By Becky Carman For The Oklahoman
Twenty-five years ago, nearly to the day, Hanson — then ages 11, 9 and 6 — performed what Taylor Hanson calls “the first proper concert we did that wasn’t a family reunion or in a living room,” a set at Tulsa International Mayfest in the Brady Arts District.
The precocious trio’s work ethic manifested even then, and over the next four years, Isaac, Taylor and Zac performed often, released two independent albums and acquired a manager, whom they famously found busking while at South By Southwest in Austin.
What happened next, you probably know: In 1997, the release of “MMMBop,” the lead single from Hanson’s major-label debut “Middle of Nowhere,” charted at No. 1 in 27 countries, including the U.S. “Middle of Nowhere” sold 10 million copies worldwide and set ablaze a whirlwind period of international touring and press saturation.
That era also marked the beginning of the Hanson fan club, a subscription model that includes limited-edition merchandise, exclusive songs and web content and invitations to attend two annual retreats, one held in Jamaica, and an annual Hanson Day in Tulsa — actually a multiday event, held this weekend, that includes private performances, karaoke, photo ops and songwriting lectures given by the band.
“It really feels like it’s bigger than the three of us. It’s very much a celebration of the community,” Taylor Hanson said, when I spoke with him last week by phone from Tulsa. “A lot of the folks who have stuck with us, it’s pretty amazing. They’re good friends as a result of connecting through music and have known each other for 10, 15, 20 years.”
If you haven’t kept up, here’s what those Hanson fans already know. Following a turbulent split from their record label after the release of 2000’s “This Time Around,” Hanson, then barely out of high school, formed an independent record label in order to retain control of their music. Isaac is now 36, Taylor 34 and Zac 31. 3CG Records, named for the three-car garage the band recorded in as kids, has released four Hanson records, most recently 2013’s “Anthem,” which reached No. 22 on the Billboard 200.
3CG has been housed for a decade in a former warehouse space in the Brady District, and the operations at Hanson headquarters include not only their record label, but a studio space and workings of the band’s nonmusical passion project, Hanson Brothers Beer Co., which launched its flagship pale ale MmmHops in 2013 — a tongue-in-cheek nod to Hanson, the band, turning 21 that year.
Which brings us to The Hop Jam, Hanson’s craft beer and music festival, now in its fourth year. With a comprehensive array of international beer vendors and a music lineup, including John Fullbright and Mayer Hawthorne (and, this year, headlined by Hanson), the festival aims to breathe new life into an already-storied area of Tulsa.
“For the last 10 years, we’ve been set up on Main Street. This area is really a music hub in Tulsa, with the heritage of Cain’s Ballroom, the Brady Theater,” Taylor Hanson said. “Building on all those things, what better place to host our festival than the neighborhood where it all started?”
Sunday’s Hop Jam features 65 brewers (Hanson was diplomatic but noted he’s particularly excited about Canada’s Unibroue) doling out samples of more than 200 different craft beers. The 21+ craft beer area is ticketed, but the festival’s music, located just outside the beer grounds, is free to the public. Past Hop Jams have attracted a reported 40,000 attendees.
While partnerships between Oklahoma craft brewers and musicians isn’t new — COOP Ale Works has long sponsored musical events, including a stage at Norman Music Festival, and Anthem and Mustang host concerts in their breweries, for instance — Hop Jam is the first beer-centric event of its scale in the state with music free to the public in a thriving city space. They’ve managed to somehow balance the family-friendly festival crowd with alcohol enthusiasts.
“We saw the potential to create something greater than the sum of its parts,” Taylor Hanson said. “You have the craft beer community beginning to grow but without a larger forum to draw in new fans. We thought this event could bring out music fans who could then get exposed to the craft beer community. When you put those things together, you create a kind of happening, you create a moment. You kind of have to come up with a reason to not go.”
Hanson is capitalizing on the crowds to do some good as well. Proceeds from the raffle of a hop-shaped custom guitar as well as ticket sales from a curated brewers’ dinner benefit the Community Food Bank of Eastern Oklahoma, a tradition nearly as long as the band’s career.
“All the way back to our first major tour, people would bring us gifts. At some point, we had to say, we’ll never be able to appreciate this much adoration, so we directed people to the food bank,” Taylor Hanson said. “We wanted to know that enthusiasm was directed in a way that made a difference. To us it’s just a natural fit to find a real, organic way to support the community when you have such a positive event bringing people together. It’s a way to channel some really good energy into something that makes a difference.”
MIDDLE OF EVERYWHERE
Just before Hanson’s own festival performance this year, they’ll be inducted into the Oklahoma Music Hall of Fame, a timely honor in the band’s 25th year. After Hop Jam, the band embarks on a world tour aptly called the “Middle of Everywhere.” This year the band also will release a Christmas record (their first since 1997’s “Snowed In”) and a greatest hits compilation that includes one new single, “I Was Born,” out May 26.
“We chose ‘I Was Born’ ” — the refrain of which is, ‘I was born to do something no one’s ever done’ — because it is just completely to the vein, just true optimism, unjaded, unadulterated,” Taylor Hanson said. “This idea of really believing in what’s impossible is what’s kept us going, always being interested in the future.”
Unsurprisingly, Hanson’s affinity for Tulsa factors heavily into that future. As likely patron saints for the second coming of the Tulsa Sound, a torch suggested to Hanson by Steve Ripley of the Tractors, the band recently has worked with several area artists representative of those same influences, including Paul Benjaman, JD McPherson and John Fullbright.
“It’s that fusion of melody and gospel and rock ‘n’ roll, rhythm and blues, a tinge of Red Dirt. A lot of these artists are part of that lineage,” Taylor Hanson said. “Tulsa’s always had a music heritage, but we see a real through point, a real organic heritage that a lot of us who grew up in Oklahoma feel, whether we mean to or not. It’s coming through in our songs.”
One collaborative project in the works celebrates the work of Leon Russell and other canonical Oklahoma music. “We were so devastated to lose Leon Russell last year. When he passed, it was just like a ton of bricks,” Taylor Hanson said. (Taylor Hanson performed at Russell’s memorial service, and the band performed a tribute to his music at 2017’s SXSW.) “It reminded us so vividly why you can’t wait.”
The forward thinking that catapulted Hanson to widespread success as kids has lingered. There are plenty of nostalgic laurels to rest on. … One glimpse at this year’s interview headlines reaffirms that: Haircuts! The ’90s! MMMBop! … but from Hanson’s point of view, there’s too much work yet to do: “I guess the short of it is that I’m excited to still be using all of our creative energy towards new challenges, new musical challenges. It’s not about replicating what you’ve done.”