The Lonesome River Band

LRB-leadEscaping Floods, Working On Buses, And Keeping The Downbeat In Bluegrass Music
The Lonesome River Band
Celebrates 35 Years

By Derek Halsey

RudyFest has become one of the more popular bluegrass festivals in America, known for treating both the artists and the fans in a positive way. Held every year at the Carter County Fairgrounds on U.S. 60 in Grayson, Ky., it’s a go-to destination for lovers of bluegrass music in June. This year, however, the normally hardy fans were faced with a dangerous emergency created by Mother Nature.

It was June 23rd and heavy rains were pounding the festival grounds as well as points upstream and throughout eastern Kentucky. The Lonesome River Band have been headliners at RudyFest for a long time, to the point where they were named the festival’s official host band a few years ago. On that Friday evening at the onset of summer, the flood waters were quickly intensifying and the band had a hard decision to make. The authorities let everyone at the festival know that the rain was causing big problems upstream at Barrett Creek, a tributary of the Little Sandy River. Sammy Shelor and the LRB had a booth set up out on the festival grounds filled with CDs, t-shirts and more, all of which were a part of their scheduled CD release party for their new album Mayhayley’s House. The conditions, however, were changing rapidly. The band was faced with the choice of trying to get their gear out of the field or save the very expensive tour bus that carries them all over the country. The idea of doing both entered their minds, yet the water was rising fast.

“We had all of our CDs, t-shirts, and everything set up and we had a choice of taking 30 to 40 minutes to get all of that back to the bus, or get out,” said Shelor. “We chose to get out and we lost a bunch of stuff. We lost about 400 CDs. They got washed away. All of our merchandise for the release party was out on the ground all of the way across the park from where the bus was sitting. When they came in and began the evacuations, the water had already started rising on the road. So, I had the choice of waiting 30 minutes to get loaded up or get the bus out. I had a choice between the bus and the merchandise, and we lost the merchandise.”

With the muddy waves rising above the road bed leading in and out of RudyFest, people were relegated to guessing where the path was underneath the swirling mess. If anyone veered a few feet to the left or right, there was a drop off and more trouble waiting on each side.

“When that creek rises on the west end of the park, it diverts down that road first,” said Shelor. “The water was already about a foot deep in the road when they told me it was time to go. I cranked the bus up and got onto the road and blocked traffic until there were no incoming vehicles, then I floored it, just to keep the bus moving because I was afraid it had gotten muddy underneath. I knew where the road bed was, yet if I had gotten off the road bed ten feet on either side, I would have buried the bus. I cleared a path and floored it and got to higher ground.”

Down at the festival grounds, the majority of campers were still scrambling and a bad situation quickly became a dangerous state of affairs. “We all gathered at the K-Mart parking lot where everybody migrated to after they came out,” said Shelor. “But, there were so many people that didn’t get out and some were even swimming to Interstate 64 where people were picking them up. Folks would call asking to be picked up because they had lost their vehicle. It was a bad night. There was nothing good about it. Everybody was helping out, trying to do what they could. People would come through who had been in the water and they were looking for clothes, so we would give them dry t-shirts if we had them and did the best we could. But, most of my t-shirts went down the river.”

Shelor and the band went back the next day after the flood had calmed down to look for their washed-away merchandise. “I recovered all but about 150 of the CDs,” he said. “I went back over and walked the park and one tub of t-shirts went almost a mile down the river, yet the top of the bin had stayed on it and they were dry. We found them in different places. I found two boxes of CDs, but the shrink-wrap didn’t keep the water out of their cardboard cases. All of the CDs were ruined. There were a few injuries. But, everybody lived and that was the main thing.”

That is but one of the many stories that Shelor has from his many years on the bluegrass highway. Shelor has been with the Lonesome River Band for 27 years now. An already established entity before Shelor came onboard, he’s stuck with the group’s brand and has taken the quintet to new heights in recent years. Now, with the older generation of bluegrass artists passing on, it’s folks like Shelor who are becoming the veteran generation of the genre.

