NEWS- Boy time: Hackensaws' founder stops touring

Beneath grisly gray clouds, the Hackensaw Boys opened up this summer's Fridays After Five concert series under the white tent of the Charlottesville Pavilion. But for the six hollerin' hicks, there was something even more important looming over the performance on April 21: the absence of frontman and founding member David Sickmen.

The singer-songwriter, whose musical credits include an acclaimed mid-1990s stint with Dave Matthews Band guitarist Stefan Lessard in a band called the Ninth, says he stepped down as "Shiner Hackensaw" in September. He has since passed up shows ranging from the current European tour to last week's homecoming.

"I had been dedicating so much time to the Hackensaw Boys that I was losing touch with my family and my local community," Sickmen says. "Family time is crucial, and family time lost can never be regained."

The group, once 12 members strong, had six on stage at the Pavilion last week. Yet the Hacks seem willing to roll with the changes.

"The thing that's happened with the Hackensaw Boys, and this has been true from the beginning," explains mandolin player Rob Bullington, "is that people come and go. I know I'll be taking some time off this summer because my wife and I are having a baby."

Prior to Sickmen's sabbatical, the most recent loss was bassist Tom Peloso. After making his mark with the Hackensaw Boys in its earliest days in 1999, he left nearly two years ago to play with rockers Modest Mouse.

A year ago, the Hackensaws signed with Nettwerk Records, an international label that also has Sarah McLachlan on the roster.

"The great and fluid thing about the Hackensaw Boys is that members come and go, but the whole thing stays together," says the band's New York-based manager, Jon Birge.

Bullington agrees. "Even though David stood in the center and played the guitar," says Bullington, "we have always prided ourselves on being leaderless."

Sickmen's departure put the guitar duties in the hands of substitute Ward Harrison, while vocals were spread evenly across the rest of the band at Friday's gig.

"I did have an interest in it," Sickmen says of the missed homecoming show, "but it was the best thing for them to be the band that's been out on the road for so long."

Sickmen, who has half the songwriting credits on the group's big-label album, Love What You Do, says he has plenty of faith in his bandmates.

"It's strange– I won't lie," says Sickmen. "But I trust those guys as musicians and as friends. I think the songs are in good hands."

"We still do a few of David's songs every night," says Bullington, "and I think we do a pretty good job of doing them justice even if he's not there."

At Fridays, the crowd seemed to agree. As the band cranked out bouncy mandolin and fiddle runs at 190 bpm, the fans seemed too amused to remember that it was wet, and the Hackensaws appeared to be weathering their internal storm as well.

Then again, this may not be a permanent loss. Sickmen says he may rejoin the tour at some point– or he may not.

"As long as people leave shows thinking, 'Man, that was a great time,' that's what's really important," he says. "They've done a great job of keeping the music alive."

Founder David Sickmen (right) has stopped playing with his Hackensaws... at least for now