Handsome and the Humbles: “We’re All the Same"

 

In his day job, the gig that pays the bills until his band — Handsome and the Humbles — gets the recognition (and the payday) it so richly deserves, Josh Smith spends his days listening.

He’s a physical therapist assistant, and that merry twinkle in his eyes and ever-present smile puts his patients at ease. As he encourages them and puts them through the routines that bring their frail and wounded bodies back to health, they open up to the East Tennessee boy, and in turn, he gives them his mind and his imagination as well as his hands.

“It gets you thinking about things,” he says. “Hearing about people who have been through a lot more than I have makes me think, ‘How would I handle that? Am I as good as this person?’ I’m a lucky guy — I’ve got a great family and great friends, and I wonder sometimes what my life would be if I had to go through what they have.”

It would be easy to think that “We’re All the Same,” the new album by Handsome and the Humbles, is a collection of those stories, filtered through Smith’s keen eye of observation and the band’s deft musical chops that fit the prototypical Americana mold. But that’s too simplistic: These are songs written by a soul that’s older than the years of the body that carries it, played by a group of guys who have grown as instrumentalists into a capable ensemble that renders each track with the sort of nuance necessary to embolden the message. This isn’t your prototypical three-chord country-rock, nor is it a rehash of 2016’s “Have Mercy.” In these troubled times, when division and discord pass for normalcy and disagreement has become a yawning chasm of separation, “We’re All the Same” embraces the idea that hope can bridge that gap.

“It’s about feeling uncomfortable, and realizing we all feel that,” Smith says. “It’s about recognizing that we all feel these things we may never talk about.”

Like most of the characters in his songs, Smith began to ask himself those uncomfortable questions as a younger man. Raised in Clinton, Tenn., just outside of Knoxville, his childhood and formative years were centered around his faith. He even started out working for a small town church, but he came to realize that the fundamentalist dogma to which it subscribed didn’t sit well with his core beliefs of tolerance and acceptance. 

"It just occurred to me that everything I'd been taught, everything I was repeating without thinking about it, wasn't really what I believed," he says. "Deep down, I knew that these certain things weren't right. I knew this wasn't the way to treat people. I started to wake up, I guess you could say."

And so he turned to an outlet that allowed him to further explore that awakening: music. Influenced by artists like Springsteen, Dylan and Ryan Adams, he positioned himself as a seeker of greater truths and a teller of stories descended from the rich tradition of oral narrators who bring to life the hardscrabble men and women who carve lives out of those rugged East Tennessee hills. Upon hearing his songs, two old friends — Tyler Huff and Jason Chambers — abandoned their plans to start a cover band, opting instead to bring Smith’s songs to life.

“To be able to make things out of nothing with my friends — people I’ve known for so long — is pretty special to me,” Smith says. “I don’t know how I lucked into knowing such talented people. I feel like I write a good song, and then they make it so much more than I ever thought about it being.”

Handsome and the Humbles is rounded out by Josh Hutson and Chris Bratta, two veterans of the East Tennessee music scene. Both are recent additions to the band, and Hutson was one of a multitude of Humbles, past and present, who helped sculpt the songs on “We’re All the Same” into poignant observations of humanity. It’s a particular point of pride for Smith that the album features contributions from his former bandmates— multi-instrumentalist Zack Miles, a singer-songwriter who’s pursuing his own career, and drummer Lauryl Brisson, who are joined by frequent band contributor Jay Birkbeck and a couple of Knoxville scene heavy hitters: Mic Harrison, formerly of The V-Roys, Superdrag and frontman of Mic Harrison and The High Score, as well as Andrew Leahey, who leads the Homestead as one of Tennessee’s brightest young roots-rock bands. Smith’s wife, Erin, even contributes some harmonies.

Together, they’ve made a record that’s deftly composed, sweetly nuanced and epically sprawling. It’s the equivalent of a time-traveling drone, hovering a hundred feet over the East Tennessee ground, recording places that feel familiar even to those who have never lived here, because the human condition knows no geographical boundaries. “We’re All the Same” is more than a title; it’s a mission statement, and in these songs, listeners from the Bay Area to the Florida Keys will hear themselves — their fragile hearts, their optimistic dreams, their wistful sorrows — in every line.

The tone is set with “Back Home,” the lead-off track that begins as a simple acoustic lamentation, written from the perspective of an old man remembering the place he left behind: “When I breathe my last, would you send me back home, to that Tennessee clay, where they’ll lay down my bones?” As the rest of the band slowly joins in, it transitions into one of those wise-beyond-his-years observations that make Smith such a gifted songwriter: that the miles traveled and the things seen seldom bring the same comfort as the places to which we all hope to return.

“It’s about an old man who thought he needed to leave to find something, and so he just left everything,” Smith says. “A lot of these songs are me writing about other people, but there’s something personal about it for me when I do.”

References to home abound on the new record, from chiming R.E.M.-style guitars on “Down to the Wire” to the melodic dance between six-string and keys on “Tried So Hard,” in which Smith returns to the faith of his youth, an anchor that became an albatross, but like most things, one that provides both solace and regret when viewed through the lens of time. Those ghosts show up again on “Rebel,” the band shuffling through a Southern blues groove while Smith moans about the real terror of “kids packing pistols … loaded up on pills,” and by the time the record ambles toward its twilight, the players have locked in on a sound that calls to mind early Son Volt, and the characters in those songs claw desperately for a little light to beat back the darkness. The harmonies of “What Could Have Been” give way to the glorious ache of “Now and Then.’ “Think about me,” Smith pleads as the album crosses the finish line, every note perfect, every guitar channeling the things these guys feel so keenly: Sorrow abides, hope never dies and love is eternal.

Those themes are universal ones, and “We’re All the Same” serves as an ideal declaration of union between the hearts of men and women. It’s a gem of an album, even by the rigorous standards of the East Tennessee music scene, and in these turbulent times, it feels like a necessary one. 

“I don’t want to pretend that we’re making some grand statement, because that was never the point,” Smith says. “We don’t write about politics or social issues or things like that, even though we might have those opinions. But the things we do write about, I’d like to think, show that we can find some common ground despite those differences. We all know love. We all know hope. And if we can spend more time listening to each other instead of shouting at one another, I think we’ll see that those things are more important.”

-Steve Wildsmith