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The WDVX Blue Plate Special live from Visit Knoxville – 1/22 – D Boone Pittman / Josh Smith
January 22 @ 12:00 pm - 1:00 pm
With his sophomore album Emerge, D. Boone Pittman once again makes Eastern Kentucky seem as mythical, alluring and inviting as any setting that’s ever been immortalized in song.
We’ve all come to know and love places because songs have inspired us to daydream about them: Memphis, El Paso, New Orleans, San Francisco, L.A.—from “Sweet Home Alabama” to “the South South Bronx.” But the scenery we encounter in Pittman’s songs is distinct in that he’s not just a troubadour passing through and observing for a night before heading for the next show. In fact, any place would be lucky to have a D. Boone Pittman to reveal its charms, its limitations, its stories, its humanity—its truth—to the world.
Having grown up in the Powell County town of Stanton, it’s as if the lay of the land has soaked into Pittman’s bones. And even when he touches on travails—be they his own or the more collective challenges he addresses for all of our benefit on Emerge—his love of home pours into every note of his rockin’ blend of country and bluegrass.
On the title track, for example, Pittman (who is also a pastor) grapples with the disintegration of our social fabric over a smooth, anthemic—and rather upbeat—Tom Petty-inspired country rock groove. Conversely, Pittman closes the album by extolling the value of resilience over a plaintive piano ballad on “Rise.” And of course, he takes us to the Kentucky of his childhood on songs like “Jordache Jenny” and “Casey Jones,” which weaves youthful nostalgia together with old lore, reminding us that the figure made famous by the Grateful Dead was actually a native of the area.
Pittman’s musical story begins in the early 1970s at the grand opening of the local town drug store. His late father, from whom Pittman would later inherit his trademark Martin D-28 acoustic guitar, basically forced him to sing a Johnny Cash song, much to the delight of the crowd that had gathered there. Pittman, though he immediately received enthusiastic accolades and even tips, wasn’t havin’ it.
“I hated it,” he recalls, “but I secretly loved it. In my room, I’m playing air guitar and pretending to be Elvis, but to do it in public as a kid was really tough. It wasn’t that I struggled doing it, it was just more the fact that I was being made to do something. That ended up driving me into a phase where I refused to sing out in public at all.”
Even going to a Johnny Cash concert at the age of 5 with his mother wasn’t enough to lure Pittman back into the spotlight, and transcribing the lyrics to hit songs off 45s for his father didn’t quite do the trick either—but it did lay the groundwork for the lyrical depth and flair that Pittman showed so effortlessly right off the bat with his 2019 debut Bluegrass American Dream.
“My dad would pay me a dollar a song to sit down and figure the words out for him,” Pittman chuckles. “I have to really question how good I was at it because I was so young, but I guess he was able to use it. Who knows how many of the lines I’d get right at the end of the day, but I think that’s when I got my first appreciation for lyrics.”
“Back when I was 7 or 8,” he continues, “country rock was really big, and ‘Lyin’ Eyes’ by The Eagles was a big hit. I remember that song specifically because there were so many verses in it. Even at that age, I could appreciate the darkness behind the cheating and the lying and everything in that song.”
Pittman’s resistance to performing in front of people went out the window, however, when he got the opportunity to go on a field trip as a freshman in high school.
“All the girls were going,” Pittman laughs. “It was an academic competition and they had a talent category. I specifically remember the teacher saying, ‘I need somebody to fill the talent spot. You get to go on this three-day trip to Louisville and compete.’ So I raised my hand. ‘Well what’s your talent?’ he asked. And I said, ‘I sing and play guitar.’ Nobody knew I sang and played guitar—because I didn’t! So I’m thinking I’ve got six weeks between now and this talent show, and that was when I had to swallow my pride. I go to my dad and I’m like, ‘Look, I’m ready to learn how to play guitar. I want to do this.’ And my dad was like, ‘You’re crazier than hell—I can’t teach you how to play in six weeks!’ I was like, ‘Just think of the easiest two-chord bluegrass tune that you know and I’ll run with it.’ So he taught me how to play a medley of Jimmy Brown The Newsboy and Wildwood Flower, but his style of playing was like Maybelle Carter, where they played the melody and the rhythm at the same time.”
The trip, alas, got cancelled, but Pittman’s life path was set. (By the way, he learned the song in four weeks.)
“There was just no running from it,” he muses. “I had an undeniable love for music, and singing came naturally to me. I’ve never put it down since.”
As a tribute to his father, Pittman adopted The Fugitives band name, but he sees his work as carrying-on an even broader legacy.
“I grew up in an environment where it was a common thing for people to bring their instruments over on the weekends—banjos, fiddles and guitars where everybody was singing and just having a good time. That was a really crucial aspect of my childhood. I really miss that. You don’t have that front-porch picking kind of spirit anymore, at least not where I’m at. So whatever I can do to bring it back with my music, I feel like I have to at least try.”
In other words, Pittman is inviting you back home—back home to a world that still has room for community, back home to the most cherished aspects of your past and back home to yourself. You don’t have to be from Kentucky for Emerge to take you there, but D. Boone Pittman sure does make it seem like a wonderful place to explore on the way.
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.