The Packway Handle Band hails from near to home in Athens, GA. Formed in 2001 by high school friends Michael Paynter (mandolin, vocals), Josh Erwin (guitar, vocals), and Tom Baker (banjo, vocals), the PHB started its career entering—and winning—bluegrass festivals. Soon, Zach McCoy (bass) and Andrew Heaton (fiddle, vocals) joined as they continued to strut their stuff at various festivals, and in 2003, the band released their first album, ‘Chaff Harvest.’ Three years later, they began touring full time.
To see the PHB perform is to be impressed. The stage is set with a pair of large condenser microphones that the vocalists crowd around with their instruments, impressing upon the audience a homegrown feel so appropriate to the genre. From their positions around the mic, the musicians lean in or lift their instruments to take the lead or step back entirely to give the song to a soloist. While they sing, Heaton points out the graveyard where the dead are rising; Paynter sticks a dollar into Heaton’s pants in appreciation of ‘[getting his] priorities so straight.’ Throughout the night, they are using their hands to punctuate what they’re singing as they play.
The band’s repertoire is no less unique than their performance. One moment, they’re paying homage to the early call and response style gospel with ‘Sinner You’d Better Get Ready,’ and the next they’re parodying the idea with the silliness of ‘Satan’s In Space.’ They play Paynter’s creation, ‘The Story,’ with its phantasmal violin solo and follow it with a ballad about a misnamed duck by Heaton and his sister.
They don’t stick to their own compositions—or genre—either. The band covered the Talking Heads’ ‘This Must be the Place’ and Devo’s ‘Whip It;’ McCoy and Paynter beat boxed to ‘American Music’ by the Violent Femmes. Despite the decidedly non-bluegrass tone of the songs, PHB made them comfortable, even amusing, for an audience all geared up to hear bluegrass music. ‘Whip It’ became more a novelty piece than an 80s new wave song. Among the unexpected, they keep room for the traditional. Their song ‘There’s Something Going on in the Graveyard’ has sounds reminiscent of the Soggy Bottom Boys, and ‘Old Camp Meeting Time’ is a classic song in the old time style. The Packway Handle band has picked the best of what music has to offer and strung it together into an unforgettable musical experience.