What’s in a name? For the folk band Dead Men’s Hollow, a lot. They’re named after an area in Arlington that lies just across the Potomac River from Georgetown — in what is now known as Rosslyn. The area used to be called Dead Men’s Hollow because, as Arlington historian Kathryn Holt Springston said, "It was a convenient place for D.C. people to dump bodies."
As it turns out, Rosslyn — now saturated with skyscrapers — was a precarious slum in the post-Civil War era, reminiscent of the lawless Wild West.
According to Springtston, by the 1890s there were 14 saloons, 20 bordellos, many dozens of gambling dens and even a "cocaine house" in the Dead Men’s Hollow area of Rosslyn.
"There was a standing joke that the citizens of Fairfax or Washington had to form armed convoys to pass through it," she said.
NATURALLY, WHEN the musicians in Dead Men’s Hollow found out about Rosslyn’s forgotten past, they thought it was pretty cool.
Amy Nazarov, one of the group’s many singers, said that when the band officially formed in 2003, "Mike [Clayberg, guitarist and co-founder] researched it and got the background."
"It used to be [a bunch of] saloons and houses of ill repute," Clayberg said.
Many of the Dead Men’s Hollow’s members, all but one of whom live in Northern Virginia, tooled around with other sounds before arriving at their current acoustic iteration.
Clayberg has a long history in the Washington rock scene and even recorded a few songs in the 80s at Arlington’s legendary Inner Ear Studios, the site of countless D.C. punk triumphs.
Singer Belinda Hardesty is an accomplished musician who has played everything from jazz to medieval music on a multitude of instruments.
The band members first encountered each other at a backyard bluegrass jam in 2001. According to the band’s Web site, they realized something special was going on when their cover of Hank Williams’ country standard "I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry" actually silenced the surrounding crickets.
After tinkering with their instrumentation for a few years, the band christened itself Dead Men’s Hollow when it decided to go in a more acoustic-oriented direction. Since then the six-piece group has been playing roughly 40 shows a year in and around the Washington area.
NEXT WEEK Dead Men’s Hollow will be playing at the Arlington Cinema and Drafthouse. Their set will precede a showing of the Coen brothers’ movie "O Brother, Where Art Thou?"
The film was important for the band, not because of the acting or the directing, but because of the popular soundtrack. It featured some of the best bluegrass and country artists of the day performing classic American standards such as "Keep on the Sunny Side," "I Am a Man of Constant Sorrow," and "You Are My Sunshine."
"I am a huge fan of that soundtrack," Clayberg said. "Some of the most talented people today played on [it]."
"Some of the first songs I learned… were brought to the attention of a whole other generation by that movie," Nazarov said. "[It] is a favorite of the band."
For now, they are glad to be back in Arlington, the place that provided their namesake. Through its music, the band takes a look back at a time when things weren’t as they are now and one had to keep one’s wits about them if they wanted to pass through Dead Men’s Hollow.