From soul and funk to folk lyricism and college rock, Greg Humphreys has always followed his musical instincts. What was he supposed to do, then, when his heart lit upon a new muse? After nearly a quarter-century of making music in the Triangle, he's chasing that feeling and his new love to New York City. After all, that's where she lives.
Of all places, Humphreys met her in March at the New York funeral service of his best friend from high school, David Doernberg. "It was very intense, but it's very cool that Dave introduced us in a way, even though he was gone," Humphreys says. "We've been together ever since. I just want to be with [Rubina], and I'm willing to take the chance."
It's more than bittersweet to bid Humphreys goodbye: While the bubbling fountain of college youth perpetually irrigates the Triangle music scene, it'd be nothing without the remaining nutrients of prior generations—producers including Chris Stamey and Jerry Kee, bandleaders such as Rick Miller and Dexter Romweber, local legends like Sara Bell and Michael Rank. Their ongoing contributions not only built up the area's heritage; they set a foundation for its future musicians.
Humphreys' contributions have been manifold. He's invented and reinvented himself at least three times, going from the enlightened college rocker of Dillon Fence to the blue-eyed soul man of Hobex to, most recently, a folk-leaning solo artist. His forthcoming album, Bohemia, even features some jazzy, sedate neo-standards, as did last year's People You May Know. Humphreys is in a still-incipient Sinatra move.
"That's been a characteristic of my choices over the years," he acknowledges. "A lot of times, I'll follow my muse, and it becomes a grind. Then I take a left turn because that's where the creativity and the excitement are."
Across every style, Humphreys has remained first and foremost a great songwriter, working moody jangle pop on an ode to his late father, "Daylight," and slinky funk on the tale of befuddlement "Maybe It's Me." Last year's prophetic "(Oo La La) I Love You" even buoys its sweetness with a genial reggae bounce.
Songwriter Jonathan Byrd remembers spotting Humphreys several years ago in Memphis at a Folk Alliance International event. Byrd wondered what the funk musician might be doing at a conference inclined more to blues and bluegrass. Then he heard Humphreys' new songs, the same batch that would soon constitute his 2008 solo debut.
"He knocked me out," says Byrd. "It illustrates to me why he's so great. It's not because he has a great band or because he's a great singer. It's because he writes great songs, and content is king."
Humphreys grew up in a family of folk songs: Though his father was a Winston-Salem lawyer by trade, he fronted a band in the vein of Peter, Paul & Mary during his free time. His mother was an art teacher. Together, they put Humphreys on his long-term musical course. A 10th-grade talent show made him start moving along that path.
Chris Goode, who later became the guitarist in Dillon Fence, was there for the start. "We learned The Clash's 'Should I Stay Or Should I Go,'" says Goode, now a professor of psychology at Georgia State. "We decided to call ourselves The Trash. Get it? Most of those kids had never been to a live rock show, and they went wild. We really got the bug that day."
A few years later, Humphreys' friend and classmate at R.J. Reynolds High School, Phil Morrison, arranged a benefit at the school. The concert featured bands that included former students, notably the dB's and Let's Active.
"They were making records and touring. They were doing it and we got to meet and interact with them," says Humphreys. "That was a huge influence because it gave us this feeling we could do this."
The Trash lasted through high school, conquering several more talent shows (including one that pitted them against a band fronted by classmate Ben Folds). They went their separate ways at graduation, but Humphreys knew he'd soon be back into music when he enrolled at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill in 1985. He met fellow freshman guitarist Kent Alphin and discovered their mutual love of bands such as R.E.M., the Smiths and the Housemartins. Goode began commuting from Wake Forest University; together they formed Dillon Fence with one of Humphreys' frat brothers, drummer Brooke Pitts.
Their self-titled debut EP became a regional sensation, helping the band sell out large venues throughout the Southeast. They sold 10,000 copies on their own before Mammoth Records came around with a contract. The band released its first album, Rosemary, on Mammoth in 1992. The rising alt-rock tide lifted Dillon Fence. It was as much a curse as a blessing.
"We were competing for tickets and airplay with these bands that were getting spun on the radio 50 times a week and had six-figure budgets behind them," Humphreys explains. In essence, they were the nobody neophytes who had stumbled into the action.
