the new record, the first since 2016’s full-length Charismo, find the band in the Hackensaw sweet spot—soulful, uptempo tunes with ample doses of rootsy folk, like the Dylan-esque “Late Night Kitchen” and the more bluegrassy “You Act like My Friend.”
But as good as the record is, it almost didn’t happen. In January 2018, longtime fiddle-player and singer Ferd Moyse decided, along with percussionist Brian Gorby, to leave the band. While not an original member, Moyse had been a huge part of the band since 2004 as a musician, vocalist and collaborator.
“When Ferd left, it was pretty terrifying, really,” Sickmen says. “I didn’t know he was thinking about leaving the band to spend more time at home. So I really had to ask myself if I wanted to continue to carry the name. But I wasn’t ready to stop playing. I wanted to continue going out to play and evolve Hackensaw Boys-type music.”
It should come as no surprise that Sickmen decided to once again reshuffle the lineup and stay on the road. He left the band in 2006. In 2010, the band’s lineup was about to call it quits. Sickmen realized that he wasn’t ready to see the group come to an end. He talked to guys like Moyse, who were happy to keep playing together if Sickmen was going to come back. It was a fitting solution—Sickmen didn’t leave the band because he wanted to, but because he had to.
“To be honest with you, I had a nervous breakdown,” Sickmen says. He was 37 at the time, experiencing depression and extreme anxiety. The mental fatigue was partially a product of a long life of pressures on the road as a touring musician. But it was more than that. “I think it was more a culmination of things that were going on with me from childhood on. It’s not something I ever expected, but when it hit, I got a crash course in depression. People think of depression as sadness but it’s more than that. I was in a dark cloud and I found myself looking around in my own mind.”
He didn’t seek treatment, instead choosing some level of self-medication. Eventually he met his current wife—they’ve been together for 15 years—and started to figure out how to cope with, or at least get through, the tough times.
“I’ll never forget that time in my life,” Sickmen says. “And to this day, I still fight anxiety and get sad from time to time. But that’s to be expected. It’s a sad world.”
The world’s sadness hit home for Sickmen nearly two years ago when a large group of white nationalists staged a demonstration in his hometown of Charlottesville. On the second day of protests, a peaceful counter-protester was killed when she was struck by a car that an alt-right protester drove into a crowd.
“That situation devastated me as a human being and as a person who grew up in and loves that city,” Sickmen says. “We were playing a show in Virginia Beach when we heard what happened and it was hard to even think straight.”
Sickmen says he’s a political person and that those beliefs do come out in the band’s music, but not overtly. He chooses instead to “sneak it in in small doses.”
“I don’t like to preach about it, but I feel that artists should be political. But you have to do it subtly,” Sickmen says. “During the George Bush years, we were playing at the Ryman Auditorium [in Nashville] and I made a crack about one of the president’s policies. A guy yells back at me from the audience, ‘Shut up and sing your songs!’”
The balance can be especially hard to find for bands like the Hackensaw Boys. In addition to their own political beliefs, they have fans from all over the political spectrum because of the type of music they play.
“Ultimately, I think my job is to bring our fans together,” Sickmen says. “I’m well aware that in our audience is a guy who drove to the show in a pickup truck sporting a sticker that reads, ‘The South Will Rise Again,’ as much as I recognize that maybe by listening to our music, they’ll let their guard down a little and listen to what we’re writing and maybe some of that will make a difference.”
The Hackensaw Boys are sure to see a diverse audience when they hit town May 31 for their latest Pittsburgh show. The band has come through here many times and the upcoming show is going to be a treat for fans. Originally scheduled at the newly remodeled Thunderbird Cafe, the venue isn’t quite ready, so the show has been moved to the Roxian in McKees Rocks. Admission is free, something Sickmen is excited about.
“I was really looking forward to getting back to the Thunderbird and seeing the changes,” Sickmen says. “I’m not exaggerating when I say that I’ve had some legitimately magical experiences in that room.
“But I’m also excited about playing this free show in a new venue. Our goal is to pack the house and have a good time.”