The bluegrass/roots/folk scene has expanded exponentially in recent years, and the talent level has progressed right along with it. Artists are doing things today with traditional string instruments that Jimmy Martin and Bill Monroe probably never imagined wereto be you could probably count the number of top acts with 10 fingers, to a time when there are better than 10 bands now that are collectives of artists who have either combined from several top acts, to bands that feature musicians working together on a side project while staying in their full time bands.
Side Show No More
One such installment is a North Carolina powerhouse group featuring Mark Schimick, Charles Humphrey, Ryan Cavanaugh, Sam Wharton, and James Schlender, know as the Songs From The Road Band. It started as a part time outlet for founder Charles Humphrey’s (formally with the Steep Canyon Rangers) songwriting.
“The first CD was in 2004 and we just called it, Songs From The Road, because it was songs that I’d written when I was traveling,” Charles said. “Sam Wharton, our guitar player, and Mark Schimick, our mandolin player, were on that record along with a couple other guys that were in full time bands. It was just for fun. When it was released it was really well received. I had plenty more songs, so we decided to do another one. We called that record, Songs From The Road Band, As The Crow Flies; same thing, rotating cast of guys doing it for fun. But then it started getting some radio play, and we could do four or five shows a year with it. It was slowly building momentum, but still just an outlet for songs,” He told me.
Their the next CD was produced by Andrew Marlan from Mandolin Orange. Called, Travelin’ Show, it was recorded at Echo Mountain. “It’s the same kind of deal,” Charles said, “Just a bunch of guys having fun. But it had a song that sat on the charts for two years or something crazy like that. Then recently, as of January 2018, we did another record, Road To Nowhere. It came out in July. We were all available to go on tour full time with it this time, so we decided that’s what we wanted to do.”
Already Top Performers
Collectively, this group of guys has received top accolades in the bluegrass, Americana, and even jazz genres. Humphrey is an IBMA award, and Grammy recipient. He has also earned a spot in the North Carolina Music Hall of Fame. Schimick soared to the top of the progressive and jam grass scene alongside legends like Larry Keel, Vassar Clements, and Tony Rice. Cavanaugh has made his long-awaited return to bluegrass after 10 years of touring the world with jazz great Bill Evans. Cavanaugh has been acknowledged by Bela Fleck as an acoustic pioneer on the 5-string banjo. James Schlender is a two time National Fiddle Champion and has shared the stage with Chick Corea, Bobby McFerrin, and George Benson. And Sam Wharton is an award winning guitar picker and singer who refined his chops in the bluegrass halls of Telluride, CO.
Yet with all that clout, the band is just beginning to establish their presence in the bluegrass/Americana scene. “Nobody really knows what we’re doing as this band,” Charles said. “Even though it’s been around as a side project for years, and all the players have actively been on a national scene for 20 years, we’ve still got to get out there and spread our name around and let everybody know what we’re doing.”
“The formula we’ve been following so far in the summer is to work long weekends every week, then sometimes we’ll string together some longer runs. I think we ended up with 26 days in a row at one point this summer,” he said.
“This is everybody’s full time job now. It’s hard work but we’ve all been at this a long time and everybody is invested in the band and in the business of the band. It’s rewarding. We’ve been getting a lot of support from the music lovers and promoters, which is this reassuring.”
Mentoring For The Future
One of my goals too, outside of being a successful band, is to promote the guys individually, and help them manage their business careers as well as the music,” Charles said. “I have a lot of experience in that, and I feel like that’s something I can bring to the table for these guys. A lot of them have been sidemen before but never owners in a band like they are now. It makes it more rewarding for the people in the band that way. You’re more dedicated when you’re putting your sweat and blood into the shows and in the business. These guys are going to blow people’s minds at how talented they are. They’re just not household names yet, but they will be. There’s a strong bond of friendship almost like a brotherhood with this group, so it’s really exciting. That’s the background of the band.”
All these guys understand the importance of professionalism too.” Charles said, “Onstage and offstage, we’re all representatives of the band, and not only do you have to have great music you have to also put on a great show. Because of the experience, we all bring to the band, we’re not going through the learning curve for the first time, so we can really focus on the nuances of building together what we’ve already established separately.