Hackensaw Boys + YARN
For touring musicians, the road is a harsh mistress. It takes an iron will to survive and a hard-headed love for music so deeply ingrained that the mere thought of a missed gig makes you nauseous. For 17 years, the Hackensaw Boys have plowed the asphalt, bringing their raw, gritty version of American roots music to the venues and streets that originally inspired them. Born in Virginia, along the same routes as fellow road warriors/street buskers Old Crow Medicine Show, the Hackensaw Boys have at times operated more as a collective than a band, sometimes boasting up to twenty members. What’s kept them together is a burning hot vision of American roots music brought kicking and screaming into a new age, fueled as much by a rowdy punk spirit as by the traditional masters that first inspired them. Now with their new album, Charismo (April 15, 2016 on Free Dirt Records)–their first studio album in almost a decade–the Hackensaw Boys have a new lineup and a new lease on life. Led by founding member, guitarist and songwriter David Sickmen, they’re back on the road with new songs, determined to get their fans back on the dancefloors they remember so well.
You might expect a band that calls itself Yarn to, naturally, tend to spin a yarn or two. “that’s what we do, we tell stories, live and in the studio, truth and fiction” singer/songwriter Blake Christiana insists. “We don’t always opt for consistency. There’s a different vibe onstage from what comes through in our recordings. There’s a difference in every show as well, you never know what you’re going to get.”
It was with that in mind that Yarn released a series of singles that were digitally released on the 13th of every month beginning in January 2018 and continuing throughout the year. Each “single” included an “A side”, a “B side” and an exclusive alternate version of one of the songs. Naturally, there’s no better name for the project than “Lucky 13.” 24 of those tracks are now available on the albums, Lucky 13 Vol. 1 and Lucky 13 Vol. 2, just released on June 13, 2019.
“These are essentially road stories,” Christiana says. “There’s an overriding theme that links these songs in a very broad sort of way, but again, the stories are not to be taken literally. The intention was to share the feeling of what it’s like to spend time travelling from city to city, with all the unlikely experiences that can be encountered along the way.
“People always ask us to tell them road stories,” singer guitarist Rod Hohl adds. “While this batch of songs aren’t exactly literal road stories, most deal with some degree of adventure and adversity as inspired by our tours and treks around the country. Yet like any good story, there’s an imaginative element to it as well. That’s why we’ve decided to release alternate versions of some of the tracks, to provide a glance at the oddities that exist just beyond sight...”
The titles of these tracks summarize the stories at a glance. Hohl describes “Sioux City,” “Road Less Traveled” and “Hurricane” as adventure stories as seen from the perspective of the road. “Too Young” re-imagines that road as an analogy, the highway of life. “Weary,” as title implies, describes the toll taken by that seemingly endless journey. However, there’s also hope on the horizon; “Heaven in You” suggests that there is an oasis out there somewhere. “Promised Land” and “American Dream” offer reason why one might choose to embark upon that sojourn in the first place.
Yarn have never been content to simply ride a wave and see where it takes them. Their last album, This Is the Year, was celebratory in tone and boldly optimistic. A seamless blend of vibrant, inspired, back porch melodies and narrative, descriptive lyrics, it detailed the challenges one faces when life is jolted off its bearings and, in reevaluating relationships, tough choices must be made that sometimes skirting the rules. It was recorded in the aftermath of real life challenges that left the band splintered and unsure of their forward trajectory.
“We were dealing with real life issues,” Christiana said at the time. “Broken relationships, a sense of having to regroup and put some things -- and people -- behind us.
That’s what I was
writing about lyrically in the new songs and it became kind of a catharsis. Nothing was contrived. We didn’t have to relate to it in the third person. We were living these circumstances, and that gave us the impetus and inspiration to share our sentiments. Ultimately those setbacks and difficulties led to new opportunities and allowed a little light to shine through.”
Yarn’s ability to persevere ought to come as no great surprise, especially for a band that spent two years honing their chops during a Monday night residency at the famed Kenny’s Castaway in New York’s Greenwich Village. In effect, it allowed them to rehearse onstage, mostly in front of audiences that often ranged in size from five to a hundred people on any given night. Five studio albums followed -- Yarn (2007), Empty Pockets (2008), Come On In (2010), Almost Home (2012) and Shine the Light On (2013). The band then took to the road, playing upwards of 170 shows a year and sharing stages with such superstars as Dwight Yoakam, Charlie Daniels, Marty Stuart, Allison Krauss, Leon Russell, Jim Lauderdale and The Lumineers. They performed at any number of prestigious venues -- Mountain Stage, Daytrotter, the Orange Peel in Asheville, the Fox Theater in Boulder, the 9:30 Club in D.C, South by Southwest, the Strawberry Festival, Rhythm and Roots, Meadowgrass, Floydfest and more, eventually surpassing 1,000 shows, half a million miles and performances in nearly every state. They’ve driven nonstop, made countless radio station appearances, driven broken-down RVs and watched as their van caught fire. They’ve paid their dues and then some, looking forward even as they were forced to glance behind.
Indeed, the accolades piled up quickly along the way. They have landed on the Grammy ballot 4 times, garnered nods from the Americana Music Association, placed top five on both Radio and Records and the AMA album charts, garnered airplay on Sirius FM, iTunes, Pandora, CNN, and CMT, and also accorded the “Download of the Day” from Rolling Stone. Shine the Light On found shared song writing credits with John Oates (the Oates of Hall & Oates fame), and when audiences expressed their admiration, it brought the band a populist following of diehard devotees, popularly known as “the Yarmy.”
As odd as that might seem, it’s proof positive that the Brooklyn and Raleigh based band - - which is currently comprised of Blake Christiana, Rod Hohl, bassist Rick Bugel, and drummer Robert Bonhomme -- have made their mark, and in dealing with their emotions, scars and circumstances, they find themselves in a position to share those experiences with others who have juggled similar sentiments.
Then again, one needn’t take them at their word. When one unravels Yarn, it’s best to add one’s own interpretations.
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