It’s a Monday evening in the former press room of The Daily Times, and Handsome and the Humbles are on the fourth take of a cover for the newspaper’s Summer Virtual Concert Series.
Frontman and songwriter Josh Smith flubs the lyrics to Best Coast’s “The Only Place” again, shaking his head and turning to his bandmates.
“Sorry, guys,” he says, looking sheepish. “Man, I’m sorry.”
It’s a reflex reaction, Smith’s tendency to apologize — so much that guitarist and banjo player Zack Miles often tell him, in more colorful terms, to stop doing it so much. He’s trying to be more aware of the trait, but like a lot of artists, his mind has a tendency to wander.
“It’s a struggle of mine, being present and not thinking about other things,” he says a few days later, speaking by phone. “I think it’s because of my imagination. Even when I used to work at the church years ago, I would think about things we should be doing rather than things in the moment.”
Slowly but surely, however, he’s learning to focus on the here and now — to soak up the sounds of his talented bandmates, ripping through the Appalachian rock built around his words; to acknowledge the grins of fans staring back at him from the audience at places like The Shed in Maryville, where Handsome and the Humbles will perform on Saturday; to take mental notes of the situations and stories that fill his life so that, when he sits down to put pen to paper, he’s able to use them to explore grander themes of love, loss and home. His songs exist in the shadows, the dark places where an acquaintance is shot in the back after robbing a convenience store and a woman is wrongly executed for a murder secretly committed by the narrator.
And that may be the most surprising aspect of the whole Handsome and the Humbles phenomenon — that a guy as genuinely gracious and kind and good-natured as Smith can pen such tales of woe and sadness.
“I feel like, by getting it out, it keeps me from seeing things that way; getting the darkness and sadness out, I feel like it keeps me sane,” he said. “It’s like a cathartic thing. I don’t think of myself as a dark person or a sad person, even though I’ve been around a lot of dark people my whole life. I’ve grown up knowing people who are dealing with addiction and doubt, and I’ve grown up with people who are pathologically depressed, and maybe I’ve been lucky enough to find a way to leave that stuff myself and put it out in the world. It’s therapeutic.”
Raised in Clinton, Smith found religion in high school and quickly became active as a worship leader and a bass player in a Christian band, Proof of Purchase, which also included his childhood friend and current Handsome and the Humbles guitar player, Jason Chambers. They opened for Jeremy Camp and enjoyed a certain amount of local success before Smith left to attend a religious-oriented college. Although he adopted a conservative dogma, he never quite let go of his tendency to question the nature of things and look at the bigger picture, and when he went to work for a small-town church that sought to exile his co-worker and former college roommate, who happened to be gay, he found himself at a crossroads.
“If you take the get-into-heaven card out of it, it seems like so much of the church is about, ‘I’m going to do this for you, but I need you to come to church,’” he says. “There’s no true altruistic deed — it’s like, ‘I’m going to get you to come to church, because that makes me feel better.’ Giving without expecting something in return, that’s what really helps you.”
Call it a crisis of humanity rather than one of faith: The conservative values nurtured through religion were antithetical to how he wanted to treat people, and so he stepped away. (“I had to find out what this life was all about, gotta leave to find your soul,” he sings on the song “Hard Times,” the lead-off track to “Have Mercy,” his band’s full-length debut album.) After eight years away from music, he picked up the guitar and began to write again, taking his first tentative steps into the alt-country wheelhouse of artists like Ryan Adams and Jason Isbell. Through it, he began to explore the place he called home, drawing a direct line from the rugged landscape to the rough characters whose lives are consumed by hard times and difficult circumstances.
Around the same time, he ran into Chambers, whose run as a member of the long-time ensemble The Hotshot Freight Train was coming to an end.
“We had a meeting two or three years ago and decided we were going to do one last album, and we were done,” Chambers says. “I left that practice thinking, ‘I don’t want to give up music,’ so I decided to reach out to some of my musician buddies.”
