On the Beat

‘Sawyer Sessions’ make Hillsborough a star

Darren Hanlon does a live performance at Dual Supply Co. hardware store in Hillsborough on Thursday, June 11, 2015, for Yep Roc's taping of the “Sawyer Sessions.”
Darren Hanlon does a live performance at Dual Supply Co. hardware store in Hillsborough on Thursday, June 11, 2015, for Yep Roc's taping of the “Sawyer Sessions.” jleonard@newsobserver.com

Wandering the aisles in a ball cap, Darren Hanlon idly strummed his guitar. The tune to “The Times They Are a-Changin’” quietly rang out, as the Australian-born singer/songwriter softly murmured the words while surveying the merchandise on display at Dual Supply Co. hardware store.

Hanlon selected a couple of automobile air-fresheners that appeared to date back to the Nixon administration, the plastic wrappers dried-out and crinkly. They’d been on the shelf for so long that the clerk couldn’t figure out how much they should cost. Eventually, he gave up.

“The smell on ’em is called ‘Old Hardware Smell,’” he quipped, handing them over in a brown paper bag, free of charge.

Hanlon laughed as he accepted the bag, an odd souvenir of an odd gig – playing a weekday-afternoon acoustic set at a hardware store, recorded by cameras. It was the latest of the “Sawyer Sessions,” an idiosyncratic performance series overseen by Yep Roc Records in its hometown of Hillsborough. And yet this still wasn’t the oddest place that Hanlon has ever performed.

“I used to play nursing homes all the time, at Christmas or Easter for the oldies,” said Hanlon, 41. “That gig, you’ve gotta play songs they know, like ‘Tie a Yellow Ribbon.’ And they’d get up to do a little jig, dance around.”

‘Watch the creaky floors’

The only live audience for the average “Sawyer Sessions” taping tends to be the three-person production crew filming it, along with whatever Yep Roc employees or curious passersbys turn up. The first Thursday of every month, new videos appear on the series’ YouTube channel (youtube.com/user/sawyersessions).

Some of the videos only get a few hundred views. But folksy Chapel Hill duo Mandolin Orange picked up more than 44,000 views for a performance filmed last year in the boot room of the vintage shop Uniquities.

His air-fresheners secured, Hanlon set up with his guitar in front of a glass case next to a rack filled with hats and shoes. Behind him, just above a row of tricycles, a shelf held a bunch of sports trophies for kids. The setting evoked one of those old black-and-white cartoons where everything in a shop comes to life late at night.

Arrayed before Hanlon were a few cameras of the sort you’d use for snapshots, but set to video-record function and mounted on tripods. Microphone cords snaked down an aisle to Hanlon’s left, to a nearby soundboard rig to capture the music – plus whatever ambient noise crept in.

“Sound is rolling,” called out sound engineer Mike Westbrook. “Everybody watch the creaky floors.”

The cash register rang out in the next room as Hanlon ran through a few songs from his current Yep Roc album, “Where Did You Come From?,” including an epic called “The Chattanooga Shoot Shoot.” A long and quite droll story-song, “Chattanooga” recounts the time Hanlon was riding a Nashville-bound bus that came under gunfire.

Calling it “the crowd favorite at the moment,” Hanlon summarized “Chattanooga” thusly: “True story. This is a song about six bullets, zero casualties, all in the key of E.”

I’s far from home and lost and lonely, and aimlessly bouncing around

Spent too much time and money in this little Georgia town…

Soon the song was describing a near-disaster in which the shot-up bus nearly came to a fiery end. But everyone aboard escaped unscathed.

“Long tall tale,” said Yep Roc co-founder Tor Hansen, who had come over to watch. “That never made the news?”

“No,” said Hanlon. “I Googled it and all these other disasters came up, but not that. I’d have thought somebody would’ve at least tweeted about it. But I was lucky. I was at the end of this record and needed one more song. So it was a gift.”

Hanlon looked over to address one of the cameras directly.

“It’s hot in here. But you probably can’t tell that from the comfort of your computer.”

Yep Roc has been making these videos for nearly two years, since moving its headquarters into the Sawyer building in Hillsborough in 2013. Along with Hanlon and Mandolin Orange, Chatham County Line, Dave Alvin, Stray Birds, Robyn Hitchcock and other artists have performed for the cameras at various spots around town – restaurants, schoolhouses, private homes, parks and now a hardware store. Dual Supply is right around the corner from Yep Roc’s offices on Churton Street.

“We really didn’t know what we were getting into when we started this,” said Yep Roc product manager Mariah Czap, who produces the series. “We just thought it would be cool to do because artists are always coming to town for meetings or to play, and we try to create as much content as we can when they’re here – interviews, specific performance things.”

Connecting with Hillsborough

The basic setup is for Yep Roc to do a taping whenever one of its out-of-town acts passes through. Hanlon was in the Triangle to open a show in Durham for fellow Yep Roc act Jim White (who did his “Sawyer Sessions” taping last year). It’s a way for Yep Roc to connect with its environs, so they try to do them somewhere in Hillsborough. Schedules sometimes dictate that they happen at unusual times.

“Dave Alvin was really fun, mostly because he’s so amazing to watch up-close,” said Yep Roc general manager Billy Maupin. “But it was also where and when. We took him over to Mystery Brewing at 11 in the morning, and he just ripped out these songs with such ease in an environment that would not seem conducive to it.”

Czap cites another morning “Sawyer Sessions” shoot as a favorite, Pennsylvania folk-rock trio the Stray Birds. It got off to an unpromising start.

“They’d driven all night and shown up super-early in the morning, and Maya (de Vitry) had the worst sore throat ever,” Czap said. “We were shooting at the Italian place across the street, Antonia’s, and I figured they’d only do two songs because they were so tired. But they were incredible. Closed with a song Doc Watson used to do, too, Jimmie Rodgers’ ‘Blue Yodel No. 7.’ They sounded amazing.”

When you watch “Sawyer Sessions” videos online, they look as well-produced and professional as any you’ll see anywhere, even though they’re made for very little money. It helps that Czap and director of photography Matt Carter (who is also Yep Roc’s interactive content producer) both studied film at Elon. All they’re using are Canon 60D DSLR digital cameras.

Yep Roc started out borrowing cameras until buying its own gear, an investment of several thousand dollars. Along with the videos, the series has yielded up a “Sawyer Sessions” album of first-season highlights. Released on vinyl and compact disc for this past April’s Record Store Day, it has tracks by Alvin, Mandolin Orange and Wilco spinoff Autumn Defense, among others (a Season 2 volume should be out in time for Record Store Day next year, too).

“One reason there’s been such an explosion of video content the last few years is that there’s no barrier to entry anymore,” said Maupin. “The technology on your phone is basically the same as a camera that cost $20,000 and took three people to operate 10 years ago. So it’s not too expensive to make something really professional.”

Want to watch?

Darren Hanlon’s “Sawyer Sessions” taping is scheduled to go online Thursday on the series’ Youtube channel, youtube.com/user/sawyersessions. For more information on the series, see sawyersessions.com.