By Chris Stuart
As a result of the success of the Lonesome River Band’s breakout album, “Carrying The Tradition,” of 1991 and that of the personnel who recorded it, it’s worth pointing out that LRB has had an even longer, as well as current, successful history. The band formed in 1982 and has had a resurgence on the charts, garnering fourteen #1 positions from their recent album “No Turning Back,” landing a #1 on both the album and single charts for this magazine, and earning three IBMA nominations, as well as leading off the IBMA awards show with a cannonade performance of the song “Them Blues.” Few bands carry the weight of their own past as well as the Lonesome River Band.
Bluegrassers love to create a fanciful narrative about a band. But, from inside the band, the story is generally more mundane. Bandmembers come and go, albums come and go, but the bandleader always has the same goals: create good music, make money, and keep the band going. That’s why the title of LRB’s latest album is so apt. There’s really not much time to look back, and it’s impossible to turn back.
LRB, however, is going ahead not with a vengeance, but with a quiet confidence. There is no chip on their shoulder. They acknowledge the accomplishments of the past, but they are focused on the present in an easy and even light-hearted manner. And that attitude comes from the bandleader himself, banjoist Sammy Shelor, who took over band leadership of LRB when guitarist and bandleader Tim Austin left in 2001.
A four-time recipient of IBMA Banjo Player Of The Year, Shelor was recently inducted into the Virginia Country Music Hall Of Fame. He was born to be a banjo player. Both his grandfathers were in on Sammy’s choice of instrument. At two years old, he got a homemade banjo—made out of a pressure cooker with a wood rim and clothes hanger wire for brackets—from his maternal grandfather, Cruise Howell. And his paternal grandfather bought him his first real banjo, a Bacon & Day Ne Plus Ultra.
Sammy’s grandfather Howell learned to play banjo from the legendary Charlie Poole, who would sometimes stay at the Howell house for weeks at a time, as Sammy says, “where the pickin’ and drinkin’ was.” Shelor’s background comes from a history of old-time music, and he still attributes a lot of his rhythm to those old-time players. He recalls, “He called it the ‘Boston roll.’ It was more chord oriented. I don’t know where that name came from. He played Scruggs stuff, too. I was around a lot of clawhammer players and, early on, I learned to play in weird tunings, double-C, and so on. As far as drive and timing, you won’t experience anything better than those old-time players.”
In the mid-’70s, a festival was started in Stuart, Va. Cecil Hall (promoter) of the Dominion Bluegrass Boys brought in bands like J.D. Crowe, the Seldom Scene, and the Osborne Brothers, and Sammy soaked it up. “I remember Missy Raines would come to that festival. She and I would sit there watching the bands, and we decided then that this was what we wanted to do when we grew up.”
At 14 years old, Sammy went to work as the banjo player for the Dominion Bluegrass Boys. Bandmember Mike Hazelwood taught him how to sing harmony, telling him “if you learn to sing, you’ll get more work.” After a couple of years, Sammy began working with the band Interstate Exchange, which morphed into Summer Wages.
Then, Shelor moved to Richmond, Va., at the age of 18 and joined a new band, the Heights Of Grass, which later became a seminal band of the ’80s, the Virginia Squires. Sammy says, “We kind of played what we felt. Rickie [Simpkins] was a real outside-the-box player. He would take his solos, but I’m a guy that plays what the singer sings and always have been. I kept it grounded, and he would take it out into left field, so it made for a good mix.” Sammy’s style also started to evolve. He says, “I was listening to a lot of the Boone Creek stuff and I tried to play just like Terry Baucom. Then I started listening to people like Bill Emerson, Crowe, Béla Fleck, and just trying to pick up a little from each of them.”
With the Squires, Shelor met one of the most influential banjo players of his life—Sonny Osborne. Sonny took an interest in the band and produced two of their records. The Squires also went on tour with the Osborne Brothers and Sammy even ran sound for the Osbornes, which meant he was able to watch Sonny play every night. At the time, Sammy didn’t have a very good banjo, so before going in to record on the first Virginia Squires album, Sonny loaned him his Gibson Granada. It was the first time Sammy heard what a good banjo could sound like.
In the late ’80s, with the bluegrass scene hitting one of its periodic downturns, Sammy began playing a Telecaster electric guitar in country bands around Richmond, and because Sammy could sing harmony, especially baritone harmony with female singers, he found work. And then, Sammy says, “When the Squires broke up in the middle of 1990, it was time for me to head back to the hills. I left all the country stuff and came back here.” (“Here” being Meadows of Dan, Va., where he lives today.)
