Songs From the Road: Wheels Keep 'Em Rollin' Up the Charts
by Kara M. Bachman
Bass player and Grammy Award-winning songwriter Charles R. Humphrey III is prolific in coming up with new music. He once wrote so much stuff when he was out on the road that his band, formed back in 2004, was named after a collection of music he’d written while touring with another outfit. That new band Humphrey assembled — almost two decades ago now — is called Songs From the Road.
On the day Humphrey spoke to us, the group’s single, “Amarillo Blue,” was sitting in the number one spot on the Bluegrass Today charts and had been there for five weeks. These guys are no strangers to this type of chart-topping success…their “Outside of Omaha” also went to number one. Now, with a five-album catalog of music and another album in the hopper, this Newgrass ensemble had gotten to where they were performing over 200 shows a year before COVID-19 arrived to throw a monkey wrench into the works for just about everyone working in the biz.
It only slowed down the touring for Songs From the Road; it didn’t slow down the creativity. “I personally turned to songwriting,” Humphrey said, of the live performance hiatus. “I’ve written over 140 songs.”
One of those songs was “Amarillo Blue,” which is expected to appear on the forthcoming album. Humphrey said it will be available as a “limited edition vinyl record” that is designed to raise awareness for Can’d Aid, a non-profit he’s been involved with for a long time. The band is serving as “Tunes Ambassadors” for the charity which, among its many goals, aims to provide access to music for underserved youth.
In addition to the release of that full fifth studio album, the band is slated for several events this coming year. Only a few currently on the roster are the Bristol Rhythm and Roots Reunion, on Sept. 10 in Bristol, Tenn.; Stonefly Fall Fest 2021, happening on Oct. 8 in Johnson City, Tenn.; and an appearance at IBMA on October 1 in Raleigh, wherein they’ll be backing up Jim Lauderdale.
Humphrey said the COVID-19 shutdowns came at a time when the band was re-evaluating its performance schedule; it had grown to be heavy.
Going forward, Songs From the Road will cut back some on the number of dates. Over 200 was just too much.
“We’re just gonna take the bigger gigs and focus on those,” Humphrey said,” so our touring model has changed. The goal is to keep recording…and get rewarding gigs.”
Humphrey has been playing professionally since 1999. He started Songs From the Road around 2004 with guitarist Sam Wharton and mandolin player Mark Schimick.
“It started as a side project…we always had a lot of guests on the record,” he said.
Then, five or six years ago, he said Songs From the Road grew to include a full band. James Schlender joined on fiddle as well as the newest member, Gabe Epstein (banjo), just last year.
There are lots of solid experience and performance chops amongst these musicians. In addition to Humphrey claiming a Grammy and IMBA Award, and a slot in the North Carolina Music Hall of Fame, bandmate Schimick has “championed his way” to the heights of the “jamgrass scene” and has shared the stage with Larry Keel, Vassar Clements and more. Wharton has performed with the likes of John Cowan, Jim Lauderdale, and Sierra Hull. Schlender is a two-time National Fiddle Champion and has appeared onstage with Chick Corea, Bobby McFerrin, and George Benson. The newest member, Epstein is a graduate of the East Tennessee State University Bluegrass program. Humphrey had nice things to say about the new addition.
“Gabe is a fantastic player and a great fit,” he said. “We all get along…it’s like a family. We’re just lucky to be able to do it.”