by Donovan Wheeler
photos by Jules Dunlap Photography
It began with a date. Not the expensive dinner tucked into some urban first-floor chophouse smothered by a dozen floors of overpriced living space. No, this date went down like a lot of intimate evenings in the wooded confines of Brown County. Among friends, picking melodies and throwing out harmonies. These are the settings where people open up. Where everyone in your field of vision is either someone you’ve known a long time, or someone who garners instant credibility by association. In this setting John Bowyer, picking away, found not only his great love but his musical confederate as well.
“When I first met her I didn’t know she could sing,” Bowyer says of Jayme Hood. “She started singing harmony with me. It just blew me away.”
When I called Bowyer and Hood (who form the bluegrass/Americana duo The Hammer and the Hatchet), they spoke to me from the Brown County Inn, where they host a regular Tuesday jam session open to the public. But on the Sunday afternoon I called they were savoring the pace of life that comes as a package deal with Nashville, Indiana. Friends nearby. Instruments even closer. Bloody Maries in hand.
Bowyer, who moved to Nashville from Indy after kicking around the Circle City with a number of different bands, is easy going. Speaking comfortably, slowly with a tone of humility wrapped in a blanket of serenity. Hood is equally affable, also mellow, but she speaks with an assertion that complements Bowyer’s equanimity. Even after one phone conversation, the balance these two strike resonates across the cell-towers.
Donovan Wheeler: Where did the name for the duo originate?
John Bowyer: “We didn’t really have a name. I always toss band names around in my head. You know how it is. We didn’t have anything committed, and then we appeared at a gig in Irvington, and they asked us, ‘What’s your band name?’ I stammered and finally said The Hammer and the Hatchet. Just like that.”
DW: When you guys began did you settle in right away? What was the transition into the group that you are now like?
Jamie Hood: “I didn’t play an instrument when we met. This entire time has been such a learning experience. I started out singing with John, and he just scooped me up. I thought well, I had better learn to play guitar.”
Bowyer: “It’s really amazing because we’ve been playing bigger shows, and she hasn’t been playing nearly as long as I have, but she steps up there and plays as if she’s been playing for years. If you saw her you wouldn’t know she’s only been playing for three years.”
DW: How about the ability to play and sing simultaneously? That’s something many musicians have to spend a long time learning to master.
Hood: “You know, I haven’t really had too much trouble with that. I certainly have to practice the guitar more than I do vocals. I grew up singing in church, singing in the car, and generally driving my parents nuts. So that part is pretty natural for me. Luckily, I don’t really get stage fright or anything like that. That’s probably part of the chemistry of our performance. I just kind of watch John and then I just stay right there and do what needs to be done.”
Bowyer: “She was trained on the piano.”
Hood: “It was something that I did because it was important to my grandparents. I took lessons from age four until 17. But I really had to unlearn a lot of that to be able to be able to play the kind of music which we play now, which is much more relaxed. Classical training could really ruin somebody’s ability to just have fun.”
DW [To Bowyer]: You’ve become known specifically for your work with the mandolin. Was that always your first love?
Bowyer: “I did not start on mandolin at all. I started playing guitar around age 13 or so then the lightbulb kind of clicked, and I realized I wanted to make music a part of me. Not long after getting that guitar I started playing heavy metal which is not that uncommon. But in a lot of ways that experience serves me well now. When you’re playing the mandolin the energy is the same.”
DW: So when did this desire to perform, which formed as an early teenager, finally become what it is now?
Bowyer: “Around 2000 so I started hanging out with friends who were part of a musical environment. Perfect for someone just packing a guitar around always singing folk songs and stuff. That really got me jazzed about playing acoustic guitar. Then, at about the same time, someone started bringing their mandolin to these parties, and I fell in love with it. I got my own mandolin not long after that. You can get started pretty cheap you know. Of course now I can’t really picture myself as a lead guitarist, but playing the mandolin… It just works for me. And I’ve had a lot of fun. I’ve played a lot of good music with a lot of good people ever since I picked up that instrument.”