After subbing with the Seldom Scene on dates that Ben Eldridge couldn’t make, Sammy found out from John Bowman that the Lonesome River Band was looking for a banjo player. Sammy recalls, “When I joined LRB, we did almost a four-week tour the first trip out in a ’70 Ford that was fouling spark plugs real bad. We had to replace them ourselves on the side of the road. We ended the tour in Live Oak, Florida, but during that whole thing, we were talking about recording and, when we finally got into the studio, we decided to cut the most traditional album we could.”
“Carrying The Tradition” and subsequent albums established LRB—and particularly the band of Tim Austin, Dan Tyminski, Ronnie Bowman, and Sammy—as one of the greatest bands in the history of bluegrass music. But, even with the inevitable bandmember changes, LRB survived and under the leadership of Tim Austin, and later Sammy, it remained one of the premier bands, though they were often compared not so much as to other bands, but as to earlier LRB lineups.
Sammy kept the band playing throughout the new millenium and, after leaving Doobie Shea Records and then Crossroads Records (which was primarily a gospel label), Sammy signed with Rural Rhythm Records in 2007, as the latest band configuration of Mike Hartgrove, Mike Anglin, Andy Ball, and Brandon Rickman came together. They recorded a demo. Sammy says, “I started sending discs out to all the labels, and Rural Rhythm was the only one who responded. I didn’t really know them, but after about a two-hour conversation, we signed a deal over the phone.”
Part of the success of Sammy’s band leadership is in the fact that he knows where the band does well. There’s an old joke in bluegrass that if you don’t play too much, you just might make some money. Sammy says, “We’ve never been a hundred-dates-a-year band, we’ve been sixty-to-eighty our whole career. We’re an outdoor festival band, and I don’t do percentage dates anymore. It’s just not worth it. You try to keep as consistent a sound as possible, but you’re never going to sound the same as you did ten years ago. My playing has changed from ‘Carrying The Tradition.’ Luckily, I have found the right people. I enjoy this group of guys and 75% of success in a band is riding the bus. Everybody does their part and contributes every day.”
Even for top echelon bands in bluegrass, most of the players, even the bandleader, has to make his living by piecing together a lot of different sources of income. Shelor works sometimes sixty hours a week in a recording studio (Mountain Fever Studio, owned by Mark Hodges) in Willis, Va. Sammy says, “I work seven days a week either on the road or in the studio about 16 miles from my house—playing music and engineering. I play a lot of guitar. I only did two banjo tracks last week…a lot of rhythm guitar, electric guitar. It’s a small studio and a cool job.”
When he’s out on the road, Sammy is surrounded by a band that has now been together for three years—a band that’s gelled musically, but also a band in which all the players know each other and like each other. He insists, “I feel like right now I have the best band onstage that I’ve ever had.”
Lead singer and guitarist Brandon Rickman is originally from Purdy, Mo. Growing up, Brandon’s family sang in a southern gospel quartet and his father played some piano, fiddle, and guitar. They formed a family band, the Rickmans, with Brandon singing tenor, and played together until his older brother went to college in 1997.
Brandon took some time off from music, but about a year later, he called his friend Aaron McDaris about playing in the band New Tradition and a month later was the new bass player, although he had never played bass before. Brandon’s ear for music got him through the first few gigs, but he quickly learned the instrument and, also for the first time, he became the lead singer. He played with New Tradition for nearly three years until the start of 2001.
Later that year, Brandon got a call from Larry Cordle who was looking for a fill-in bass player and tenor singer. He ended up playing in Cordle’s band throughout the year. Although Brandon had not written more than two or three songs at that point, he was inspired by Cordle to start writing more. “We’re really close friends. I played him a few songs and he encouraged me. He set me up with Kim Fox for my first co-write and I started writing more and signed my first publishing deal with Larry Shell.”
In 2002, Shelor asked Brandon to join LRB and he spent the next three years in the band, as he says, “…just glad to be playing music.” Brandon left in 2005 to concentrate on his songwriting, but he missed playing and by February 2007 was back as the lead singer. “Me and Sammy never lost touch. When I came back, though, I had changed. I had grown a lot as a singer, as a musician, as a songwriter, producer. When I came back, I wasn’t a little kid anymore. I took over more of a role and that’s what Sammy was wanting. Sammy said, ‘I need your songs, I need your ear on songs.’ So, I went from just being happy to play music to taking responsibility. That year and a half off was the best thing I ever did. As an artist, you need to figure out what you want to be when you grow up.”
