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Blurring the lines 

The Packway Handle Band has bluegrass passion but not a pedigree

Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell probably didn't have bluegrass music in mind when they famously crooned "ain't nothing like the real thing, baby," but if they did, they weren't alone.

The thing is, bluegrass is evolving so broadly, and so quickly, that the notion of what's "real" now rests firmly in the ears and eyes of the beholder.

Athens' Packway Handle Band, opening for the Train Wrecks Thursday at Live Wire Music Hall, has made lots of fans with a unique take on fiery Appalachian acoustic music. For those who love labels, feel free to call it "alt bluegrass."

The purists, however, don't put a lot of stock in these guys.

"If it's not a straight bluegrass festival, and there's a lot of different Americana and rock bands, we thrive in those atmospheres," says guitarist Josh Erwin. "Because those are the people who are usually open–minded. We fit into the more genre–bending aspect of bluegrass.

"But as far as bluegrass Nazis go, no, we usually don't get accepted into that. They're like ‘You're not playing it right.' That sort of attitude. ‘You need to stand this way.' We don't write mom and daddy songs, or wagon wheel songs or whatever."

But the members of Packway Handle aren't apologizing for a thing. The subject of a major feature in a 2008 issue of Bluegrass Now magazine, they've been invited to open for Ralph Stanley (as pure as pure bluegrass gets) and the Avett Brothers (as hip as they come).

Tom Baker plays banjo, Michael Paynter is on mandolin, Andrew Heaton speed–picks the mandolin, and the standup bassman is Zach McCoy.

Part of the band's appeal is their old-timey live set, which finds all four of the main singer/instrumentalists gathered around a single microphone.

"We don't use monitors onstage, either," Erwin explains, "so when we're singing it's all what everybody can hear, right beside each other's faces. And since none of us sang before, in any of the bands we were in, this style of singing is really the only experience we've got. So in one aspect, it's sort of out of ignorance.

"It's something we're good at, we're comfortable with, but also it's really more interesting to watch as a stage show. Think of how many bluegrass bands you've seen plugging in and they all stand up there all lined up. It's a little bit stagnant. This makes it a bit more fun."

They're all veterans of rock ‘n' roll outfits, and one reason acoustic performance appealed to them was because of its, well, practicality.

"Acoustic instruments are pretty portable," Erwin says. "You don't have to have a practice stage. You don't have to have monitors to sit and work on your vocals, running mic lines.

"It's kind of like running – it's a sport, and the only equipment you really need is running shoes. You can take those anywhere. And you can do it wherever you want."

Packway Handle had decidedly organic origins.

"I don't think any of us grew up listening to bluegrass," Erwin explains. "In the ‘70s, my dad ran around with a folk act, on the road and stuff. So I was always exposed to acoustic guitar. Tom slowly started picking up the banjo, and one day his brother came in from Colorado with a mandolin. We got together with him and started arranging some stuff. That was the beginning of the band.

"It required harmonies, and harmony was a really cool, fun creative thing to experiment with. We got a couple of arrangements together, nothing proper. Nobody's doing the right technique, or better harmony, but stuff that sounded to us pretty good. And we kept up with that."

In the 1990s, all the future Packway players were taken with the band Leftover Salmon, famous for its thrilling blend of rock, bluegrass, zydeco and other styles.

Erwin: "That was really cool, seeing those guys. Super fast tempo and they were all just wild. It was a cool new genre, just to see.

"And that led to Bela Fleck, and David Grisman. We kind of saw it that way and went backwards. I think that happens with a lot of guys – you hear something you like and then you want to figure out more about it, and the history of it."

When they discovered the Bill Monroe, Stanley Brothers and Flatt and Scruggs catalogues, they knew they were onto something. These days, Packway Handle's sets are peppered with their unique takes on the darker–edged gospel side of bluegrass.

In fact, the band's second CD takes its title from Monroe's own "(Sinner) You Better Get Ready."

In true anarchistic fashion, the album includes a Packway Handle rendition of the Madonna song "Like a Prayer," and the Heaton–penned "Satan's in Space." Which pretty much cements the notion, in the minds of bluegrass purists, that they're just a bunch of young hippies who don't take tradition too seriously.

There are plenty of people, however, who can't get enough of them.

And what, it is reasonable to ask, is a Packway Handle?

"A buddy of ours has Tourette's Syndrome," Erwin explains. "That was one outcome of drinking a lot of whiskey with Tourette's. One of his tics is to just come out with some creative thing.

"It was at four in the morning, in a room full of sleeping people. He woke up and just blurted out ‘Packway Handle.' We thought it was really funny.

"We played a few shows, then got lazy and didn't change the name. People started remembering who it was, and now we're stuck with it. However fortunate or unfortunate that is."

The Packway Handle Band

Opening for the Train Wrecks

Where: Live Wire Music Hall, 307 W. River St.

When: At 9 p.m. Thursday, Dec. 17

Cost: $5

Artist's Web site: www.packwayhandle.com

 

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Bill DeYoung

Bill DeYoung

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Bill DeYoung was Connect's Arts & Entertainment Editor from May 2009 to August 2014.

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