North Carolina native Charles Humphrey III is enjoying a great life these days performing for thousands of music fans as co-founder of the bluegrass group Steep Canyon Rangers.
The band has become famous worldwide in recent years performing and recording with comedian, movie star and banjo player Steve Martin.
But Humphrey’s successful career in music might not have happened if it were not for a dream he had as a freshman in college.
Humphrey and his bandmates will return to the Imperial Theatre at 7:30 p.m. Friday, Nov. 16, for the Morris Museum of Art’s Budweiser True Music Southern Soul & Song series.
Tickets – $24, $19 and $13 – are available at the box office or online at imperialtheatre.com. Call (706) 722-8341.
Humphrey, born on Christmas Day 1976 in Greenville, N.C., began playing upright bass in his middle school orchestra mainly to get out of regular classes. Neither his sister nor his parents – his father was an insurance salesman and his mother a teacher – were particularly musical.
“My dad likes to listen to country music, and my mom likes to sing in church, but that’s about it,” he said recently by phone.
As he grew older, his love of sports grew.
“I always played sports in high school and became less interested in playing with the orchestra,” he said. “I played third base and was a pitcher with baseball and I also wrestled. I was better at baseball then wrestling. I also enjoyed going to the beaches and surfing on weekends.”
After graduating from high school, he started studying at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
“I had a dream my freshman year that I was playing in Carnegie Hall in New York City,” he recalled. “I went out the very next day and signed up for upright bass lessons. And not long ago, I did get to play in Carnegie Hall with Steve Martin.”
In the fall of 1995, Humphrey became aware of fellow students Woody Platt and Graham Sharp and their musical talents.
“We traveled in different circles but we had common friends,” Humphrey said. “One summer, Graham and I moved to the Outer Banks (of North Carolina). He was learning the banjo and was building houses, and I was cooking. We played some together at the beach, and it was great. We loved it. We knew Woody could play rhythm guitar and sing, and so we just got together with him. We easily could get a decent audience together from all the friends we knew.”
The trio joined with mandolin player Mike Guggino to form Steep Canyon Rangers in late 1999. The name was inspired by the beer Deep Canyon Stout. They added fiddler Nicky Sanders, a graduate of Berklee College of Music in Boston.
In early 2009, Martin released his CD The Crow: New Songs for the Five-String Banjo, which would earn him a Grammy Award as Best Bluegrass Album of the Year. He needed a band to tour in promotion of the CD and selected the Steep Canyon Rangers, whom he had met while visiting his wife’s relatives in North Carolina.
So because of their association with Martin, Steep Canyon Rangers went from performing in the Stillwater Tap Room on Broad Street in Augusta in 2005 to performing with Martin at some of the nation’s best venues.
Just last year, they performed with him on the lawn of the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., for the annual Fourth of July A Capitol Fourth celebration that aired live over the nation’s public broadcasting television stations.
“That definitely was a career highlight,” Humphrey said, “performing for about a half million people there in person and 10 million watching on TV.”
November will find them performing with Martin in several states, including shows in Anchorage, Alaska, next Tuesday and Wednesday just before they come to Augusta.
Humphrey has emerged as one of the group’s main songwriters.
He told Nashville Review, a publication of Vanderbilt University, “I generally set aside specific times in the week, usually in the morning, to write by myself or co-write with other writers. I usually write on the guitar. I like to take what I hope or think is an original-enough idea and get a strong chorus. If I can get a chorus that is ‘hooky’ enough, or one that I really like, the song will usually unfold from there.”
Besides Steep Canyon Rangers and Martin, Humphrey’s songs have been recorded by Town Mountain, Mark Schimick, Jed Fisher, Sav Sankaran, The Canucky Bluegrass Boys and a group he produces called the Songs from the Road Band.
It’s no wonder that Platt calls Humphrey the Steep Canyon Rangers’ “secret weapon.”