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O Pixies, Where Art Thou?

Packway Handle Band steers its banjos and mandolins in new directions



Not even the boys in the Packway Handle Band could tell you what their name means.

"What is a packway handle?" asks banjo player Tom Baker. "The answer to that is definitely open to discussion."

The story goes back to those awkward middle school years in Athens, Georgia, where guitarist Josh Erwin, mandolinist Michael Paynter, and banjo player Tom Baker had a good friend with Tourette's syndrome. At one point, his involuntary vocal tics had him muttering something about a "packway handle."

"It just kind of came out in a moment of spontaneous inspiration," says Baker. "We thought it was really funny at the time, and now I think we're stuck with it."

Despite growing up in the town that launched R.E.M., the B-52s, and Widespread Panic, the Packway boys take their own eccentric approach. And it's paid off: During their early years of gathering around a single microphone and singing their alt-bluegrass tunes, they entered competitions across the country, placing second in the 2004 Telluride Bluegrass Festival's band contest.

Perhaps just as important, the quintet also won an Athens battle of the bands, the spoils for which included recording time, 5,000 pressed copies of their first album, and a year's supply of Miller Lite.

"Man, there was a lot of beer," recalls Baker.

These days, the band is stepping outside the more purist regions of bluegrass, embracing pianos, percussion and electric guitar à la the Avett Brothers and Mumford and Sons.

"When we started off, we felt pretty obliged to stick to traditional bluegrass paradigms, especially in terms of songs," Baker explains. "Now we've got a couple songwriters in the band who are writing pretty progressive material. I think now we have kind of embraced taking a song and trying to do justice to that song, and not feel like we have to necessarily put a ripping banjo recording on every song."

On the song "Outskirts," the band even incorporates a string section, which lays down an elegant foundation for its mandolin and guitar melodies. The Packway handlers have also been known to take the occasional pop tune and subject it to their bluegrass interpretation. Both the Pixies and the Violent Femmes have had their songs brought to the stage by the Packway Handle Band.

"If you take a good song that's fundamentally good in any genre, you probably ought to be able to do it justice with different instruments and a different arrangement."

But at the end of the day, no matter how far the band may stray, it still comes down to celebrating the roots music that brought them all together 10 years ago: "It seems like periodically something will thrust it out into the spotlight. If you go back 20 years it was Deliverance, and if you go back 10 years it was O Brother, Where Art Thou?

"There's something about folk music that people fundamentally identify with," continues Baker. "It's something that, by definition, was passed from person to person, you learn it from other people. I think that community aspect of it is something that speaks to people."

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