Lucks Dumpy Toad Records 1003
The Songs From The Road Band began back in 2004 as a showcase for the songwriting of Charles R. Humphrey III, bassist of the Steep Canyon Rangers. Despite focusing their attention on other groups, they reliably release a strong album every five or six years with Traveling Show being the third. The roots of the group go back to a quintet of young musicians with high hopes jamming together in Chapel Hill, N.C., just past the turn of the century. Humphrey is hardly the only one who has made their dreams come true with bluegrass or bluegrass-related outfits. Fiddler Bobby Britt plays with Town Mountain and banjoman Andy Thorn with Leftover Salmon. Guitarist Jon Stickley leads an eponymous jazz-grass trio, while mandolinist Mark Schimick co-leads the high-wire act known as the Josh Daniel-Mark Schimick Project, which fuses bluegrass, reggae, soul, and 1970s rock. Guitarist Sam Wharton and Phil Barker of Town Mountain, pedal steel player Matt Smith, and mandolinist Andrew Marlin and Emily Frantz of the acclaimed folk-rock duo Mandolin Orange join them on Traveling Show. Marlin, Barker, and Wharton handle most of the lead vocals.
True to their jamming beginning and accomplished musicianship, most of the album consists of first takes. The project brims with the spontaneous energy provided by that approach which resembles how much of the classic bluegrass canon was recorded. Despite this remarkable assembly of singers and players, Traveling Show is mostly about the songs. Humphrey wrote or co-wrote all 13 songs plus one instrumental. His co-writers include Barker (“Coming Up Roses,” “By The Banks,” and the progressive bluegrass number “Thompson Flood”), Shawn Camp (the catchy “Token Of Love,” the driving “Hillbilly Wedding Day,” and the acoustic country “Margaree”), and noted North Carolina folk singer-songwriter Jonathan Byrd on “Traveling Show.” A full album of strong new songs demonstrates that the bluegrass genre still has plenty of life at 70 years of age.
The diversity of settings on Traveling Show proves both uplifting and refreshing. “Sing To That Mule,” on which Schimick takes his only lead vocal, and “Hillbilly Wedding Day” with Wharton singing lead offers straight bluegrass albeit with wry lyrics. With Marlin singing lead on the title-track, a paean to life on the road in a band and “Silk And Lace,” their sound suggests Old Crow Medicine Show on a good day with a touch of Neil Young’s granola version of country. The powerful instrumental “Kitsuma,” “Coming Up Roses,” with Barker on lead, and “Just Let Go” with Thorn’s lead singing and mesmerizing fiddling by Britt easily fit into contemporary bluegrass. “By The Banks” doesn’t fit into any genre other than sounding like The Band at their peak forty years ago. That mix makes Traveling Show a powerful statement by members of the millennial generation about absorbing and synthesizing multiple musical influences. (Lucks Dumpy Toad Records, 91 Wolfe Park Cir., Asheville, NC 28804, www.songsfromtheroadband.com.)AM