One of those was Tyler Huff, who was one of the young people in the church youth group that Smith had led many years prior; he had also taken Smith’s place in Proof of Purchase. Huff suggested he and Chambers start a cover band to make some money on the side, and at one of their early rehearsals, Smith happened to be there and suggested they give some of his original songs a try.
“I said, ‘I don’t care if we never make a dime again; we’ve got to play these songs, because they’re too good to hide,’” Chambers says.
“The first thing I told him was, ‘I wish I’d known years ago you could sing and play like this,’” Huff adds. “When he sent me his first three demos, it just blew me away. The depth of what he was writing about, his style ... I just saw a lot of room and immediately said, ‘Let’s put this together. I want to play these songs, not just help you work on them.’”
With their former drummer, they began compiling a list of originals on a whiteboard; in short order, they had more than 30 song titles down, plus about 10 covers. It would be almost a year before the band played in public, however, and by that point, the search for a band name had landed on one goofy suggestion that seemed more marquee-friendly than some of the off-color suggestions Smith had jokingly offered up. In 2014, they convened to record a debut EP, around the same time that Miles and Smith were getting to know one another through the open mic night at Preservation Pub in downtown Knoxville.
“I went to their release show for it, and that’s when (Josh) asked me to become part of the band and come to rehearsal,” Miles says. “Just hearing him initially at the open mic, his songwriting floored me. It’s completely genuine, no holds barred, just put-everything-on-the-table songwriting.”
The quartet — now a five-piece, with Lauryl Brisson on drums — quickly became close friends outside of playing music together. For his part, Smith — who’s ruggedly handsome and most assuredly humble — is quick to give credit where credit is due when it comes to bringing his songs to life.
“Every single person in the band is a better musician than I am,” he says. “Jason is really good, because from a musical standpoint, he can always hear what needs to happen. He’s just very talented and has a good grasp of how music works, which I don’t really feel like I do. Tyler, when he hears a song, he can figure out what I’m talking about, and doing that, I feel like he can inject the appropriate emotion into the song. Lauryl is just a frigging fantastic drummer, and she’s able to dynamically work well with the music that’s happening. And Zack is just an awesome songwriter and an incredible guitar player and banjo player. Sometimes, he’ll do guitar parts that we’d never think of.”
It’s a relationship of synchronicity, however, because it’s the source material that gives Chambers, Miles, Huff and Brisson the abilities to shine — not just because they want to play to the best of their abilities, which they do, but because they believe in the songs they’re playing as well. Because that’s the other thing about Smith — he’s an inspiring leader. He’s not a Patton or a MacArthur; his style is quieter but just as earnest, and his songs are so plainspoken and honest that it’s easy to see that he injects a little bit of his soul into each one.
“When he first brought his songs to us, everything about them — the stories, the melodies, the guitar licks — just sent chills up me in a good way, and from that point forward, I knew I had to play music with this guy,” Chambers says.”The songs were really, really good.”
“As I’ve gotten older, music is definitely a spiritual thing, and in this group, the music — not only the words he writes, but the music we put together — really speaks to me,” Huff adds. “I feel really connected to it. It’s this rootsy, Southern Appalachian, Americana kind of thing that I already love so much, and when he put his words on top of it, it just feels so right. It just connects and speaks to me.”
Back in the press room, the band nails the final take, the guys hanging back while Smith strums through the opening chords, accompanied only by Brisson’s brush drumming at first. When the song shifts gears, Smith turns, mouth open, bent over, stomping, spinning in a semi-circle to lock onto everyone in the band.
He’s present. He’s in the moment. If this is as good as it gets, so be it; he hopes there will be more and would very much like to give up his job as a physical therapist to play music full time, but worrying about whether that becomes a reality isn’t something he allows to consume him, he says.
“One of the things I have to do is not get too concerned with that and just enjoy playing music with my friends,” he says. “I enjoy playing, because it’s special to spend time with your friends, and it’s special to make something. Whether it becomes something you can do for a living, I have to tell myself — ‘Enjoy this; it’s good.’ Even though my songs are sad as hell.”