Local fans of The Avett Brothers have something to talk about with another Tar Heel State band, Time Sawyer, who are coming to downtown’s Bourgie Nights on Dec. 19. The young Americana, folk, alt-country enthusiasts cite North Carolina’s favorite sons as some of their greatest inspirations musically. As a matter of fact, Time Sawyer just played an official afterparty for the Cheerwine Legendary Giveback Concert, which featured the Concord-born-and-bred Avetts on Dec. 4 in Knoxville, Tennessee.
“I got drug to my first [Avett Brothers] show I ever went to by my girlfriend at the time,” banjoist Houston Norris admits. “It was the Halloween show in 2007 in Greensboro, and I was so against going … but then I was hooked from that point.”
Norris came out with not only an appreciation and interest in a new band, but also found a role model for the instrument he would soon master: the banjo. “Seeing Scott Avett’s style of playing is kind of what got me into it,” he tells. “I grew up in a big bluegrass family, so I was always around the banjo and things like that, but it was very intimidating.”
The banjo is a technical instrument, as Norris notes, there’s a right way and wrong way of playing it. Observing the oldest Avett brother’s simplistic and not-quite-traditional style of playing got Norris thinking that maybe he could handle the instrument after all.
Norris and co-founding members Sam Tayloe (guitar, lead vocals, harmonica), Kurt Layell (lead guitar, vocals) and Clay Stirewalt (percussion) originally hail from Elkin, NC, but became tight once they all moved off to college at UNC-Charlotte in 2008. In their second year of school, Tayloe and Layell began writing songs a few months into the formation of what would become Time Sawyer by 2010.
Though Norris and Tayloe are definitely drawn to “underground” folk, Layell is influenced by alternative rock bands like Incubus. “I think it gives our music a different angle … kind of two different ends of the spectrum where we meet and join things together,” Norris says. “Sam and Kurt pretty much do all of the lyrical writing of a song and basic melody. . . .We just kind of build them from there.”
Their most recent album, “Disguise the Limit,” came out in 2014. It’s the fifth the band has put out since their inception. The cover is an illustrated image of drummer Clay Stirewalt, whose impressive curly locks usually get less attention on stage. So they decided to put him front and center for once. The play on words in the title, however, was inspired by something less centered on reality. “Kurt had a dream of us promoting the new album, and on a billboard it said: ‘Disguise the Limit,’” Norris tells. “He just threw that out and it just stuck.”
The first track on the record, “Appalachian Bound,” has been getting the most air time on local radio in the Queen City. “The alternative rock station of all places,” Norris quips. “It’s a moonshine song, [and] since we all grew up in the mountains of North Carolina it hits close to home.”
Alongside the song “Working Construction,” Time Sawyer’s catalog may seem best suited for honky tonks. The music is fun, and packed with gritty, country grooves. “A Far Away Farewell From Rose” gets the attention of most live crowds. Its uptempo beat mirrors a brisk walk down a dirt road of reflection and young love. Time Sawyer’s live rendition is a bit different from their recorded version.
“We’ve kind of built upon [the song],” Norris divulges. “We’ve a got [Bob Barone] playing pedal-steel guitar who plays it with us live … and we’ve always said it was one of the biggest mistakes we made in recording: not putting the pedal steel on the song.”
Bob Barone and Harry Kollm (bass) have been playing with Time Sawyer on tour for a while now. They add new and valuable elements to songs and serve as permanent fixtures to the band. “We’ve gotten to a point where we can financially make it worth their time,” Norris adds jokingly.
Following Norris thesis that almost every band has a “murder song,” Time Sawyer’s is “210.” It spawned from a long night in Knoxville—and a persistent heckler in the front row at one of their shows.
“He just kept asking for a ‘murder song,’” he recalls. “We got this one written, and it’s one that continues to build and evolve—and from the feedback of fans, it seems to be a favorite.”
The stories behind most of the band’s lyrics revolve around love. Some obvious meanings can be inferred from them, but most of Tayloe’s writing utilizes metaphors. Also heard are references to growing up in the foothills of North Carolina. Back in early years of playing and recording their first album “Time For A Change” (2011), most of the songwriting was based on the local muses of rural Elkin. The song, “Slightly Askew,” for example, is named after a local winery. It’s also where Time Sawyer played their first gig ever—though it didn’t go quite as expected.
“At the time they asked us to come play for 45 minutes, and we thought it would be easy, not realizing that the four or five songs we knew would only take like 15 minutes,” Norris laughs. “A lot of times during practices our drummer and guitarist will play a funky jazz beat back and forth … so we had [Stirewalt and Layell] play that while me and Sam went out into the crowd for a dance break.”
Today, the band has more than enough material. They’re also looking forward to adding to their repertoire soon. The first two albums, “Time for a Change” and “Time Sawyer (The Maroon Album),” came out within 7 months of each other. “Come On In” was released in May 2012 and “Headed Home” followed less than a year later.
“This has been the longest down period we’ve had [with writing],” Norris admits, “but it’s been anything but a down period. We finally started making time to get together on new songs and polish them up. We’ve got a date set up around the first of the year where we’ll start recording a new CD over at a studio called Echo Mountain [in Asheville, NC].”
They’ll be collaborating for the first time with Mike Ashworth, producer, session performer and touring artist, best known for his work with bluegrass group Steep Canyon Rangers. At this stage Time Sawyer started going through some rough demos of the songs, hoping to record by the end of January.
“We see this as turning a new corner and jumping into a new realm of recording we haven’t done before, so we’re excited to see how it works out,” Norris says.
Time Sawyer is set to play at Bourgie Nights on Saturday, Dec. 19, with openers Massive Grass and Chasing Opal. Advance tickets can be found online at www.brownpapertickets.com/event/2406080.