The college rock of the mid-’80s — R.E.M., the Smiths and local bands like Let’s Active and the dBs — shaped the music Greg Humphreys made. He went on to draw on his love of soul. Now, living in New York City, Humphreys is letting the city, a new set of collaborators and his tastes guide him toward a sound that pulls it all together.
Musicians often head to New York City when youthful ambition and untested confidence are at their peak. Labels, publicists, clubs and other musicians abound there, making the big city the place for a trial by fire that either nudges you into the air or into the ashes. But it’s the rare performer who decides to uproot after making a name for themselves elsewhere, having established a fan base and a circuit and a career outside of the entertainment capital.
Humphreys is a North Carolina singer and songwriter, who made his name fronting Chapel Hill bands like Dillon Fence and Hobex in the ‘90s and aughts. He’s been in New York City for the past five years, letting the change of pace and musical networks energize him. The 50-year-old grew up in Winston-Salem and spent the last 30 or so years making music that was generally sunny and bright, even during a time (the ‘90s) when feel-good pop wasn’t exactly what was in demand. With his newest project, the Greg Humphreys Electric Trio, he continues to arc toward music that is romantic and optimistic and generally happy.
I spoke with Humphreys earlier this week by phone from his home in New York City, in advance of an upcoming show at the Muddy Creek Music Hall in Winston-Salem. Humphreys’ electric trio released its first studio album, Lucky Guy, last year, and it showcases the mellow soul that has been an inspiration for the singer since he began, but which is now coming to the foreground, after other projects that might have focused a little more on jangly pop and acoustic songs.
“I think that if you look at a lot of the decisions I’ve made, good or bad, in what we call this career, you can see that I like to follow my muse,” Humphreys said. Switching up styles, dipping into other genres, other forms and rhythmic frameworks have been a way for Humphreys, who has released over a dozen records of original material, to keep things new and interesting for himself.
“A lot of time, musically it’s been a breath of fresh air to try something different stylistically,” he said. “I think that as a musician, as a writer, it’s good for you.”
With this trio, formed in New York three years ago with two other displaced Southerners, Humphreys said he’s connecting much of what he’s done in the past.
“I’m trying in a lot of ways to bring all the different things I’ve done over the years under one tent,” he said.
The title track, the opener on the new record, has a breezy and light, almost Brazilian-carnival-samba feel, with ukulele and an ambling march to it. “Crosstown” moves with a gentle slicing funk groove that evokes an ultra-mellow and light take on the Meters.
Humphreys plays a lot of clean and trebly-sounding electric guitar in the trio, another part of the equation that keeps him excited and on his toes.
“Having been away from playing a lot of electric guitar for a while, it made it really fun for me to come back to it,” he said.
The record’s final tune, “Someday I’ll Have My Due,” has a slow-burn Southern soul vibe to it, suggesting a kinship with Percy Sledge or the more candle-lit songs of Otis Redding. While it’s not the first thing one would expect from a college-rock indie-pop guy, on a song like “More Than A Friend,” Humphreys even brings to mind the cotton-candy lilt and sway of beach music.
Historically, beach music is soul music divorced from its city setting and cultivated in the sand and sun, in the Carolinas, mainly, for the subdued shag-dancing pleasures of ocean-going vacationers and jukebox fans. It would be oversimplifying it to say that if Detroit had Motown and Memphis had the Stax sound, then the Carolinas and Virginia had beach music. But you get the idea.
“It’s part of my musical DNA,” Humphreys said. “I’m definitely not a beach-music guy, per se, but I like sunny soul music, and that’s a big part of what beach music has.” But it’s not all billowy floral patterns. Slapped in the middle of the new record is an instrumental called “Golden Bone,” which is sort of a swamp-blues riff with drawling slide guitar and a hard-jawed Southern rock attitude.
Humphreys isn’t exactly playing music that’s divorced from popular tastes; you could say there’s even a connection to big artists like John Mayer. Yet, coming from the world of college rock, Humphreys is cutting loose in his own way.
“I do what I like, and somehow that’s become a form of rebellion when everything can become so by-the-book,” he said.
Humphreys says he came by his independent DIY streak, in part, from growing up in Winston-Salem and experiencing the local music scene in the mid-‘80s, seeing bands like Let’s Active and the dBs and realizing that making one’s own music on a national stage was an option.
“I do think that when I got Chapel Hill, I feel like I had a leg up on a lot of aspiring musicians because I had grown up in Winston-Salem,” Humphreys said. “The music scene that was happening when I was in high school was really inspiring and interesting. Meeting people from our home town that were out there making records — that was huge.”
John Adamian lives in Winston-Salem, and his writing has appeared in Wired, The Believer, Relix, Arthur, Modern Farmer, the Hartford Courant and numerous other publications.
See the Greg Humphreys Electric Trio at Muddy Creek Music Hall, 5455 Bethania Road, Winston-Salem, on Friday, Sept. 29, at 8 p.m., $12 & $15, muddycreekcafeandmusichall.com