Yep Roc Records’ 20th anniversary celebration: A wacky family reunion

Hillsborough, NC, population 6,000, might not be the place you’d expect to see one of the fall’s hippest music festival lineups featuring Nick Lowe, Dave and Phil Alvin, Tony Jo White, Tift Merritt, Los Straightjackets, Chuck Prophet, and the Fleshtones, among others. But it happens October 19–21 as the independent label for all those acts, the venerable Yep Roc, throws its 20th anniversary celebration in the small town where it’s been based for five years.

Many of those acts will be performing at the co-sponsoring Cat’s Cradle music club in nearby Carrboro. But for the first time there will also be a free outdoor concert Saturday at Hillsborough’s River park with Mandolin Orange, Jim Lauderdale, the Stray Birds, Kim Richey, and Tony Joe White. It’s hosted by Wesley Stace, who formerly recorded under the name John Wesley Harding.

“We had done something pretty big for our 15th anniversary, which was pretty great. And we had such an amazing result from that effort that it really made us want to do something again,” says label co-founder Glenn Dicker over the phone. “But we really wanted to do something different this time around.” So instead of sticking to the clubs 20 minutes away in Chapel Hill where the label originated, he says, “we decided to try to do something in our hometown.”

Hillsborough has been a good place for the label, which has navigated its way through one of the oddest two decades of the music industry. And Yep Roc has been good to the town, creating about 40 jobs at the label and its distribution company Redeye. Yep Roc has brought in artists to play live sessions at local businesses from the coffee shop and liquor store to book store, brewery, and boot outfitter. The label also helped set up a series of shows to the North Carolina Museum of Art in Raleigh.

The label took a hands on approach in helping a new record store called Volume open up in downtown Hillsborough, and has consistently aided the Hillsborough public radio station WHUP as an underwriter. “It’s pretty great to be in this town,” says Dicker. “It’s a pretty cool, historic town.”

Yep Roc was formed by Dicker and Tor Hansen, his childhood friend from Pennsylvania, with whom he played in a band, moved to Boston, and first started working in the record distribution business through Rounder Records. When Hansen got a job in Chapel Hill, it wasn’t long before Dicker joined him and they started their label. “We had come through here as kids when we played in a band and we always thought Chapel Hill was great,” Dicker said.

“He ultimately decided to start a distribution company. That was the reason I came down here.” Dicker already had experience with a small label called Upstart, where he had already signed Los Straightjackets and Nick Lowe. They came along now to Yep Roc, and turned out to attract other acts. Yep Roc began by concentrating on regional acts from Mayflies USA to Two Dollar Bill.

But the Lowe connection was a turning point, Dicker says. “He was the great legitimizer of the label. As soon as he [signed], we went from a more small town regional label to more of a national entity, international for that matter. He helped propel us out there.” His being on the label led other legacy artists to the North Carolina label, such that the roster now includes Paul Weller, Robyn Hitchcock, Chris Stamey, Fountains of Wayne, Jim White, Steve Wynn, the Minus 5, and John Doe. At the same time, “we continue to sign new developing artists,” Dicker says, “like Mandolin Orange, who are just getting going.”

Yep Roc has survived by concentrating on the music, which prevails even as formats and delivery systems change. Throughout, vinyl has been a mainstay of the company “There are certain artists we never stopped making vinyl for,” he says. And by now at least half the physical side of the business is vinyl, propelled by younger audiences. “I see it with people who work here—they don’t buy CDs,” Dicker says.

The performances Thursday through Saturday at Yep Roc 20 will include, in addition to those listed above, Eli Paperboy Reed, Grant-Lee Phillips, Josh Rouse, Dressy Bessy, Darren Hanlon, and Jeremy & the Harlequins. They’ll all be familiar to the Completist Club members—those who have so much faith in the label, they pay a premium to get every single release. There are additional events planned for them, including an opening night dinner.

“Our goals are really to super-serve the label fans, but also to make the artist enjoy the process as well,” Dicker says. At the 15th anniversary show, he says, “it was the first time a lot of our artists had all gotten together and seen each other. There was a lot of collaborative stuff going on that led to things down the road.” One of the results were tours from Lowe and Los Straightjackets together, another round of which is currently occurring.

“A lot of the artists are known to each other,” he says. “But it’s really a satisfying thing to see them all watching each other and watching them all with big smiles on their faces, nodding their head in approval.”
More than that, “the artists tend to hang out with people, too—the fans. So it’s nice to see that happen. And artists hanging out with each other. It just kind of feels like a wacky family reunion in a way, and we’re glad to share it with everybody.”

For more information on Yep Roc 20 head here

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