It might not be there quite yet, but Asheville, NC is starting to look a lot like the new Nashville, at least when it comes to bluegrass music’s roots and branches. Leading the way is the Songs From The Road Band, an aggregation of some of the area’s hottest songwriters, singers and pickers named for the project that first brought them together—a 2006 solo release by Steep Canyon Rangers bass player and songwriter Charles Humphrey III that came out just weeks before the Rangers were handed the IBMA’s Emerging Artist of the Year trophy. Now, with the release of As The Crow Flies, the Songs From The Road Band is serving notice that they’re more than a one-time get-together.
“This time we wanted to make it clear that this is an actual band,” says Humphrey, who again wrote or co-wrote all of the album’s material. And indeed, where Songs From The Road offered an engaging set that left listeners feeling like they’d listened in on an easygoing jam session, this time around there’s a higher purpose—or, more precisely, a theme—in mind. “We were looking for what you might call outlaw-themed songs,” Humphrey notes. “We’ve got no taxes, no war, no music industry—all kinds of edgy or political stuff. And this time, I was wanting to cross the bluegrass with some of the Gram Parsons kind of sound—what he called Cosmic American Music, with drums, and some old country steel guitar. So we wound up writing songs especially for the album, and that made it fun, trying to give it some unity from beginning to end. We even decided to wrap it up with all the different guest vocalists singing together on the last song.”
Indeed, it’s clear just how wide a net the SFTR Band has cast after just two songs; the straight-ahead bluegrass rave-up of the title track is followed by an old country lope that includes some nifty accordion by fellow Ranger Nicky Sanders—and tells the story of a farmer trying to hang onto his land by growing something that’ll “ease your mind…make you smile.” And the breadth of subjects and styles is matched by the sweep of the bandmembers’ resumes. There’s bluegrass, of course—the Steep Canyon Rangers and Larry Keel & Natural Bridge are among the best known entries—but there’s old-time string band, blues, honky-tonk and hard-to-pin-down Americana affiliations, too, in the backgrounds and ongoing efforts of Shannon Whitworth, John Stickley, Sam Wharton, Robert Grier, Mark Schimick, Andy Thorn and the rest of the crew.
Asheville’s blend of old-time atmosphere and youthful energy has drawn a new generation of pickers and singers, and that—along with their many creative projects—finds a reflection in As The Crow Flies’ warmth and radiant good spirits. “The atmosphere is really light when we get into the studio,” says Humphrey. “Everybody’s just so excited to be together, because we don’t get to play together much. So everything’s fresh, and you get a lot of spontaneity—but it’s really good, too. Everybody wants to do their best for what the songs need, and the musicianship is so high; ideas just bounce off each other, and good arrangements just come naturally. But we learned a lot about production from the first record, too, and we really put that to good use this time around.”
The resulting blend of freewheeling creativity and deep skill makes As The Crow Flies a pleasure to hear, but in concert, the Songs From The Road Band strikes an even broader note. “You know,” Humphrey says, “everyone is so busy that it’s hard for us to get together, so this band is basically a recording band. But when we do get out to play, we always have a great time, because everyone has their own projects as well as this one, and so we get to incorporate some of that material into the set lists, too.”
“That first album was kind of confusing to people. They didn’t know where to file it – was it a solo project or a band,” he adds with a laugh. “So this time, we wanted to make it clear that this is an actual Songs From The Road band.” And as listeners at home and on the road are soon to learn, it’s a mighty good one, too.