DW: How would you classify or describe the style you guys play?
Bowyer: “It’s hard for us to label it, but if you want to know what I think it goes like: ‘I am John Boyer. I am from Indiana. This is what I play.’ I’m not trying to sound like anyone else anymore. I’m just writing my own songs and that’s what we sound like.”
Hood: “We struggle with that. The conversation normally ends with, ‘What do you think?’ I think Americana is certainly a big lump category which we fit into.”
Bowyer: “Not only are we one of the few bands that can go play traditional bluegrass show but we can then turn around and play the styles you’d see at Muddy Roots. These are two completely different lifestyles. We can spin all those genres. We can do it.”
DW: Your recent album, Winter Fires (2016) is your second full-length record, following 2015’s self-titled debut. Explain the unique twist you’ve added to the recent recording.
Hood: “The first half of Winter Fires offers five songs that we wrote over the winter two years ago when we took some time off. The second half is from the Brown County Music Awards. It was a live session recorded in the Brown County Play House. And people really like that project because you get both the studio sound and the live experience as well.”
DW [To Bowyer]: Jayme says that you’re day-job is especially unique. How so?
Bowyer. “I’m a union electrician by trade. I’ve worked at the ethanol plant in Cloverdale, and I’ve also worked at Nucor steel near Crawfordsville, an experience where some of my songs come from. But now I work with these people who build Adirondack spruce which is sold to Martin Guitars and other great guitar builders. We’re Martin’s largest supplier of Adirondack spruce, which is used for the soundboards, and I’m the only full-time employee there.”
DW: I’m interested in how your steel mill experience transitions into your music. What sort of themes appear in your work as a result?
Bowyer: “A song about the steel mill definitely expressed the struggle most of us face having to work in a difficult environment simply so you can take care of your family. For example one of our songs, “Kentuckyana Blues,” describes what it’s like to have to work bunch of overtime doing crazy stuff while the girl who I’m in love with lives way down south. Songs like that, I love them. It connects me to that Woody Guthrie Pete Seeger vein of music. I love that stuff.”
DW: How do you go about your songwriting process?
Bowyer: “Typically a song starts when something happens in our lives. For example our new neighbors just brought up a whole bunch of property near us, and they’re putting this big wedding facility. Well, the first thing they did was log large swaths of the land. We used to have free access to it, but the new owners kicked me off of it. They won’t let me hike up there anymore. There’s the plot of my song. I like real moments. Stories. I don’t get into a lot of poppy songs.”
Hood: “I’ve been writing some too, and a lot of it starts with something that just haunts you. It’s a situation that you’re turning over in your mind. It’s kind of like therapy. You get what’s bothering you out, and by the time you perform the song you’re dealing with those thoughts…with how you feel about them. We tend to write a lot of songs about working, about a regular life, and most people connect with that because we all understand the struggle of doing what you have to do versus doing what you want to do.”
DW: Much of your work carries an environmental theme to it as well. How did that become an important subject for you?
Bowyer: “That’s definitely taking shape since I’ve moved down here. The environmental theme completely surrounds us down here. Everything here is so beautiful that it’s really hard not to push that theme.”
Hood: “It’s very real right now. We’ve gotten involved with the Indiana State Forest Alliance along with some anti-log in groups as well. When you’re driving to Nashville from our house, every day you drive-by yards full of felled trees. Logs that they just cut out of all these beautiful places. There are back road drives that are absolutely destroyed. There are others that are shut down because of the clear-cutting that’s going on. You can’t get away from it.”
Bowyer: “I don’t think people in Indiana realize what developers are doing down here right now. If someone flew a drone over parts of Brown County, I think people would just lose it. Since Mitch and Pence, the DNR has been massively de-funded, so to make up for their lost money they turn to the only resource they have, which is wood.”