For 1993's Outside In, Dillon Fence worked with producer Lou Giordano, a veteran of Hüsker Dü and Yo La Tengo records. He roughed up their edges and thickened their guitars, making Dillon Fence a bit more aggressive and urgent. "If Rosemary was our Meet the Beatles, I wanted to make a Revolver or Rubber Soul," Humphreys remembers. "I wanted to charge forward and take chances."
They explored their inner Thin Lizzy and Cheap Trick for 1994's Living Room Scene, but in spite of the refreshed sonic approach, the band's energy had begun to flag. The steady touring and string of three albums in as many years had sapped them. Burnt out, Goode and Alphin left the band shortly after the album's release. But Humphreys and drummer Scott Carle continued, ironically playing the band's biggest shows after losing half of the lineup. Bolstered by the commercial emergence of Hootie & the Blowfish, the world's biggest Dillon Fence fans, they found an audience newly receptive to their style. Not only did Hootie return the favor by offering Dillon Fence opening slots, but they even covered the band's songs and namechecked them in the chart-topping 1995 smash, "Only Wanna Be With You." Again, it proved to be a blessing and a curse.
"Hootie's success definitely threw a wrench in how we were received because it was so all-consuming," Humphreys says. "People like Edwin McCain or Cravin Melon—we were a band a lot of these guys looked to as a template. All of a sudden we were competing with a million other bands [on bigger record labels]."
Even as they were playing these larger gigs, Humphreys' mind was moving forward. Goode's replacement in Dillon Fence, Andy Ware, remembers Humphreys mentioning some demos he was doing apart from Dillon Fence during one of those final gigs. These rough soul and funk takes were the first glimmerings of Hobex.
The new band became a showcase for Humphreys' vocal gifts. While his lilting, winsome croon easily caressed the Beatles-like melodies of Dillon Fence, it could be lost in the shuffle of similar acts biting a similar move. In Hobex, Humphreys' airy tenor sidled along, unhurried and with just a hint of gruff rasp, like the biting finish of a crisp Chardonnay.
"I'll be the first to admit there was an arrogance to that decision. I thought, 'I'm just going to start another band that's completely different and it's going to have as much if not more success,'" Humphreys explains. "Looking back, it probably wasn't the best thing for my career. For my creativity, it was absolutely the best thing."
The move almost worked: Hobex's debut produced a regional hit in "Groove Baby," attracting the interest of London Records, once the American counterpart of the great U.K. soul and blues label Decca Records.
"We were selling more records again," Humphreys says. "We got a big record deal, and all of a sudden it was on again."
Rather than simply re-release it, London wanted Hobex to re-record a few things. Not long after the disc finally hit shelves, Universal swallowed London, dropping Hobex in the process. They recorded Wisteria, a stop-gap album with Jimbo Mathus, which featured several funk tracks and some acoustic numbers hinting at the direction his later solo career would take.
The proper follow-up, U Ready Man?, arrived through Americana and rock label Tone Cool, a connection Humphreys made through his friendship with The North Mississippi Allstars. True to Humphreys' past, though, the label's relationship soon changed with its distributor, leaving his record without the necessary momentum. Humphreys picked up a Pro Tools rig and set about self-producing Hobex's final album, Enlightened Soul, taking four years. By then, however, that familiar restlessness had set in.
"I'd been in a band almost 20 years," he says. "It was all I knew. I wanted to make music, but I had to get out of that cycle of trying to create momentum and keep everyone motivated and book gigs so that everybody will stay in the group. I had to get away from that. I wanted to get back to just focusing on songs."
His 2008 solo debut, Trunk Songs, was very much that—a backlog of tunes that didn't fit his bands. But 2010's Realign Your Mind was about his transition out of both band life and a long-term relationship. By last year's People You May Know, the darkness had begun to lift. Humphreys has since collaborated with a wide variety of artists, including bluegrass troupe Big Fat Gap, Americana couple Mandolin Orange and hip-hop big band The Beast. Truly liberated, he even spent several summers touring Europe from Prague. Freedom's been good for Humphreys.
"Being a solo artist has been a great experience in that way, because you're playing listening rooms and environments where they're really paying attention. It's not like a bar gig where you're pummeling them into submission," he says. "It's been fantastic. It's nothing but left turns now."
This article appeared in print with the headline "Legacy of restless."