This is my history with Greg Humphrey. It’s a little long and I probably got some things wrong, but it’s what I remember and I’m sticking to it. (Humphrey died of an apparent heart attack in his Green Hills home Jan. 15. He was 63.)
I first met Greg in the early ’70s in Davis, California. I had just limped across the finish line to a BA in Psychology at UCD and was in no hurry to go back for an advanced degree in anything–except maybe playing guitar, drinking beer and sleeping late.
Greg was playing a one-off gig in a little bar on 2nd Street with some other young, long-haired guys, not the norm back then for country pickers. I was intrigued by their chops and set list, but mostly by the presence of a real pedal steel guitar player –I want to say David Wren?? Greg was playing an ancient, probably borrowed, Fender Jazz bass.
We talked on the break and hit it off (He was “Greg”arious even then). He told me he was from Pollock Pines, down the road from my hometown of South Lake Tahoe. We traded numbers and I started hanging out occasionally at his house in Sacramento where he lived with his wife, Rosalie, and his daughters, Sarah and Emily, both very young at the time. I was impressed that a musician, barely my age, already lived in a real house and had a family (How was that even possible?)
I was a country fan but liked it retro. Greg turned me on to newer (at the time) stuff; Billy Jo Shaver, Waylon, Willie, Paycheck, Coe etc. I was also taken by the road warrior look of the guys on the cover of his Honky Tonk Heros album. I didn’t want country music interpreted for me; weed-weird and watered down by suburban hippy types. They reminded me too much of myself.
We hatched a plan (Greg never did have a shortage of those) to graft he and Rose onto my Davis band, The Skins—who were not all that into country at the time. I told Greg if he could get us some gigs, I would talk my guys into being the back-up band. In that configuration, Greg played an old Gretsch—no doubt borrowed—and he was pretty darn good on a six string also. He had an encyclopedic knowledge of songs and could sing ‘em all if requested. We did some gigs over a year or so, during which time the Skins warmed up to country—that will happen once you actually play a style of music you’re not sure about– and we all started having fun.
I can’t remember why it went south, but after it did Greg and I still hung out. He eventually got a gig at Lloyd Hickey’s 40 Grand Country, an old school, blue-collar night club on Del Paso Boulevard, playing behind Jimmy Snyder, the reigning king of the Sacramento country scene. There were pompadours on the pickers, bouffant hair-do’s and hot pants on the waitresses, Tammy and Tubb on the jukebox and probably a few pistols in boots. The after hours jams were fueled by handfuls of cross-tops and Dixie cups full of whiskey. Greg somehow fit right in; he slipped “Fast Train to Georgia” into the set list, brought his buddies in to jam, held down the bottom end and held the volatile mix together with his shambling good nature.
At some point Greg got Jimmy Snyder to record one of the first songs I had ever written, “Good-bye All Over Again.” I had no thought of songwriting for others at that point but I was stoked that someone, anyone, liked one of my songs enough to sing it. (I should have headed down that path right then. I might have saved 10 years and a lot of OPM.)
Around 1980 or so, Jimmy Snyder and a band of Sacramento young guns, including Greg of course, landed the house gig at the Palomino Club in North Hollywood. It would be hard to over-state the prestige of that gig at that time; whoever was on stage was in the national spotlight. The place was packed nightly with movie and TV stars and execs, musicians, real and drug store cowboys, wannabe any and every bodies. There were still hit country records coming out of LA, so I figured Jimmy, Greg and the boys–-including Ed Hill with whom I would write my first hit years later–were on their way.
I moved to L.A. about the same time, the Skins having broken up. Greg, being Greg, introduced me to all kinds of people. One was Thumbs Carlisle, the legendary guitarist for Roger Miller. (Look him up if you’re not familiar.) Thumbs got lots of calls for gigs he couldn’t or didn’t want to take, so he’d pass them on to me. I learned to play and sing the Urban Cowboy songbook: “Looking For Love,” “Love a Rainy Night,” “On the Road Again,” etc., and was soon gigging seven nights a week in every dive/pop-up Urban Cowboy bar from Riverside to Tustin to Oxnard.
That crash course would come in handy when Greg called one day and told me about a “super group” he was putting together with Garth Hudson of the Band, Sneaky Pete Klienow of the Flying Burrito Brothers, Dallas Taylor, the drummer from CSN+Y, and Thumbs. Greg’s wife Rose would be the female vocalist, but he needed someone who could sing the standard club fare to keep the dancers on the floor. “I’m there,” I said, and brought along my old Skins buddy, keyboard player and vocalist Dave Fraser. Greg wrangled us a 5 night a week gig at a brand new, high-end club in Torrence, called Calamity’s, and the 8 piece “Shutouts” we were off. The name came from a pitcher for the LA Dodgers (his name escapes me) who was, like everyone else in a 50 mile radius, a friend of Greg’s. Dave and I agreed to wear the regulation Urban Cowboy hat, feathered headband and all, to appease the owners, who weren’t quite sure what they’d hired or what they would be subjecting their line-dancing clientele to.
The Shutouts gelled in short order with esoteric set lists: Rose singing “Right or Wrong,” me doing “Picking Up Strangers,” Dave singing “Rocking My Life Away,” followed by a Thumbs instrumental, maybe “April in Paris.” Sneaky layered on his unique steel licks (that sometimes sounded like anything but a steel) and Garth flavored it all with his swirling organ pads, accordion and alto sax, and the crowds loved it. The band held together for about a year and it remains a high point of my life as a club musician—not counting the time Greg had us back up Gary Busey, who promptly fired me for insubordination. I sang some of my originals in our sets and even have recordings on cassettes somewhere. I need to dig them out.
Greg and I drifted apart for a few years while I got a short-lived solo deal on Curb Records, then we both migrated to Nashville (“Lastville” as someone once called it) in the mid ‘80s. We wrote some songs, did a few gigs together but our circles didn’t intersect often. When they did, he always had the same easy grin, trademark laugh (I hope someone has it recorded) and knowing look; the kind you give someone with whom you go way back, someone who was there when you were up for anything and everything, someone who watched you stumble and stagger your way up, down, around and finally into the “you” you were going to be.
I was down at Tootsies this afternoon and saw the memorial for Greg in front of the stage. I talked to singers and pickers–most of them about the age Greg and I were when we met–who cried and said they loved him. I spoke with and hugged Jimmy Snyder, looking frail but still charismatic; the star I always believed him to be.
It occurred to me as I typed this that Greg and I followed a lot of the same roads; we rolled down Highway 50 from the Sierras into the Sacramento Valley, then down Interstate 5 to LA, then East on I40 to Nashville, weaving in and out of each other’s lanes, riding along for a stretch now and then, sharing stories, laughs, lows and highs. A sure high came every time someone called out a song, any song, and counted to 4.