Traveling Show is the third album from the aptly-named Songs From The Road Band, which is a side project led by Charles Humphrey III, the bassist for Steep Canyon Rangers. This project is a testament to one of the unique traits that makes bluegrass so special —old friends getting together and making albums that can compete musically with the top talent of the industry. Bluegrass is special in this way —the shared body of knowledge, combined with ever-evolving playing abilities, allows projects such as this one to consistently appear.
Songs From the Road Band is more than just an all-star cast: it is a group of close friends who met very early in their bluegrass journeys and have stayed close for almost two decades. Much like your childhood friends, with whom you experienced almost every level of growth, these guys have seen each other develop into today’s top festival pickers. The core group includes Andy Thorn, banjoist with Leftover Salmon; Mark Schimick, mandolinist with The Josh Daniels and Mark Schimick project and a former Larry Keel and Natural Bridge member; Bobby Britt, fiddler with Town Mountain; and Jon Stickley, guitarist with The Jon Stickley Trio. Andrew Marlin of Mandolin Orange, along with Phil Barker, also of Town Mountain, and Sam Wharton round out the group for this project.
Most of the members live in or around Asheville, NC when they aren’t maintaining very busy schedules with their respective full-time bands. You can hear the regional influences of the NC mountains in the cumulative sound of the band, which is a nice alternative to the over-produced “Nashville-slick” sound that we hear so much. Humphreys has a talent for allowing the individual voices and personalities to define their sound as they take turns singing lead.
The title track, Traveling Show, written by Humphrey and Jonathan Byrd, is a mid-career reflection of a life in bluegrass, as it recalls the excitement of their first tours and a sense of gratitude for their current life in the Blue Ridge Mountains. It also speaks to the love of a life on the road and how that sense of adventure has not waned, but only grown with the continuous criss-crossing of the American landscape. While the song was written primarily with the Steep Canyon Rangers’ experience in mind, you can imagine the song touching each member of this group personally, as they’ve all seen substantial growth in their musical careers.
Just Let Go is a track that displays a sense of the musical interplay these guys are capable of, as it starts and ends with a banjo and fiddle exchange of cascading arpeggios. When I got to the instrumental track Kitsuma, I started wondering what would happen if this band were able to spend more time together, record more, play a few years of live shows, and explore the world their creative abilities would lead them to. I would argue that they would quickly challenge Greensky Bluegrass for the band leading the jamgrass world in live-show creative exploration. Not a bad “fall-back point” if all of their respective groups inexplicably disbanded at the same time.
There is a fun, banjo driven, barn-burner hidden jewel near the end of the album titled Sing To That Mule. Mark Schimick’s voice works perfectly as he takes us back to pre-tractor days when music was interwoven into the lives of Blue Ridge farming communities.
You’ve gotta sing to that mule
If you want to make him move
Sing good and loud, make a joyful sound
If you want that mule to pull that plow
—Sing To That Mule
Traveling Show won’t have the tour support, the release shows, or the national publicity that typically accompany albums of this stature, which is too bad because this album has personality and a sense of joy that is not present in a lot of what we hear today. If at first the album seems a little disjointed because of the multiple lead singers, I suggest giving it a few listens for those individual voices to start defining what the project is about—collective creativity. Along with the great songwriting, you’ll hear bursts of instrumental brilliance. It’s clear these guys listen and react to each other, as the album was recorded live and mostly with one take. There’s a special energy with this group of friends, and decades of traveling road shows have given them the experience needed to pull off an album that puts the song–the “joyful sound”— first and foremost.
Bluegrass has lost the regional sonic-fingerprints that could identify what state a banjo picker was from just by hearing him or her play, but I think Traveling Show serves as a perfect snapshot of Western NC bluegrass today. The members of Songs From The Road Band travel the world playing their own style, some more traditional than others, but when they get together, they play it right and they play it tight. I have a feeling we’ll be seeing more albums from this group, and I’m hoping we don’t have to wait another five years.
I look back now
and I can’t believe
how far we’ve come
or how far we’ve got to go.
— Traveling Show
Traveling Show is released today, April 21, 2015.
For more information, visit Songs From The Road Band online.