KNOXVILLE, Tenn. -- When you walk into the Victorian brick building in downtown Knoxville that houses Yee-Haw Industries, you might think you've entered a 1920s newsroom.
A couple of computers are tucked into a corner, but the room is otherwise packed with enormous old presses and beat-up wooden chests lined with narrow drawers, each one filled with type in all sorts of shapes, sizes, and fonts, both metal and wooden.
Using this antique equipment, partners Kevin Bradley and Julie Belcher produce everything from rock 'n' roll posters to birth announcements. Bradley carves his original, funky illustrations by hand into wood or linoleum blocks. Lettering is also carved by hand or set by hand with blocks of type, just the way it was done hundreds of years before the digital age. And everything in this uniquely contemporary print shop is printed on old-fashioned letterpress equipment.
You can buy their posters, calendars, cards, wrapping paper, and what they call "One-of-a-Kind Ephemera" through their website (www.yeehawindustries.com) as well as in the front of the studio and print shop. Be it a poster of Robert Johnson ("World's Greatest Bluesman"), an advertisement for Big Mama's Miracle Salve, or an invitation to Bill and Melissa's wedding, products from Yee-Haw Industries have an unmistakable look. It could be described as Southern Gothic meets folk-art woodcut with hip, ironic humor mixed in.
You can get a Yee-Haw Country Fair calendar with an ad for Earl the Singing Chicken or an ad for the Thrillbilly Love Fest. There are hand-drawn, cartoony Dean Martin and Evel Knievel posters. Musicians are frequent poster subjects, especially country music stars; there's the Conway Twitty "Country Action Figure" and Tammy Wynette, "American Goddess." Several designs, including one titled "Secret Theory #29," are devoted to Hank Williams, who, incidentally, died just down the street from the Yee-Haw building.
When they started up Yee-Haw in 1996, Bradley and Belcher brought strong graphic arts and printing backgrounds to the business. Belcher had been a designer for Seventeen magazine and Blue Note Records, and Bradley had spent two years in Nashville learning the old techniques at one of the few letterpress shops still in existence at the time.
Starting a company was a way for the pair to combine their talents and avoid some of the pitfalls of the industry. Bradley had been creating original artwork for his clients but had no copyrights. For Belcher, long hours doing editorial and graphic design meant dealing with constantly changing technology and the physical problems of spending day and night in front of a computer screen.
Having their own company gave them ownership over their designs as well as some distance from the high-tech world. "We wanted the hands-on, tactile feel of using old equipment," says Belcher. "We have to have a computer, but sitting in front of a computer 20 hours a day is not something either of us wanted to do."
They started the business with salvaged equipment, using a concrete tool shed on Belcher's mother's property in Corbin, Ky. In 1998, they moved to downtown Knoxville. They now have several presses and more than 900 fonts, and they're still collecting. "We don't have that much room," says Belcher, "but we're always looking for fonts and typography and new presses."
One new press, which was custom-designed for the company, will allow them to expand what they can produce. "It's also an etching press, so in addition to wood and linoleum blocks, it can do monotypes and print off plastic, glass, and plywood," says Belcher. "And it can do bigger prints, up to 4-by-10-foot. We have a lot of big wood type that we've never been able to use before."
Yee-Haw's look and production methods may be low-tech and down-home, but its work is in demand well beyond the city limits. Clients include the Country Music Hall of Fame, the Kentucky Derby, Ralph Lauren, The Wall Street Journal, and the A&E television network. A number of well-known musicians have commissioned Yee-Haw to do promotional posters and CD covers: Steve Earle, Mary Chapin Carpenter, Lucinda Williams, Greg Brown, and Phish guitarist Trey Anastasio, among others.
Like many of its musician clients, Yee-Haw has been taking its wares on the road, appearing at events and festivals such as the Smithsonian Folklife Festival and the New Orleans Jazz Festival, where its designs won last year's first prize for unique contemporary crafts.
Belcher and Bradley have also been getting a name in academic and industry circles. They frequently judge national art and design competitions and give presentations about their work, including one last year at the Boston Public Library as part of a celebration of the Letterpress Guild of New England's 20th anniversary.
Despite their high-profile clientele and gadding about, they spend much of the time in their studio and print shop, responding to ordinary requests for business cards, press kits, letterheads, advertisements, and announcements for local shows, events, and festivals.
And though the percentage is dipping as they expand their range and clientele, the wedding industry still accounts for about 30 percent of their business. Given that their wedding invites and enclosure cards bear the Yee-Haw look, they tend to attract the less traditional customer. Belcher recalls one New York couple: "The wedding slogan was `No shirts, no shoes, no service.' " The clients presented the company with one small problem: They wanted their portraits on the invitations. "They were done in folk-art style because we can't draw very well," says Belcher. "It was not exactly flattering."
Kathy Shorr is a freelance writer who lives in Wellfleet.