It’s Paddy’s birthday today. In 2003 we went on holiday to the USA. It was brilliant. Although Paddy got sunburn flying over Canada, he was well enough to accept the offer of a free drink from a military type in Chicago where we changed planes before flying to New Orleans. This guy thanked us “for our support”, presumably in the Iraq war. We saw some great music in New Orleans. We found what I assumed to be a typical New Orleans club where Jason Marsalis had got a group together. Unfortunately, I fell asleep on a bar stool but Paddy convinced me that the music was excellent. We also saw Mike Watt at The House Of Blues. We were assured by several people there that he was “awesome” but he was so terrible that we left and found Mike West playing to fewer than 10 people in a tiny club and he definitely was awesome. Leaving New Orleans we travelled North up Highway 61 alongside the Mississippi and stayed a night in Natchez, walking the Confederate line in search of more live music which we eventually found in a casino on a steamboat. Next morning we revisited Highway 61 and stopped for coffee in Greenville. We had no idea that Greenville is notorious for having one of the worst crime rates in the country. We just wandered in obliviously. After escaping with our lives, we visited Dockery Farm, birthplace of the blues. From there we travelled North to Clarksdale to visit The Delta Blues Museum. Whereas these days, apparently, this is a pretty swish place to visit, in 2003 it was charming through its lack of glamour.
We weren’t sure where to go next but after looking at a map, we saw that we were only an hour’s drive away from Oxford, Mississippi or to give it the name that we both knew well, Oxford Town. That’s the name of the song that Bob Dylan wrote in 1962 about a riot at The University of Mississippi (commonly referred to as “Old Miss”). The riot was caused by the enrollment of the first black student, James Meredith. Charles W. Eagle described this event like this: “In a major victory against white supremacy, James Meredith had inflicted a devastating blow to white massive resistance to the civil rights movement and had goaded the national government into using its overpowering force in support of the black freedom struggle.”
When we got to Oxford, we visited a great bookshop called “Square Books” and were told that if we came back at 3:00 p.m., we could see a recording of “Thacker Mountain Radio”. We did this and were treated to some author readings and a performance by a group neither of us had heard of called The Hackensaw Boys. They played three songs and all the members of the band were grouped around one central microphone on a small raised stage. They announced that they would be playing a full set later in the evening at The Lyric Theater which was about 50 yards away from the bookshop.
Obviously, we went to The Lyric Theater in the evening and the first thing that impressed us was the guy behind the bar. His ability to engage with every customer waiting for a drink was unsurpassed. Imagine a typical British pub where the person serving drinks keeps their eyes down, only looking at the customer serving, ignoring everyone who is waiting and then looking up and muttering “who’s next?” Now imagine the complete opposite where every single person waiting feels valued and knows their place in the queue is respected. That was this guy. It was magnificent.
We then had a long and dull conversation with a local who claimed to have just got back from the UK having attended Joe Strummer’s funeral (which seems unlikely considering this was April and Joe Strummer had died the previous December). When The Hackensaw Boys came on, they really were awesome. They played a mixture of country, introspective Americana, bluegrass and old time music. The instrumentation was fiddle, mandolin, banjo, guitar, upright bass, accordion, harmonica and laid back percussion. They mixed their set so that a lot of the early songs were slower and introspective and most of the later songs were up tempo, featuring lots of fiddle and by the end, to quote Chuck Berry, “the joint was rocking”.
Even more exciting was that, after the show, Dave Sickman, the lead singer stood next to us at the bar and engaged us in a long conversation. He was interested in our trip and talked about his group and how he preferred performing the slower songs. He gave us a list of artists we should look out for. We had never heard of Cat Power, Guided By Voices or Roscoe Holscomb but he wrote their names down on a copy of the local paper for us. When the rest of the band were leaving and told him to hurry up, he told them to wait because he was talking to us. A few years later, when he went to see The Hackensaw Boys in London, Paddy once again engaged Dave Sickman in conversation who claimed to remember our encounter. Just to complete the story of the trip, we subsequently drove to Lafayette, Austin and San Antonio.
“Love What You Do” is an excellent record. It starts in a very low key way but with one of my favourite songs. It’s called “Sun’s Work Undone” and Dave Sickman’s husky and emotional voice is to the fore. I don’t really know who he is singing to – is it his lover or his daughter? The opening lines are “What I want you to know, is how much I love you. I place no one above you. You’re always in my prayers and on the day you were born something inside of me grew and something inside of me knew that I had done the right thing.” As in their live show, a slow song is followed by an up tempo song. “Cannonball” has a very fast tempo and some typically magnificent fiddle playing. How is it that people can get so proficient on a fiddle to make such a great sound? And it’s a distinctive American fiddle, not Irish, English or Scottish. “Kiss You Down There” features more fiddle, a very plunky banjo and slightly risqué lyrics.
Track 4 is “Alabama Shamrock” and starts with a lovely mandolin before banjo and fiddle kick in. After a minute Dave Sickman starts singing words that after all this time I can still make no sense of. Here is the chorus: “Thank God for this pen/Brighton, U.S.A is leaning in/This film was shot on memory slides in the Western Hemisphere/Alabama’s getting near”. It just goes to show that you don’t have to understand the words of a song to love it. By contrast “We Are Many” follows and it’s even more up tempo than “Cannonball” and the words are very uplifting. “On your left side that’s your brother. On your right side that’s your sister. Right behind you that’s your family. Right in front of you is your life to live.” Great fiddle, banjo and mandolin. My feet are tapping as I write this. The video of them playing this live is hysterical. To finish side 1 we get “Border Town” which is slower, utterly charming and features a pedal steel guitar, accordion and lovely harmonies.
And that’s the first side of this record done. When I think of a great side of a record, I automatically think of side 1 of “Moondance” or side 2 of “Blue” but I also think of side 1 of “Love What You Do”. The scheduling is perfect with varying moods, instrumentation and vocals. Side 2 is also good but could not possibly match up to the highs of side 1.
MOJO magazine used to put a bit at the bottom of their record reviews which would indicate what other artists were similar. So at the end of a Modern Lovers review they might put that this is for lovers of The Velvet Underground. At the end of a Mastersons review they might put that this is for lovers of The Rails. And at the end of a Hackensaw Boys review they would put that this is for lovers of Old Crow Medicine Show. I can think of no higher praise.