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ORNL FCU/Summer Sessions – 5/13 – Hackensaw Boys / Larry Keel Trio

May 13, 2023 @ 6:00 pm

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Roots music shapeshifters Hackensaw Boys make a triumphant return with the Hackensaw Boys new self-titled album due out in June. Known for their energetic live shows, the band have been operating as a sort of musical collective for over two decades now, carving a songline that traverses all genres of American roots music. They’ve toured nearly constantly, playing festivals all over the world, sharing stages with the likes of De La Soul and Cheap Trick, and even working as Charlie Louvin’s touring band. They’ve been featured on NPR and Pitchfork, where Amanda Petrusich aptly described their music as a “grassy tornado with brazen punk attitude”. Through it all they’ve adapted their sound, as well as their lineup, to serve their songs with a workman-like ethic. It was during the recording and release of their last EP A Fireproof House Of Sunshine (Free Dirt Records) that David Sickmen realized he was doing his best work. This motivated him to “stay out of his own way” during the making of their new self-titled album, a free-wheeling romp through roots music that includes hardcore roots instrumentals, country rug-cutters, and folk rock gems. Produced by Park Chisolm (Kevin Costner & Modern West), Hackensaw Boys is chock full of classic, catchy Hackensaw sounds while achieving a new level of unapologetic honesty and vulnerability via Sickmen’s well-honed, salt-of-the-earth songwriting.

After a six year hiatus, and a battle with vocal polyps that resulted in surgery, founding member, songwriter, and guitarist David Sickmen assumed leadership of the band. He says “…after struggling internally for years to decide what was Hackensaw Boys material and what was not, I realized my life experiences are actually what makes the songs real for me, and therefore good Hackensaw material.” In 2015 he developed an ethos “to play good shows, and be responsible citizens,” which has fueled the group’s longevity and helped them to weather the ebb and flow of musical tastes du jour, as “alt-country” transitioned to “Americana”. Hackensaw Boys have been around so long that Sickmen’s own son Jonah has now joined the ranks on this new effort, taking lead on one of the band’s more notorious innovations, the charismo—an instrument that symbolizes the ever evolving nature of the band. The charismo is a collection of found objects, worn like a washboard, but played percussively like a drum set. The amalgamation of sounds from tin cans and scrap steel, often picked up on the road and attached to the one of a kind instrument, lend a one of a kind sound to the band, and a sound that changes just a bit as the years pass by.

Hackensaw Boys opens with “Things We’re Doing” a hot flatpicking number backed by atmospheric fiddle. Sickmen sings “the past, you’ll see, it ain’t no place to be,” encouraging a progressive outlook even as their music digs further into the well tilled soil of roots music for their original sound. By the second song “Mary Shelley” Hackensaw Boys are again breaking new ground. Sickmen is singing his level best about the myths that can be repeated so often they become our reality. It’s promethean in its structure, essentially an uptempo pop song played on acoustic instruments, propelled by ringing mandolin, jangling guitars and plucky charismo. The song is a years-long realization for Sickmen, who wrote it in Berlin over a decade ago. “As soon as we talked about making a new record the guys all asked if we could record the Mary Shelley song,” he says “so I realized that these experiences I’ve been living for years are the Hackensaw Boys sound”. The tempo does not let up on “The Weights” as the band achieves a full sound anchored by Chris Stevens deep, woody upright, fronted by Caleb Powers appropriately scratchy fiddle on a cheeky song about the weight of personality types on working relationships. Powers then switches to banjo, bounding in on the uptempo “Cages We’re Grown In” another song about turning adversity into advantage, celebrating the human spirit in the way only Hackensaw Boys can. Never resting on their laurels, Hackensaw Boys make the switch to a Texas two-stepper on “My Turn”. Sickmen sings in duet with Sara Beck (Kevin Costner & Modern West), and one can almost see couples shuffling across a roadhouse floor as Sickmen sings “I suppose if you leave, I’ll have it comin to me, and I’m beggin you to stay, and try to relearn to love me”. “These are songs I’ve been carrying around for years, I’ve found love and lost love and found it again since then, but these things stick with me”. Finding comfort in the hardpan of dirt road country, Hackensaw Boys cruise into “Stranger” shifting into four time on a song about taking a chance on a stranger as a method to better oneself. It’s clear Sickmen and the band have been workshopping some of these songs for years. Now the band has come full circle, recording David’s most affecting material – full of their most vulnerable and honest songwriting.

Much has been said about Hackensaw Boys’ ability to constantly push forward in roots music since 1999, and rightfully so. Sure, their collective has at times seen now-famous solo artists such as John R. Miller and Pokey LaFarge among their ranks. Yes, they’ve shared stages with huge names ranging from Del McCoury to Modest Mouse. But what is perhaps most important about Hackensaw Boys is their steadfast commitment to leading new generations into a world of roots music that honors the legacy of the sound, while finding ways to forge ahead. They’ve got a sound so intentional and so original that one might even mistake the deep cut Bob Dylan cover “All I Really Want To Do” for a Hackensaw original, and it’s a testament to their own writing. Hackensaw Boys have found a way to spiritually combat the battle of attrition that eventually kills most bands, and it’s a straightforward one. They’ve simply remained true to their mission statement: “to raise a little hell, encourage a more peaceful world, and bring the music back to its roots in a working-class American vernacular.” Twenty three years in, they’re doing their best work.

Larry Keel is an award-winning innovative flat picking guitarist and singer/songwriter hailing from Appalachia. Raised in a musical family steeped in the mountain culture of the region, Keel began from an early age to forge a distinctive sound, taking traditional music and infusing it with modern light. With the acoustic guitar Keel has brought the flat picking form to its highest level of sophistication and sonic power with his muscular, yet refined style of playing. As a composer and singer, Keel integrates raw honesty and charming grit to form a unique brand of music he calls ‘experimental folk’, songwriting that is filled with reality, imagination, imagery and mood. He has appeared on over 20 albums, 12 of which he produced, and has written songs that have been recorded and performed by distinguished artists including Grammy-award winners Del McCoury and The Infamous Stringdusters. Keel has collaborated and continues to merge creative forces with some of the greatest artists in modern roots music such as Tyler Childers, Billy Strings, Al DiMeola, Tony Rice, Keller Williams and Sam Bush, to name a few.

His latest creation is a solo album titled American Dream, whose every component—from the writing and arranging, to the instrumental and vocal performances, to the recording and production—spring straight from the mind, soul, and hands of the Virginia-born artist. Each of the album’s 10 tracks were composed by Keel and serve as an autobiographical overview of his life and career, as well as the influences and episodes that have shaped his personal perspective along the way.




May 13, 2023
6:00 pm
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Southwest Point Amphitheater in Kingston
1225 S. Kentucky Street
Kingston, TN 37763 United States
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