Concerning joining a band with such a rich past, Rickman says, “Everybody’s going to compare you to Ronnie [Bowman]. I never let it bother me. That’s what’s going to happen. This second time around, though, it’s a little bit different. There were actually people who wanted me to come back.” Brandon also recently recorded his first solo album, “Young Man, Old Soul,” on Rural Rhythm.
Bassist Mike Anglin is originally from Berea, Ky., where he got his first bass at eight years old. His uncle’s bluegrass band, John Crosby & the Bluegrass Drifters, won the first SPBGMA band award. Mike went to work at 15 years old as a bassist with his uncle and toured the Midwest and Southeast extensively. In high school, Mike listened to all kinds of music and played both acoustic and electric bass.
After moving to Louisville, Mike played bass in the mayor’s arts program called Summer Scene for two years before moving back to Madison County, Kentucky. In 1991, he played for Larry Stephenson and then joined a country band with an upcoming artist, Josh Logan, who had a new album out on Curb Records. He was with Logan for two years, playing six nights a week with heavy touring. Tiring of life on the road, Mike returned to Kentucky and played with Charlie Sizemore for a season while working in construction, which he still picks up on occasion.
Then, in 1994, Mike became one of the founding members of Continental Divide, led by David Parmley, and spent seven years as bass player with that band. In 2001, Mike started playing with Ronnie Bowman for two years and, by 2003, moved to Nashville and started working with Larry Cordle and with Three Fox Drive.
Early 2007, Mike had done a sit-in show with Jerry Salley. Brandon Rickman had played the show, too, and when Brandon went back to LRB, Mike got a call to join the band. Mike says, “In LRB, everybody is as concerned about timing as I am. Everybody’s playing together versus five musicians each going their own way. It’s about putting it in that pocket.”
Fiddler Mike Hartgrove is probably best known for his years as a founding member of IIIrd Tyme Out, but with three years into LRB, Mike has found a home for his fiddling that he’d like to stay with. Originally from Shelbina, Mo., and now living in Albemarle, N.C., where he has a full schedule of fiddle students, perhaps no fiddler in bluegrass has as long a history of playing behind great vocalists and harmony trios as Mike. He has played with George Jones, Russell Moore & IIIrd Tyme Out, the Bluegrass Cardinals, Moe Bandy, Doyle Lawson, and now Brandon Rickman.
Tommy Jackson was Mike’s first major fiddle influence. “I loved that drone sound—the shuffle. When I would hear that kind of bell-like sound of Tommy Jackson, it was just kind of a magical thing.” Now 54 years old, Mike moved to Nashville in 1974 and started hanging around the Old Time Picking Parlor on Second Avenue. “A friend of my dad’s had moved to Hendersonville, Tennessee, and he was building houses, so they had an apartment there and a duplex and invited me to come down.”
Mike had been playing in country bands in Missouri, but, in Nashville, he fell in with players such as Norman Blake, Vassar Clements, Benny Martin, and Kenny Baker at the Picking Parlor, and he tracked down Tommy Jackson through a union membership book and met and played fiddles with his hero. After playing one summer in a park bluegrass band at Opryland, Mike auditioned for and got a job as fiddle player in George Jones’ house band at the Possum Holler Club. Jones’ long-time fiddler Tommy Williams (who had recorded Uncle Pen with Monroe) was the bandleader. Mike got a chance to play a huge repertoire of country songs five nights a week, each with specific arrangements that often included twin fiddle. “I learned how to play disciplined. I think it made me more aware of singers, playing behind singers, instead of just playing a lot of stuff.”
Mike was then asked to join George Jones’ road band and played his first gig at the Grand Ole Opry. He played for Jones for two years, 1977-’79, then joined Moe Bandy’s band and played with him for three years before returning to bluegrass. “I was watching Austin City Limits one night and I saw Bill Monroe on there with Kenny Baker playing the fiddle and I said, ‘That’s what I want to do.’ I knew I was going to take a cut in income, but it’s what I wanted to do.”
Back in Nashville, Mike heard from agent Lance Leroy that the Bluegrass Cardinals were looking for a fiddle player. Mike went to Knoxville to audition and spent the next eight years with the Cardinals. Mike then joined Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver in 1989 and in 1991 left with Russell Moore and Ray Deaton to form IIIrd Tyme Out. Mike’s experience playing behind singers came into full form with the standout vocals of IIIrd Tyme Out. Mike says, “I call it chasing the singer. I play when there’s a pause or when there are valleys, when there’s no singing going on. I try to play reflections of what I’ve heard off the singer.”