“It’s just the cycle of life, and some of these older musicians are leaving us too early. We have no control over it beyond a certain point. We do stupid stuff and then try and take care of ourselves, while some people don’t do stupid stuff and they still get it. It’s a crazy thing. For me, it’s an honor to get to do it for this long. A lot of people don’t last in the business this long. I’m either blessed or crazy, one or the two. I’m not sure which. But, there’s a constant flow of young talent coming up these days—great young talent. Like I said, I’m either blessed or crazy to still be in this business because 90% of the young banjo players out there now can blow me away. I just try to hang on the best that I can.”

Shelor, of course, is being modest. His tasteful picking on the five-string is a product of both talent and the smoothness of age and experience. He is, after all, a five-time IBMA Banjo Player Of The Year award winner. Even so, now in his mid-50s, getting his hands to work properly takes some loosening up.

“I’m 54 now, and it definitely takes me longer to warm up. Ten years ago, I could just get the banjo out of the case after a week and pretty much play everything I knew. But, the speed isn’t there anymore, and it takes me a good 30 or 40 minutes to get to where I can play the sets that we do onstage. I try to make time to warm up before we go onstage. Other times, I drive all night and have just enough time to get a shower and get out there.”

The life of a band leader trying to make a living in bluegrass music is not always green rooms, big paychecks, and applause. “I still do all of the maintenance on the bus,” he said. “I still do part of the management business, all of the bookwork, and I do a lot of the driving. Bus maintenance isn’t the best for your hands. I stay skinned up and knuckle-busted, but it is the bluegrass world. We don’t get rich doing this stuff. If we’re going to drive a bus, the way to do that is to do the maintenance ourselves. Otherwise, if we had to pay somebody $125 an hour to come and work on the bus, we didn’t make any money that week.”

Shelor’s time onstage began, oddly enough, with a memorable appearance with Dr. Ralph Stanley when he was a young boy in southwestern Virginia. “Ralph was the first-ever professional musician to put me onstage when I was ten years old,” he recalled. “That happened at Patrick County High School in Stuart, Va., many years ago. Ralph and the Clinch Mountain Boys came and played, and the band I was with opened for them. Ralph got me out there and I think we did ‘Lonesome Road Blues’ or something. I can’t quite remember now. I have never really been nervous about playing music. I started so young that I just never have gotten nervous about doing stuff like that.”

LRB’s latest effort is a wonderful album, Mayhayley’s House, based on the exploits of a true historical figure, Mayhayley Lancaster. The Georgia-based woman was known as a “quintessential Southern woman seer, a well-known lawyer, political activist, midwife and teacher until her death in 1955.” Lancaster was a woman who protected the old ways and had little trust for modern life and the societal encroachment known as gentrification.

What’s great about the album is the choice of excellent and eclectic songs chosen for the recording from songwriters such as Shawn Camp, Matt Lindsey, Allen Reynolds, Adam Wright, Curtis Wright, Don Humphries, Melba Montgomery, Billy Wayne Yates, Larry E. Boone, Gene Nelson, Paul Nelson, and many more.

“Over the past two or three records, we’ve always been a band that tries to find the best songs that we can find, whether it be older cover songs or new original material,” said Shelor. “On these last few albums, we decided to just go in and have a bunch of fun. We cut this new record in two and a half days. We just went in and had a good time and got all of the tracks done and then went in and did the vocals. We had it knocked out pretty quick. Most of the music tracks were recorded live with little overdubs. We only had about three songs picked out the night before the session, and we just kept going through all of the demos that we had, and when we find a song that catches our ears and we like the story, we record it.”

