The recent departure of bass player Charles Humphrey III from Steep Canyon Rangers, the Grammy-winning bluegrass band, may have been viewed by fans and contemporaries as a strange career choice. The band is a respected favorite around the tight-knit national bluegrass community. They started backing comedian and longtime banjo player Steve Martin back in 2009, and from there, their popularity soared.
Humphrey, however, has always been about the music, whether it was in an established group or a side project. For Humphrey, it doesn’t matter if the show is in a Durango backyard or Carnegie Hall. The songwriting, touring, and original tunes – not the venue – have always been the mission.
During Humphrey’s time with Steep Canyon, he always had another project, Songs From the Road Band, on the back burner. The North Carolina group is anchored by Humphrey, and features a rotating cast of musicians who got together and played songs when they weren’t on the road with their respective bands.
It was the epitome of a side project for everyone involved, Humphrey included, so it was surprising to see him leave Steep Canyon to fire up Songs From the Road on a full-time basis. The move is a testament to Humphrey’s dedication to original music.
Songs From the Road is now Humphrey’s main gig, and things are going strong. The band has a solid lineup, a fourth record – “Road to Nowhere” – which is due out in July, and a full roster of shows this summer, including stops tonight (June 21) in Cortez and tomorrow (June 22) at The Balcony Backstage in Durango.
Some of the rotating pickers that played on the last three records have moved on, and the band is now a core group of five musicians, which was necessary to solidify future plans. The lineup includes Humphrey on bass, Sam Wharton on guitar, Mark Schimick on mandolin, James Schlender on fiddle, and Ryan Cavanaugh on banjo.
“It’s fun to bring in other pickers and instruments and kind of create something, capture a moment in time and be able to share that with everyone,” said Humphrey. “But when we decided to say, ‘Hey, we’ve got to go on the road; we got to get serious here,’ and then we looked for the five guys that fit together, still represent our catalog of music, look forward to writing new music, and recording new music as well. I couldn’t be more proud of the group of guys we’ve got. They’re working hard and they’re super talented.”
Their bluegrass songbook is vast, and its contributors are many. Songs From the Road Band draws from numerous influences, like the innovators who can make you weep with the swipe of a pen or pick your jaw up from the floor after a blistering solo.
This isn’t jam-grass or watered-down, wispy ballads, the kind that give acoustic music a bad name. This is roots Americana with a bluegrass edge; it’s driving, lyrically poignant, and heartbreaking, picked by musicians who get after it like lives are at stake.
Dedicated to the craft of instrumentation and songwriting, the band explores a gutsy and raw side of acoustic music, while maintaining a respect for the traditions from the early days of bluegrass.
Tales of jilted lovers, heartbreak, and war stories are layered among songs about trains, hillbillies, and hobos. Times may change, but heartbreak and human emotion don’t, and this band nails the human condition over and over, accompanied by striking instrumentation.
“I love the songwriting, I love the solos, and I love the harmony singing. It all works together,” said Humphreys. “This group of guys we’ve got now, they go up there and they are out for blood. They want to nail these songs more than anything in the world. I think what truly makes them happier, more than anything else in their lives, is being rehearsed, getting up on that stage and absolutely nailing these songs so people can enjoy it. To me, that gets me fired up and I get tapped into that energy.”
Bryant Liggett is a freelance writer and KDUR station manager. [email protected]