In 2002, Mike left IIIrd Tyme Out and joined LRB for the first time. He remembers, “LRB attracted me because Sammy was close by and I liked the sound of the band.” He stayed for three years, until 2005, when he went back to work for Doyle Lawson for a short stay. “I had planned to get off the road and had started teaching and talked with [banjoist and teacher] Craig Smith about setting me up as a teacher. I didn’t have any plans on going back out on the road, but I got to really missing it. I didn’t think I would, but I did.” Mike still teaches and averages over twenty students in the Charlotte, N.C., area.
Then, in 2007, after resonator guitar player Matt Leadbetter left LRB, Mike re-joined the group and has equaled his first stay at three years. The youngest member of the band is mandolinist and vocalist Andy Ball. Andy is currently in a Masters program at the University of Windsor in Canada, across the border from where he grew up in Detroit. He’s interested in political and legal philosophy and would eventually like to go to law school. But for now, his academic program and scholarship give him the flexibility to play in LRB.
Andy is a descendant of Kentuckians who headed north to find work in industry in the upper Midwest. Andy says, “I got into bluegrass through my family. Both sides are from Appalachia. My dad’s dad saw Bill Monroe and the original bluegrass band when he was nine years old in Williamsburg, Kentucky.”
In the ’50s and ’60s, Detroit had some of the best bluegrass in the country at the WJR Jamboree, where you could see Jimmy Martin with J.D. Crowe and Paul Williams, the Osborne Brothers, and others. Andy’s father, Richard Ball, started a family band and, at six years old, Andy started learning guitar chords and then, a couple of years later, he began playing mandolin which became his primary instrument.
Andy also did demo work with legendary songwriter Pete Goble and would hang out at Pete’s house and pick. Andy says, “Pete always emphasizes the melody to songs. Everything is to complement the singing and the lyrics. He always has this grand narrative to his writing. Every song is a novel. It was a wonderful experience working with him.”
Andy is well grounded in the Detroit area. He went to the University of Detroit and knows all about the Motown sound. “Those great rhythm sections, the Funk Brothers, were classic and I think bluegrass has that same thing where all the players play to enhance the rhythm.”
After playing in the family band and occasional gigs with Paul Williams, Andy ran into Mark Newton in 2005 at a local Detroit restaurant after one of Mark’s gigs. He went to work for Mark and recorded on his “Hillbilly Hemingway” album. In January 2007, Sammy Shelor called Andy, who he’d heard before in Wisconsin at LarryFest in 2005, and had remembered Andy’s mandolin playing and great vocal range.
At the time, Andy had reservations about joining LRB, because he had just started graduate school at Trinity International University in Chicago. He soon came home to Detroit, though, in 2007 to take a job. Although, because of the recession, the job lasted all of two weeks. Andy says, “LRB was the best thing I had going. I told Sammy that I would play just for the 2007 season, but it ended up going beyond that. My senior class, most of them left the state because of the economy. I really didn’t want to leave. I also thought, why do I want to start a life as a musician being on the road? But this band and my scholarship gives me a lot of flexibility to make a decent living.”
A funny thing Andy mentions about playing in LRB now is that he didn’t like the band all that much when he was growing up. “I was into the old stuff: Jimmy Martin, Moore & Napier, Country Gentlemen, J.D. Crowe. I told Sammy about that once and he just laughed.” But Andy is thrilled about playing in LRB now. “It’s fun, because it’s so good. Everybody knows their role. There’s no anxiety, everybody’s consistent. It’s just phenomenal. We create such a pocket of music.”
Perhaps no band in bluegrass has such a recognizable rhythm as LRB. It has defined the modern concept of drive and has influenced almost every other band since 1991. And the band has achieved a status after nearly 28 years that very few have. Theirs is a recognizable name with a sound that is guaranteed top-quality. The group has a good slate of festivals in 2010, and are about to go into the studio and record their second album for Rural Rhythm.
They’re carrying their own tradition now, but it’s not a heavy weight. They carry it with assurance and comfort. If, as Sammy says, 75% of the success of a band is riding the bus, then perhaps the other 25% is enjoying the ride, because the music is consistently great. It’s no wonder that people know exactly what they’re getting when they simply say, “LRB will be there.”
Chris Stuart is a writer and songwriter in San Diego, Calif.