Handsome and the Humbles are releasing their second album, “We’re All the Same,” later this summer, but the group’s 2016 full-length debut “Have Mercy” is a hard act to follow.
A follow-up to 2014’s “Hallelujah, Alright” EP, the rich collection of Southern Gothic/Americana story-songs and alt-country/rock tunes scored the band a write-up in No Depression magazine; made Maryville Daily Times and BLANK writer Steve Wildsmith’s list of his top 20 albums of 2016; helped the band score gigs at Rhythm N’ Blooms, Bristol Rhythm and Roots Reunion and opening slots for American Aquarium and Whiskey Myers at The Shed; and hooked them up with Knoxville legend Mic Harrison and his band the High Score for shows in Knoxville and elsewhere.
“Have Mercy” also lifted Handsome and the Humbles to the top of the heap as Best Americana Band after several years as a runner-up in this publication’s own Knoxville’s Finest readers’ poll.
“All that means is my mom votes a lot,” lead singer Josh Smith says, laughing.
However, “We’re All the Same” signals a new era for the band, a collection of longtime scene mainstays and payers of musical dues who somehow flew fairly low on the radar until recently. The last album put them on the map and showed fans around the area what they were capable of as a serious regional act. This record, though, finds Handsome and the Humbles maturing both sonically and lyrically, as well as emerging as an artistic force.
Handsome and the Humbles formed very indirectly from the ashes of earlier Christian rock bands that Smith and other members played in around the “Clinton Southern Baptist church circuit,” as bassist Tyler Huff calls it, chuckling. Guitarist Jason Chambers grew up with Smith and played in church-based traveling Southern gospel outfits. He later rocked it up, going on to play for several years in The Hotshot Freight Train. Smith had attended Johnson University, graduated from Liberty University and had made a brief stint as a youth pastor. Huff and Smith had a Christian band that even went as far as opening for contemporary Christian star Jeremy Camp at a show in Georgia.
Somewhere along the line, though, Smith began to struggle with maintaining his faith. He eventually moved on, returned to school and ended up working as a physical therapist – and going underground with his music for a little while. He was writing songs, but no one was hearing them. Huff laughed about maybe seeing him perform at a “chicken nugget-eating competition” at a Clinton fast-food establishment or some other likely small-town show of the type they had grown accustomed to playing.
Huff says he ran into Chambers at a show at now-defunct West Knoxville venue The Well when The Hotshot Freight Train was breaking up, and they talked about getting a covers outfit together. Independent of that, Smith sent some demos to Huff of original songs he’d been working on that blew away the latter. They soon were off and running. “We didn’t know what we were getting into,” Huff says. “But it just happened to work out.”
Later they added drummer Lauryl Brisson and banjoist/guitarist Zack Miles, both of whom went on to play on “Have Mercy” and subsequent tour dates in support of the album, as well as on the recordings for “We’re All the Same.” (However, the pair recently departed from the band in order to pursue other interests.) All of Handsome and the Humbles’ material has been engineered by O’Dell Brummett at Brimstone Studios and self-produced by the band.
Guitarist Josh Hutson joined the group during the making of the new record, and his playing is included on it. He along with Chris Bratta on drums have rounded out the current live lineup of the band. Jay Birbeck contributes keys on the album; Andrew Leahey provides guest guitar work (“Sun’s Gonna Rise”) and background vocals (“We’re All the Same”). Mic Harrison offers guest background vocals on “Drunk and Angry” and “What Could’ve Been,” a special treat according to Smith.
“I grew up listening to the V-Roys,” Smith says. “The fact that he wants to do anything with us is an honor.”
The songs on the previous releases were solid musically, and lyrically they were extremely clever and engaging from a storytelling perspective. But on a certain level, it sometimes could feel like Smith was self-consciously sifting through various Southern tropes, trying on different hats and voices as a writer, and the band was playing around with Southern rock, honky-tonk and Americana as arrangers, trying to find the groove for each particular song.
It’s really common during many bands’ first attempts at recording to find a door through which to enter The Great Conversation. It could be lack of experience or a lack of trust in their own experiences that may prompt bands to pick a comfortable starter genre-study into which to jump. The great bands grow out from that starter position with each successive release, exuding inventiveness, emotiveness and panache that comes as a natural result of experience, more life lived and more time playing together. In addition, they create stronger, more confessional and more honest material the next time they hit the studio.
On “We’re All the Same,” Smith really seems to have found his voice. He’s not merely concocting lively stories about fun country characters; he’s slipping into intoxicating reverie. It spills out of him. He’s wistful and reflective, spinning hard-won ruminations on life like, “We used up our grace” (“Down to the Wire”) and, “Who we once were fades into what we are now.” (“I Love You Still”). This latter track is the epic alt-country/indie-rock barnburner of the album. Every lyric is strong, tight and perfectly placed, and the song gradually builds to a crescendo, all the while some intense walls of chords and solos burn down the house. It’s definitely the record’s high point and should be a set-closer moving forward.
Elsewhere, “Drunk and Angry” and the title track are, on the surface, tongue-in-cheek explorations of what actually turn out to be pretty dark, intensely introspective judgements of self and others that include the themes of self-sabotage and bad habits.
The band seems to have coalesced around that artistic vision, exposing and exploring it with a broadening sonic palette it achieves through layering, instrumental interplay, builds and fills. Everything clicks into place like it does for a band that’s logged a few years doing solid runs of shows, pumping out work with writing sessions and just living life gets back into the studio. All that maturity and experience is transposed onto the tape. There’s a paradoxical tight looseness (or loose tightness, if you will).
Fingerpicking, beats and vocals hitting too right on a one-count can make things seem jolty or jittery, like a band is robotic or nervous. Handsome and the Humbles sound like they might be aware of a far-off click track or a suggested b.p.m. in the stratosphere, but they’re not letting it interfere with which side of where each individual member wants to hit with a strum, hi-hat hit, holding of a sustained note or a whisper cracking into a vocal phrase. Chambers can shred a country-rock solo with the best of them.
It speaks to long, sweaty afternoons in basements or garages and on stages of all types – planks, crowded corners under TVs and behind skeeball machines – where the tube amps hum, the snares rattle and a band develops muscle memory and a hive mind that allows for a swaying yet steady, smoothly sailing musical ship. They’re married to sea now and sailing like salty old sea dogs. The album’s sound and lyrics almost seem like what stories could be told from that type of character – an ancient mariner come back to port.
“A lot of these songs … I feel ridiculous saying this, but a lot of these are about what’s changing in adulthood,” Smith says.
“It’s literally changing as we’re talking about it,” Huff says, elaborating that the band’s life has been changing with lineup changes, new music they hear and career transformations like the one Smith had undergone a few years back and the one Huff is undergoing now. (He is in brewing/distilling school in anticipation of perhaps making a career change into that field in the future.)
There’s also an interesting juxtaposition in the songs on “We’re All the Same” in that they bring the honky-tonk, Americana, rock and bar-band fury while at the same time Smith is infusing his lyrics with a great amount of introspection – like a folk singer-songwriter hiding out amid a rowdy country-bar band. Is that an intentional artistic statement?
“There’s kind of a disconnect anyways,” Huff says of the rowdy bars they often play where people might be drinking and dancing but not necessarily listening very closely to the words of their lead man, who is as comfortable at a solo songwriter night as he is leading a band in such environments. “These songs are so personal anyways … you find that one person that might be nodding their head.”
“I still like those shows,” Smith adds.
“We’re All the Same” was officially released on September 7.