It’s a rainy West Asheville morning, and Charles R. Humphrey III’s just back from the polling place, and his “I Voted” sticker is a little soggy. The anticipation of election season hangs in the air, alongside a jittery anxiety over the scary coronavirus, as well as worries about musical friends in Nashville recovering from a vicious over-night tornado.
That’s a lot of angst. But Humphrey, the songwriter, bassist and founder of the fast-moving Songs From the Road Band, brushes it off to talk about a passion in his life – the craft of songwriting. He jumps right in.
“I think it’s all about the renaissance of the art of the song,” he says, noting an upcoming co-writing session he’s got on the calendar in Nashville, as well as what he sees as an overall rising interest in bluegrass music these days.
Folks these days are coming to bluegrass from the jam grass scene, Humphrey hypothesizes, not from a general interest sparked by something like the immense popularity of the Coen Brothers films O Brother, Where Art Thou some 20 years ago, Humphrey hypothesizes. “And they’re coming to it through the song.”
That’s heartening, says Humphrey, who moves on to name other inspirations, from country musicians Sturgill Simpson and Tyler Childers to Andrew Marlin of Mandolin Orange (Marlin produced Songs From the Road Band’s record Traveling Show) to frequent collaborators Phil Barker and Robert Greer of to Asheville bluegrass band Town Mountain, to fellow songwriter Darren Nicholson of another great bluegrass band, Balsam Range.
In all of that cross-pollination, it’s the craft of songwriting that stands out for Humphrey, and that makes him happy. He’s been writing songs for two decades, an endeavor that centers his musical vision. He established Songs From the Road Band as a side project while he was with The Steep Canyon Rangers, and split from the group in 2017. He’s been focused on Songs From the Road Band since, pulling in a wide cast of very skilled players to pitch in. Now Songs From the Road Band has settled on a touring band, and Humphrey and his crew – guitarist Sam Wharton, fiddler James Schlender, and mandolin player Mark Schimick – will play a rare Asheville show March 14 at The Funkatorium.
The band, sometimes referred to as a “super-group” for featuring an expert cast and pulling in other top musicians (many of them in Asheville), features the following players’ resume highlights: Humphrey, a Grammy Award and an International Bluegrass Music Association Award winner; Wharton, a skilled guitarist who made his way on the Telluride, Colo., scene and has been a long-time friend and collaborator of Humphrey’s; Schimick, one of the most talented mandolin players on the scene, who made a name for himself playing alongside Larry Keel for years; and Schlender, who has two national fiddle championships and no end of energy and musical ideas, Humphrey says.
Humphrey says the group is headed back into the studio in mid-March to record and issue what will be its third record in 36 months. (Waiting on a Ride, the band’s fifth studio album, was released last year.) That’s astounding output, not to mention the fact that Songs from the Road Band has been touring relentlessly.
“We love being on the road and being together,” he says. The goal: build a fan base that will allow the band to fill venues across the country, rather than focusing solely on the festival circuit.
Songs From the Road Band will be front and center at The Funkatorium’s new performance space on the Asheville South Slope, a space Humphrey says he’s excited to be in. The 500-person room is full of beautiful wood and offers great sound, he says, adding that he’s also excited to be sharing the night with The Wooks, a hot bluegrass band based in Lexington, Ky.
“These Kentucky boys are just blowing up. This will be a great opportunity for people to see them,” he says.
Songs From the Road Band will play a rare Asheville show on March 14 at The Funkatorium’s new music venue. The Wooks, a bluegrass band based in Lexington, Ky., will open the 8 p.m. show. Get tickets here.