“As a songwriter, you never stop writing,” says Charles Humphrey III. “I’m always writing for Steep Canyon Rangers first, but after a while you just end up with a bunch of killer songs that aren’t getting played onstage or recorded, and Songs From The Road Band is the perfect outlet to present them to the world.”
The Asheville bassist’s all-star bluegrass side project (which formed in Chapel Hill in 2004) released its third album, Traveling Show, in April. Mark Schimick (the Josh Daniel/Mark Schimick Project), Andy Thorn (Leftover Salmon), Jon Stickley (Jon Stickley Trio), Andrew Marlin (Mandolin Orange), Phil Barker and Bobby Britt (both of Town Mountain) and Sam Wharton round out the current lineup. On Saturday, Dec. 19, at Jack of the Wood, Humphrey, Stickley, Schimick, Wharton and Sam Guthridge — a co-writer on the album whom Humphrey calls “a badass banjo player and singer” — will perform the Traveling Show album in order. They’ll also cover an entire rock album, whose identity has yet to be revealed.
All eight Songs From The Road Band members appear on the new album, as do friends and bandmates Robert Greer (Town Mountain), Emily Frantz (Mandolin Orange) and Matt Smith (The Honeycutters). Though the ensemble’s sound isn’t far removed from that of Humphrey’s primary group, the side project differentiates itself in other regards — namely songwriting.
“No subject is off-limits because I have the final say. We’ve been able to record politically and socially controversial songs that we believe in [but] may be too edgy for Steep Canyon Rangers,” Humphrey says. “Also on these records, the lead-singing duties are shared among a large amount of singers — not just one or two guys. This gives you a better chance to match song content with a particular singer, be it a twangy voice or even a female.”
Despite the expanded creative control in Songs From The Road Band, Humphrey prefers to record and perform his songs with Steep Canyon Rangers because it affords him the opportunity to share them onstage 150 days a year. Songwriting duties are shared within the Grammy-winning band, whose final song selection process the ultrarunner compares to “running through a gauntlet.”
That collaborative spirit is also present in Songs From The Road Band. Humphrey writes in person with Barker (who conveniently lives down the street), via Skype once or twice a week with Charlie Chamberlain and occasionally travels to Nashville to hash out ideas with Shawn Camp and Jim Lauderdale. “I love cowriting,” Humphrey says. “It’s this really cool hang with friends and then afterwards you have new song that’s been brought into the world. I’d compare cowriting to bowling or playing golf with friends.”
When the time came to record Traveling Show at Echo Mountain Studios in 2014, Humphrey didn’t expend much effort coordinating everyone’s schedules — he just waited until the December holiday season when most touring bands take time off. Getting the players together for shows, however, has proved more challenging. The last Songs From The Road Band concert was a CD release party for Traveling Show at The Grey Eagle in late April, when banjoist Ryan Cavenaugh (Soulgrass) and fiddler Casey Driessen rounded out the ensemble.
Though most songs on the new album feature nine musicians, Humphrey says that the four fellows joining him for the Jack of the Wood set provide “everything [they] need to deliver the songs.” And while the space is a significantly smaller venue than their previous engagement, Humphrey enjoys having the crowd “right on the stage” and the energy that kind of intimacy yields.
Humphrey says new songs are starting to pile up again and predicts that Songs From The Road Band will be back in the studio sooner than expected. At some point, he’d also love to get his bandmates together in another exciting capacity.
“I think a festival that incorporates all the projects involved with Songs From The Road Band would be the bomb. Steep Canyon Rangers, Town Mountain, Jon Stickley Trio, Leftover Salmon, Mark Schimick Project, Mandolin Orange — who wouldn’t love to see that lineup?” he says. “Reflecting on the idea now, it seems like it would be hard to pull off. However, it would be a dream come true if it ever did happen.”
WHO: Songs From The Road Band
WHERE: Jack of the Wood, jackofthewood.com
WHEN: Saturday, Dec. 19, at 9 p.m. $5