To an outsider, it would seem that Hillsborough has experienced something of a musical renaissance in the last few years.

Yep Roc Records, which celebrates its 20th birthday with the Yep Roc 20 festival next weekend, moved to the Orange County town in 2012. Around the same time, Hillsborough residents formed the town’s first community radio station, WHUP, which went on the air in 2015. And just this month, a new record-store-meets-taproom called Volume will open its doors to the downtown. 

As a town that spans 4.6 square miles and has a population of just over 6,000, Hillsborough makes an unlikely hotbed for music. But these developments — which Yep Roc 20 helps to celebrate with an outdoor concert next Saturday at Hillsborough’s River Park — are the natural product of a community that has always been rich in creativity.

“Hillsborough’s always been a creative community,” Billy Maupin, general manager of Yep Roc, said. “It’s just a lot of people trying to make something happen in a small town.”

Indeed, years before Yep Roc opened its doors there, Hillsborough established itself as an improbable epicenter of history.

A history of creativity

Just north of the intersection of I-40 and I-85, a stretch of highway gives way to downtown Hillsborough, defined by the crossroads of Churton St. and King St. No fewer than seven official historical markers dot the short walk up the hill on Churton St., giving a glimpse of the various movements that have impacted Hillsborough.

The town was established in 1754, before American independence, and even then it was no stranger to action: a quarter mile from the center of town, a group of rebel farmers was hanged by colonial officials in 1771. (These farmers, who called themselves the “Regulators,” have been immortalized by a certain bookshop in Durham.) Nearly one hundred years later, the area saw the largest surrender of Confederate troops to end the Civil War.

Hillsborough’s legacy is equally a cultural one. Billy Strayhorn, who composed music for Duke Ellington’s jazz orchestra including such standards as “Take the ‘A’ Train,” grew up there with his grandmother. Numerous writers and artists, too, have spent time in the town. Today, the downtown is marked by art galleries, bookshops and locally-owned businesses, united by what WHUP President Bob Burtman called a “creative synergy.”

“People who have come here or who are from here have a sense of wanting something more than just a place to live, a house, and really want to reestablish the sense of community that we used to have everywhere in this country,” Burtman said. “There is a real sense of wanting to be part of something bigger, that is supportive, in a very old-school kind of way, of our neighbors and our friends, regardless of their particular philosophies or religious affiliations or anything else.”

The label’s beginnings

Before the label settled in Hillsborough, Yep Roc was the project of two childhood friends, co-founders Glenn Dicker and Tor Hansen. Both had worked at Rounder Records, headquartered in Boston at the time, in the early 1990s. While Hansen moved to North Carolina — then in the thick of an indie rock boom in places like Chapel Hill — to work in retail for a record store chain, Dicker started up his own label, the aptly named Upstart Records. With Upstart, Dicker began to build relationships with artists like Nick Lowe and Los Straitjackets, who would ultimately wind up on Yep Roc’s roster.

By 1997, Dicker had moved to North Carolina to join Hansen in launching Yep Roc. Along with the label, the two formed Redeye, a music distribution company that helps fill, in the form of getting records on shelves, the demand created by labels like Yep Roc.

Between the years of collective experience and relationships accumulated by the two, according to Dicker, there was never any doubt that the new venture would succeed.

“It kind of felt successful from the get-go,” Dicker said. “Only because it really felt like it was something that … we both really believed in. And so we were doing it completely on our own with no outside help. It felt like we had total freedom to do whatever we wanted.”

Dicker and Hansen started suitably small, mostly releasing records by local bands. Los Straitjackets continued to work with them, one of their first truly “national” acts. But it was the addition of Nick Lowe — perhaps best known for penning Elvis Costello’s hit “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love, and Understanding” — that really put the label on the map. In the words of Dicker, he was Yep Roc’s “great legitimizer.” Once people noticed Lowe was on the label, more artists began to seek out Yep Roc on their own.

Dicker acknowledged, though, that Yep Roc’s definition of “success” may differ from that of other labels. While the label has pulled internationally touring artists such as Lowe, it never adheres to any particular scene or market niche. Looking at the lineup for Yep Roc 20, from local Americana favorite Mandolin Orange to garage rockers The Fleshtones, it’s impossible to pin down any one genre or style that defines the label’s roster. Instead, the co-founders proudly tout an artist-focused approach that includes choosing music that the two of them quite simply enjoy.

“It’s certainly easier to market yourself if you have a pretty focused agenda. But again, we weren’t really in it for that, and we just wanted to work with artists who we thought were really brilliant,” Dicker said, explaining that Yep Roc reflects the diverse taste he and Hansen were raised on. “For us, being successful is having complete independence to work with the artists that we want to work with and being able to help them achieve their goals — and to basically stay in business doing it, too.”

Finding a home

Fortunately, financial success has followed for the label. After being headquartered in the Alamance County town of Haw River, Yep Roc set up shop in Hillsborough five years ago, followed last year by Redeye.

The town’s unique combination of small-town community and proximity to the larger Triangle were driving factors in the move. 

“I think that we really found an open-armed community from the first time we opened our doors,” Maupin said.

Maupin, who had met Dicker and Hansen in the early days of Yep Roc, was brought in as general manager in 2010. He also joined the board of WHUP when it started up, one of the ways the label has engaged the community since moving to Hillsborough. The Southern Folklife Collection at UNC-Chapel Hill, for example, has partnered with Yep Roc to physically release archival music recordings, while local businesses and restaurants have helped support the upcoming festival.

In a town like Hillsborough — where, Maupin mentioned, you might run into the mayor while getting your morning coffee — a palpable sense of community engagement underpins the efforts of a label like Yep Roc. It’s this symbiotic relationship between the label and the town that has made Hillsborough a home for Yep Roc the last few years, and Yep Roc 20 aims to showcase that for the first time. 

“Having all these artists together, it’s sort of a magical moment,” Dicker said. “It just feels like a family reunion, you know, everyone coming back to hang out — and it’s amazing that everyone in the family just happens to be extremely talented.”

And for a family of artists, it seems there’s no place more suitable for a reunion than in Hillsborough. 

For more information on the Yep Roc 20 festival, which runs Oct. 19 to 21 at locations in Carrboro and Hillsborough, visit yeproc.com/yr20.