Originally created 12/21/06

Band plays bluegrass with vengeance



When a bluegrass band records Madonna's Like a Prayer, you can bet it isn't your traditional bluegrass group. It's that kind of creativity that has earned The Packway Handle Band from Athens numerous honors, including being a finalist in the Telluride (Colo.) Bluegrass Festival band competition for three straight years.

The band has been billed both as "a traditional bluegrass band playing nontraditional music" and "bluegrass with a vengeance."

It plays at 10 p.m. Saturday at Still Water Tap Room, 974 Broad St. The cover charge is $4.

The band's version of Like a Prayer is on its second CD, (Sinner) You Better Get Ready, released in 2005. It followed the 2004 debut, Chaff Harvest. A third CD, a collection of live recordings, should be out by spring.

The members are Tom Baker, banjo; Josh Erwin, guitar; Andrew Heaton, fiddle; Chris Holliday, bass; and Michael Paynter, mandolin.

Mr. Paynter and Mr. Baker were teens in Kennesaw, Ga., when they formed their first musical partnership, which they jokingly called Air Biscuit. Mr. Erwin, who knew them from early school years, came along, and the three men renamed themselves Sleepy Kitchen.

They went to the University of Georgia, where they met Mr. Heaton and Chris Holliday and became The Packway Handle Band.

Mr. Holliday left the band last year and was replaced by Zach McCoy on bass.

Though their first two CDs contain traditional bluegrass songs, including Bill Monroe's Wicked Path of Sin, The Louvin Brothers' The Great Atomic Power and Roy Acuff's This World Can't Stand Long, the band likes to "grassify" rock songs, changing them into a bluegrass style.

"We used to play The Rolling Stones' Wild Horses in our set a lot," Mr. Erwin said. "The version we do is the one by the band Old and In the Way. It actually is one of the first songs we ever played when we got together to start learning three-part harmony five years ago."

For Madonna's Like a Prayer, the band enlisted Atlanta-born fiddler/singer Leah Calvert as a guest vocalist.

Other grassified rock songs The Packway Handle Band performs include The Cars' Just What I Needed, the Violent Femmes' American Music, INXS' Never Tear Us Apart and the Talking Heads' Psycho Killer.

You can find out more about this traditional band through its Web site packwayhandle.com or at myspace.com/thepackwayhandleband.

Don Rhodes has written about country music for 36 years. He can be reached at (706) 823-3214 or at don.rhodes@morris.com.