On a hit and a prayer

Don’t get him wrong — Don Humphries likes Asheville. And he’s not going away mad. It’s just that there are other, possibly greener, pastures calling.

The life-long songwriter and musician is moving to Franklin, Tenn., just outside the country-music watering trough of Nashville. At 58, Humphries has become a familiar fixture in Asheville’s acoustic community, but with his youngest son away to college, he’s made the decision to pursue his musical dream.

Born in Asheville, Humphries was weaned and raised on old-time music, and has played with some of the area’s most-notable musicians, including a stint with Ralph Lewis’ Piney Mountain Boys.

“I couldn’t have been born in a better place,” Humphries says. “I love it. But Nashville is the place you gotta go.”

Known for writing bluegrass songs — some of which were later recorded by the likes of Del McCoury and the Nashville Bluegrass Band — Humphries recently made another splash when Patty Loveless picked up his song “The Boys are Back in Town” for the opening track on her hit bluegrass album Mountain Soul.

That kind of exposure, and the current climate of the industry, tells Humphries it’s time to make tracks for the capitol of country.

“They’re begging for bluegrass music. It’s a good time to go,” he says.

Those who haven’t heard him yet will get one last chance when he takes the stage at the Town Pump Tavern for a farewell show on August 15. The concert will feature Humphries and several of his long-time musical buddies, including Sons of Ralph fiddler Don Lewis and Jim Rollins. And the song writer says they’d better show up.

“Either that, or I’m going to pull out the photos they don’t want you to see,” he says — and it’s not immediately apparent that he’s joking. Then he chuckles. “You find out who your friends are when you do a show [billed as] ‘Don Humphries and Friends.'”

Like many who play in the mountain-music tradition, Humphries comes across as down to earth, turning his sense of humor on himself as often as he does anyone else. And, like many of the pickers and singers who grew up in the area, Humphries is the product of a musical family. Inspired by music his father played, he picked up his first guitar at age 10, began writing songs as a teenager — and never stopped.

Humphries’ songs reflect his evolution through the worlds of bluegrass and country. For him, a song is most exciting if it tells a story or uses images to offer a view of life. That kind of substance is more important, he says, than a catchy hook or lyric.

“I don’t need lines. I need a premise, I need a story,” he says. His latest, called “Mexican Song,” is about a Hispanic immigrant who tries hard to make it in the U.S., but is sent back to Mexico anyway.

As a performer, Humphries has become a regular at sessions such as the open bluegrass jam at Jack of the Wood. He recently helped the pub celebrate its fifth anniversary, playing with Sons of Ralph.

“Don’s always fun to jam with,” says Don Lewis, who played fiddle on Humphries’ latest recordings.

The Town Pump show will be a benefit concert for the local North Carolina Mountain Acoustic Music Association (NCMAMA), a group that, though still in its infancy, has begun to attract attention from traditional musicians all over the area. Humphries has been involved with the association since the beginning, and says that such an organization is vital to continuing the mountain-music tradition.

“I think it is something they need,” he says, adding that he remembers the impact a similar association had for bluegrass pickers in California. “It made all the difference in the world.”

NCMAMA organizer Deb Ryder says the group has been around only three months, and was born of a need for musicians to communicate and network. The association is made up of musicians and music lovers that span a wide field of traditional and acoustic music, including blues, country, bluegrass, folk and Celtic. Ryder says the network sustains the momentum of traditional music, with new musicians getting a chance to mingle with those who’ve been playing for years.

Plans are underway for an NCMAMA newsletter, as well as educational programs (a Web site, www.ncmama.org, will be finished in the near future). The attention and help of musicians like Humphries and many others was critical to the beginning of NCMAMA, Ryder notes.

“It would not have been possible without this community of musicians,” she says.

The impact of such an organization will become even more important, Humphries says, when the current mainstream spotlight on bluegrass and old-time begins to wane and the music is once again left to its diehard fans. “This [Down from the Mountain] thing isn’t going to last forever,” he points out.

For his part, Humphries is planning to milk it for all its worth.

“I want hit bluegrass songs, then I want hit country songs,” he says. Thus the move to Nashville, where old friends like Del McCoury are more prominent than ever.

“These guys are becoming the guys in charge,” he reveals.

Armed with an eight-song demo CD, Humphries plans to form a new band and begin establishing himself as a presence in Nashville, including the street-fair circuit. He also intends to continue writing and pushing songs. While lamenting the current state of popular country music, Humphries nevertheless hopes for a return to quality songwriting in the mainstream music biz. If such a need comes up, it’s a gap Humphries stands ready to fill.

“You gotta look at it as if you’ve got something to contribute,” he says. “Maybe they just need better songs.”

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