Hood: “And now they’ve flooded the market, so the price of timber has dropped. They’re selling our best resource for a discounted price. As a result, we’ve been very passionate about this issue because it’s ‘in your face.’ If it’s not one next-door neighbor coming in from out of town, clear-cutting land, and turning it into a tourist attraction…then it’s another friend putting in a vacation rental, or clearing out a good fishing spot to make room for RV’s. It’s everywhere. I understand that this is part of the economy, but I wonder how much longer people will want to come here if we end up making it looking like everywhere else in the state.”
DW: Yet, as local musicians playing in and around Nashville, you depend on tourism. Do you find yourself struggling to reconcile these concerns about bringing in more tourists with the benefits that such development offers you?
Bowyer: “There’s no way around the fact that tourism is the biggest industry in this county. People want to come down here and enjoy what we have all the time. Sure it’s a pain in the butt for us locals, trying to go to the store and get in the bank, but it’s also a beautiful and fortunate circumstance as well. As musicians we enjoy a wonderful musical community, with a lot of other players and singers. But let’s not destroy what makes people want to come down here—it’s certainly not the little trinkets made overseas.”
Hood: “Big Woods Brewing has been unusually successful. They have a great idea. They’ve rejuvenated areas here in town, and they’re branching out across the state. That said, from after Christmas until the spring it’s pretty dead around here, and the locals are the ones who keep places like Big Woods going. But the good side is that the brewery in turn has treated the community well. They hire local people and treat them well…and these are things those of us who live around here notice.”
DW: What other challenges do you face playing for tourists as opposed to other bands who tour and travel more?
Hood: “John and I like to play original songs, and sometimes that tourist market can be challenging because people want to hear you play ‘Rocky Top’ or other traditional bluegrass material. Some locations have fostered the local work, and that’s a really cool experience. John and I have been sticking to our guns about playing our own work, and for the most part we’ve been well received. And that’s very encouraging.”
DW: So what’s next? Are you thinking about a new album or maybe expanding your touring radius?
Hood: “Both of those.”
Bowyer: “We’ve got plenty of material for another album, so we’re figuring out who we’re going to work with. We’ve got some very good opportunities in front of us, and we’re biding our time and getting into form until such time as we’re ready to go.”
Hood: “We’ve been unearthing some of John’s songs. He has a vast collection…he’s got so many songs. I’m sure that in no way I’ve heard them all. He’s been writing for a long, long time. I’ve written a few songs now, and it’s coming more easily as I go along. I’m learning how to let it happen.”
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DW: When you say “Let it happen” that means…?
Hood: “I didn’t realize this when I started, but songwriting is intensely personal. You’re starting with something in your head that you can’t get rid of which you want to deal with or sort through. Then, when it’s finished, and you’re performing it publicly, you’re letting people into your thought process. There have been a few songs where I’ve thought, ‘That’s a really heavy topic. I don’t know if anybody wants to hear that.’ So losing your filter is a key step. You have to learn to say what you’re thinking and not worry about how people are going to respond to that.”
Bowyer: “But when you come from your gut like that and write something honest, it’s amazing how people respond. No matter what you’re singing about, people respond well when it’s sincere and authentic.”
DW: And regarding touring…?
Bowyer: “We also want to expand our radius, but we’re both trying to figure out how to do that because we’ve never toured before. So we want to be ready. We don’t want to starve on the street, living in a van.”
Hood: [Laughing] “I’m not so much against living in a van…I just don’t want to starve.”
With a full slate of work ahead them—their late April Wasser gig, the Virginia Avenue Folk Festival and the Crooked Smile Festival next month, and two sets at the John Hartford Memorial Festival after that—The Hammer and the Hatchet balances their immediate demands with their long-term dreams. Regardless what happens, what matters most is the chemistry they create on stage. A skillful mixture of talent, dedication, mutual respect, and love.