Josh Erwin of Packway Handle Band Talks Hotel Breakfasts and Why Bands Are Like Communist Organizations

March 10, 2015

Tell us about your tour vehicle.

We had a 1998 Ford E-350 15 passenger van for 11 years. Bought it w/ 50k miles and drove it until it had 323k miles. About 13 miles/gallon. The ignition coils were tempermental on them. Actually, that’s a typical large engine Ford problem. Other than that, the front end would go out of alignment alot which meant it was rough on tires. The only major thing we had done to it was to replace the torque converter in the transmission because it had this really weird symptom of “shifting” itself into Overdrive. We were told it did that because the torque converter would overheat. At first when it would happen, we’d pull over, put the van in park, turn off the van, then turn it on and start driving until the next time. Well, after a while, it happened more and more frequently. So, we became braver and braver about resetting the Overdrive. We would eventually be cruising down the highway, the Overdrive would kick on, we’d put the van in Neutral, turn the ignition off, turn it back on again, put it back in gear, and keep driving until it happened again.

How do you eat cheaply and/or healthy while on tour?

Lots of McDonald’s $1 menu for cheapness. AND, hotel continental breakfasts. No matter what time we check into the hotel room, someone will always set an alarm to get the remaining minutes of the continental breakfast, we’ll all pig out, then go back to the room to get the final 1.5 hrs of sleep before check out– er, requested late check out. Tupperware leftovers from home. Lots of sandwhiches…that’s the healthy options

How many strings do you break in a typical year? How much does it cost to replace them?

STRINGS…geez. I personally, have accumulated a small duffle bag [like large school-type backback] packed FULL of used [0.13-0.56] bright bronze guitar strings. I’ve found that a new set of guitar strings will last me 3 full shows [~90-120 min shows] before they start to get weak and ultimately break after that. G’s and D’s mostly. Of course, I break strings during those 3 shows, too. So, 30-70 individual strings per year? I do feel that I need to defend myself a bit; I can change a string & be ready to play again in less than 60 seconds.

Where do you rehearse?

It’s nice being a mostly acoustic band. We can setup & play pretty much anywhere for practice reasons. It’s just a matter of where we are and if the timing works out well for everyone. Lately, it’s been at Jim White’s place in Winterville, GA. He’s got a LOT of trinkets and flea market items all over his house. Easy to get distracted trying to figure out what the hell you’re looking at.

What was the title and a sample lyric from the first song that you wrote?

Oh man, “Shelva Ann.” I wrote that driving to Athens. It’s got a really good chord progression, but the lyrics are pretty elementary. Nonetheless, I forged forward.

Shelva Ann is my Dad’s cousin’s name. She’s from Ellijay, GA where all of my Dad’s family is from. My Grandparents all had rhyming names: Aude, Claude, Carl, and Maude. Of course, their names made it into the song…”Shelva Ann call them all, Aude, Claude, Carl, and Maude, Once were around to talk and saw where they lived by the Gap and the Falls”.

Describe your first gig.

First Packway gig, how about that? It was just Tom [banjo], Michael [mandolin], a bass player, and myself. Steverino’s Pizza in Athens had an open mic every week. I had a buddy, Nick, that I’d played music with for a long time and we were gonna go that night. I’d asked this girl from my class to come see us play the afternoon of the show. Of course, I was planning on playing with Nick, then later that evening Nick called and told me he was sick or something & that he couldn’t play. I freaked out because I’d never performed on my own and I had just started getting excited that this new girl was coming to see me that night. I begged Tom & Michael to come to Steverino’s as a band. We’d never performed publicly either, they were hesitant, but they agreed to help me out. I’ve forgotten now what the exact songs were that we played, but a ridiculous instrumental Bluegrass version of Sweet Child O Mine was included in the set. Long story short, it turned out to be a competition and we won. $50 and some free beer. I impressed the girl and had strangers telling me we did very well throughout the night. And, actually, I married that girl 8 years later.

What was your last day job? What was your favorite day job?

I’ve had odd jobs all my life. The most interesting one was working for Emory University’s Standardized Patient program. I get paid to be a character that acts out illnesses and pains for medical students…I’ve been gay, straight, married, divorced, addicted to cocaine, diagnosed with HIV, gunshot, colon cancer, angina, etc etc.

How has your music-related income changed over the past 5-10 years? What do you expect it to look like 5-10 years from now?

Over the past 5-10 years the income has been a little more predictable in the sense that we scrutinize all our offers and what we commit ourselves to moreso than we did when we started. There was a time we would play absolutely anything that came to us…and we would solicit ourselves to everywhere, too. I imagine we will continue to be savvy about what we will and will not play in the years to come.

What one thing do you know now that you had wished you knew when you started your career in music?

All music performance aside, I didn’t realize how much of a communist organization a band can be. There are some people that do a ton of work on behalf of others, so the more you work, the less you earn…and vice versa, the less you work the more you earn from other peoples’ efforts. You have to be careful about what precedents you set in the beginning years about division of labor. Sometimes it’s a job you enjoy and would do regardless, sometimes there is a job that would not get done properly unless you take it on personally, and sometimes you get stuck with a shitty job that NO ONE else will ever want to do. Van maintenance, book keeping, inventory, recording/mixing, booking, publicity, etc etc. Anyway, you never understand just how valuable an extra hand can be until you’re relieved of a particular duty. For example, I am endlessly thankful for all our friends and volunteers that help us sell merch at shows.

The five members of the Packway Handle Band have wowed audiences for over a decade with near perfect 4-part harmonies and seemingly boundless on-stage synergy. Over the years the band has evolved as a premier gather-around-the-mic act. Their performance is focused around a tight cluster of microphones surrounded by an arsenal of acoustic and electric instruments: banjo, fiddle, mandolin, acoustic and electric guitar, upright and electric bass, and an ever-changing array of percussive accessories, sometimes called “The Rattletrap.” Packway’s sound is steeped in old-fashioned bluegrass, but they hold a niche in the American music realm that’s all their own. Clever songwriting, an eccentric mixture of modern folk music, dark themes, old-time religion, affectionate satire of Bluegrass, and devotion to apocalyptic infotainment leave the listener to decide what exactly a Packway Handle is.

The band’s latest release, Take It Like a Man, is a collaboration with fellow Athens, GA resident Jim White.  You can find the band online and on the road.