By Brian Tucker
Greg Humphreys is synonymous with North Carolina music, beginning with Dillon Fence in the late 1980s/early 90s and funk and soul band Hobex followed. But by 2008 Humphreys took time away from bands, performing solo. What followed were mostly acoustic albums, beginning with the excellent Trunk Songs, comprised of material never intended for bands.
“The four solo albums I released charted a path though some dark personal times,” Humphreys said, “Followed by some years of searching, musical exploration, and collaboration.”
The period ended after meeting Rubina, a woman he fell in love with and eventually left North Carolina for. Humphreys moved to New York City, got married, and the couple later had a son. He wrote and recorded Bohemia, an album described as a goodbye letter to North Carolina and as preparation for a new chapter in his life.
On it there’s “Someday I’ll Have My Due,” a wonderful song lyrically and musically. Humphreys’ voice still sounds smooth and soulful, but there’s ache entrenched in his raspy, honey soaked delivery, like a melding of Sam Cooke and Gasoline Alley-era Rod Stewart.
“(The song) is my blues. It’s rooted in the classic 12/8 soul balladry of artists and writers like William Bell, Sam Cooke, and Otis Redding. Songs like “Everybody Loves a Winner” or “A Change is Gonna Come.” I’ve always wanted to write a song like that — a song that stands up years later. A universal song that reaches out and touches peoples’ hearts. One thing I know, the only way to write that kind of song is to write straight from your heart.”
It found its way to Lucky Guy, the new album from Greg Humphreys Electric Trio (playing with bassist Matt Brandau and drummer Keith Robinson). The song closes the album, book ended with opener “Lucky Guy.” While the album title suggests appreciation for his current life the former song’s addition seems to signal duality.
“Sequencing an album can be like solving a jigsaw puzzle, and we think we found an order where it felt like all the pieces fit together just so. In that sense, the songs work well as bookends: satiety and longing.”
Lucky Guy sounds great, combining what makes Humphreys enjoyable (a cool, soulful voice that works in multiple genres) but also almost constantly finding him in new space. On it he’s romantic (“More Than a Friend”), lamenting the city (“Crosstown”), injecting tropical flavors (“Lucky Guy”), and even a stellar instrumental (“Golden Bone”).
After spending twenty years in bands and a handful of years solo, Humphreys found himself in the Trio in 2014, playing shows and drawing on newer, more recent material (“I definitely wanted to see what this band could do with them”). An EP, Cosmic Irony, came first, some of its songs landing on Lucky Guy.
“The Trio has been great. We’ve all been in bands before. We all know what’s up, both good and bad. Matt and Keith are super-talented dudes. They bring all of their experiences and insights to the bandstand and the studio.”
Still, the album title Lucky Guy is fitting. Humphreys is a father, has a supportive partner, and he’s still making great music.
“Rubina has helped me immensely along the way. Another reason I’m lucky. My writing has slowed down a bit with my son Jim in the picture. When I write these days, I try to make it count more! I do a have the bones of a children’s album as a result of writing little ditties for Jim all the time.”
Additional Q & A with Greg Humphreys
Does this feel like the happiest period of your life?
Humphreys: Falling in love with Rubina, having a son together….these years have been rewarding and I’ve enjoyed happiness as a result. I don’t know how much I’ve actually changed, but I like to think I’ve gotten to know myself better as I’ve gotten older. My priorities have changed and I make decisions differently. At this point, I know how hard life can be; I want to appreciate it when things are good and avoid making mistakes I’ve made in the past.
Was the move to NYC easier because it was for someone versus solely for music? Did you begin to write quickly?
I don’t think I would’ve moved if I hadn’t met someone. I was pretty established in the Triangle (Area in Raleigh). The move was pretty exciting – the combination of new relationship and new city definitely brought out the romantic in me. Of course, New York City will also knock you on your ass in a heartbeat.
On that end, Rubina has helped me immensely along the way. Another reason I’m lucky. My writing has slowed down a bit with my son Jim in the picture. Rearing a child can be all-encompassing. When I write these days, I try to make it count more! I do a have the bones of a children’s album as a result of writing little ditties for Jim all the time.
Forming the Trio in 2014, was it good to be in a new band? Didn’t you mostly play solo following Trunk Songs except for some Hobex shows?
The Trio has been great. We’ve all been in bands before. We all know what’s up, both good and bad. Matt and Keith are super-talented dudes. They bring all of their experiences and insights to the bandstand and the studio.
At the end of Hobex’s full-time run, I had basically been in a band (Dillon Fence or Hobex) for 20 years. I just needed to step away from the dynamic—piling in the van, pushing forward, always working on making it happen. It’s just hard to have a life and live like that at the same time. I did play mostly solo acoustic shows following Trunk Songs. I also took the opportunity to collaborate with a wide variety of musicians and writers, both on stage and in the studio. Try different things stylistically. I did a good bit of producing and engineering as well. Those were great learning experiences and a good warm-up for New York City, where musicians are collaborating with different folks all the time.
Instrumental “Golden Bone” is great, transient in that it moves from gnarly rocker to something moody and ambient. Was this something that lyrics didn’t allow for?
Thank you! “Golden Bone” started out as a riff in an open tuning (surprise.) I love playing slide guitar and steel guitar; I thought the riff might be something that would work well with the trio. I did try adding a vocal melody and lyric a few times. The tune just seemed to sit well as an instrumental and I finally left it alone, decided that that is what it wanted to be.
The ambient section (as you describe it) started out as a different song — an alternating-thumb picking pattern, but in a similar tuning. Putting them together just seemed to make both ideas work. Keith and I had fun layering my guitars in the studio on the quiet section. His mix definitely accentuates the difference between the sections.
I have your albums on CD, but is this your first full-length album released on vinyl?
Well, Dillon Fence’s first self-released EP came out on vinyl and our second LP Outside In came out on vinyl in the UK. However, this is indeed my first vinyl full-length album release in the States. Mind-boggling.