Al Laughlin moved to Colorado in the late 1980s to be a ski instructor, but his plans changed after meeting a few people at a party in Boulder one afternoon.
"I went to a get-together at a house on 14th and Euclid, just off the Hill," recalls Laughlin, 49, who grew up near Lowell, Massachusetts. "Sean [Kelly], Charles [Hambleton] and Andy [Sheldon] were jamming, and I ended up hanging out with them. I said in passing, 'Hey, I play keyboards,' and they were like, 'Great. You can try out for our band.' I was still sort of learning to play at that time, but I think we got along more as people than anything. Within six months of becoming the Samples, we were signed to Arista Records. It all happened really fast."
Laughlin and the Samples, along with acts like Big Head Todd and the Monsters, went on to forge a well-appreciated musical era on the Front Range. The reggae- and ska-tinged grooves that the band created sound as musically fresh today as they did in 1988, and the would-be ski instructor's signature keyboard sound became known affectionately among his fans as "the bubble."
"We toured with the Wailers for a while, and one of their keyboardists had this great style of playing that I always liked," explains Laughlin. "It's a percussive lick. It's kind of on the off beat where your lower hand starts it, and then you do the reggae skank on the top. It literally sounds like it's bubbling."
Since the heady days that started on the Hill, Laughlin, who now calls Niwot home, has been through some changes. He found himself at a personal and artistic crossroads in the late ’90s and left Colorado. He returned to his roots on the East Coast, but later boomeranged back to the Centennial State. While he stopped making music for a time, his desire to perform never left him. In 2012, following a long break from the creative life, Laughlin decided to start jamming again, and he, along with a former roommate from Boulder, James Hambleton, the younger brother of original Samples rhythm guitarist Charles, put together a group called Highway 50.
"Yeah, my friend Scott Stammers, who's also a musician, said, 'Dude, you gotta do music again,'" recounts Laughlin. "So he started recording me. He wanted to call it 'Where's Al?' but I had recently had an experience where I'd run out of gas on Highway 50, which is known as the 'loneliest road in America' and is part of the old Pony Express route. Fortunately, a trucker picked me up and brought me back to a gas station. I was out there in a VW bus. But everything about that experience seemed to make sense in a strange way, so I borrowed the name of the road for the band."
Highway 50 blends rock, reggae, ska and splashes of R&B, pop and hip-hop to brew an intoxicating mash that demonstrates Laughlin's proficiency with songcraft. In 2014, the band released a CD, The Violet Project, and is poised to release another one this fall.
"Our sound is basically reggae and ska, but I have some hip-hop-influenced tunes, too," Laughlin says. "Someone once called it 'ska-hop.' It's pretty much reggae, but we're all a bunch of American white guys. I don't really preach Rastafari or anything."
Highway 50 comprises Laughlin on keys and vocals, James Hambleton on guitar, Chris Wright on bass, original Samples drummer Jeep MacNichol, and Scott Higgins on guitar, with the occasional addition of horns by Sarah Mount, Matt Planer and Andrew McNew. The group's latest single is called "Raise Up." Laughlin also recently recorded the soundtrack for a television sitcom, Boulder Buds, set in Boulder. Overall things are looking, well, up for Laughlin and company.
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"I'm stepping through life as best I can," Laughlin shares. "I've been writing a lot of songs lately. A friend of mine is doing a series about a Boulder dispensary, and I just did the soundtrack for it. The show just got signed, which is pretty cool. I also plan to release an EP soon. I have another tune called 'Rise Up,' and one called 'Looking Up,' and then one called 'Let It Shine' " shares Laughlin. "I'm at a place in my life where I'm on a positive upswing. I quit partying, and I want everything to be really positive, so I think that's where all the 'up' is coming from."
Laughlin and Highway 50, who gig regularly around the Front Range, will demonstrate their upwardly bubbling creations at the Lazy Dog Saloon in Boulder this Friday.
"Boulder is kind of like L.A. now," says Laughlin. "It's still beautiful and everything, but I got priced out. I still go there to do yoga and hang out."