Based in Asheville, North Carolina, the birthplace of so many current and essential bluegrass bands, Songs From The Road Band is an exceptional combo in a modern and melodic vein. The band, which consists of Mark Schimick (mandolin), Charles Humphrey III (bass), Sam Wharton (guitar), James Schlender (fiddle), and Gabe Epstein (banjo), takes flight with virtuosic picking, singing, and some award-winning songwriting skills. A multi-talented outfit that puts melody on equal footing with musicality, they’ve released six studio albums to date and several singles that have ascended to the top rungs of the Bluegrass Today Grassicana chart.
While each of the musicians bears impressive credentials, it’s Humphrey’s previous tenure with the Steep Canyon Rangers that seemed to garner the most attention, at least at the outset. Humphrey was a contributing songwriter in that band, and his association with the Rangers coincided with their rise to prominence. Now, with Songs From the Road Band, he’s able to further his involvement in the composing process. On their new album, aptly titled Pay Your Dues, he has a hand in writing ten of its eleven tracks.
The investment pays off. The rousing Pay Your Dues, Wrong Train, Right Time, and Molasses grab attention from the get-go, while the heartbroken ballads Worlds Apart and Sunday When ply deeper emotions. The single song the band had no hand in writing, a brilliant bluegrass cover of Suspicious Minds, stays true to the original template, but transforms it in a manner few could have imagined, its driving mesh of fiddle, banjo, and mandolin providing an unexpected urgency to the song’s inherent heartbreak and happenstance.
That’s not to say other offerings aren’t similarly affecting. Outside Of Omaha and Hill Country Queen are decidedly memorable, each in its own regard. The latter’s melodic make-up brings to mind the mid-tempo sound associated with new progressive outfits like the Steep Canyon Rangers and Town Mountain in particular. Speaking of the latter, it’s hardly surprising that Town Mountain’s Phil Barker had a hand in writing two of these tunes.
As for Songs From the Road Band themselves, clearly they have a knack for fully engaging the listener, as fully evidenced by the music shared here. A superb combination of both songs and savvy, Pay Your Dues demonstrates both their credibility and accomplishment.