The current version of the Lonesome River Band that appears on the album includes Shelor on banjo, Mike Hartgrove on fiddle, Jesse Smathers on mandolin, Barry Reed on bass, and Brandon Rickman on guitar and vocals. As much as anyone, Rickman’s lead vocals and songwriting has been the face of the group for the last decade and a half. “Brandon is my right-hand man,” said Shelor. “He’s a great songwriter and is good at picking songs and has the connections to get those songs. He has definitely been a great asset to the Lonesome River Band. He’s been here 16 years now.”

Joining LRB was a big step for Rickman, and he is happy to still be with the outfit. He grew up in the southwestern Missouri town of Purdy near the Arkansas and Oklahoma lines. Rickman first saw  LRB in Branson, Mo., when he was about 16 or 17 years old. He played in his own Rickman Family Band for a while and then in groups such as New Tradition with Danny Roberts and Aaron McDaris, as well as with Larry Cordle & Lonesome Standard Time.

“I was 24 when I started in the group, so there was a few years there where I was just tickled to be here and didn’t think about much,” said Rickman. “I lived the life, partied, and had a big time and life was good. But then I got married and got pretty heavily into the songwriting side of things, and I found myself doing much more of it. That’s when I took a year off. Then, after being gone for a year, I realized that being in the band was really what I was supposed to be doing. So, from that point on, that’s what I’ve done and I don’t see myself going anywhere else. I can honestly say that in 16 years, Sammy and I have never had a cross word. That has been true with most of the band. We have been fortunate enough to bring in people that make a good fit. We’ve always had a good bunch of guys around us. It has been a great working environment.”

When Rickman saw LRB as a teenager, it did not even cross his mind that some day he would be their lead singer and would stay with the group for so long. “Lord no, that was not even a reachable goal for me. I never thought I’d play music for a living. That was an unrealistic thing where I came from, where you go to school and graduate and get married, have kids and work your tail off and maybe have enough time and money to buy a boat. I went to school to work on farm tractors, farm implements, and diesel tractors. I sold cars and was a sales manager for a communications company for a while. Then I got a hold of Aaron McDaris of New Tradition and said, ‘If you hear of anybody that might want me to play, I think I’d like to go and try it.’ Aaron was the only guy I knew that was out doing it.”

Eventually, Rickman got a call that would change his life. “About a month later, Aaron called and asked, ‘Do you think you could play bass?’ I said, ‘I don’t know. I never tried.’ He said, ‘Well, come on.’ We tried it and it worked. When I was asked to join the Lonesome River Band, it was also a big deal, for sure. When I was with New Tradition, we played a festival with those guys around 2000, and Sammy and Rickie Simpkins both came up and visited with me and got my phone number, which was about as far as I thought I’d ever get. I was just tickled that the guys in the band wanted to know who I was and wanted my information. Later in the afternoon, Sammy invited me onto the bus and we visited again for a while and we kept in contact. He called me about a year and a half later and said, ‘We think we’re going to be doing something different. Would you be interested?’ I said, ‘Absolutely. Whatever you need.’ He said, ‘Alright. Hang tight for a little bit.’ And, I did, and it worked out. Now, Jesse Smathers is a new breath of life in the band. He’s the same age that I was when I started. So, he has that excitement that I once did and it’s rubbing off on everybody.”

There have been some changes in Shelor’s life as well. After going through a divorce, he’s now remarried and has a six-month-old baby bouncing on his knee. And, he’s 12 years sober. “I used to be a bad drunk and an addict,” he admits. “I smoked a lot of pot back in the 1980s and I gave that up in 1992. I stayed clean for about five or six years and then decided I could drink a little bit. I was never much of a drinker before that, then I started drinking a little bit in the late 1990s and by 2005, I was a full-blown alcoholic. It got to the point where I knew I would be dead if I didn’t get out of it pretty quick. It was a culmination of moments. You know how that goes. Stupidity starts getting the best of you, and you wake up and regret what you did the night before, or don’t remember what you did the night before. That’s when you know you have a problem.”

Now, Shelor’s goal is to play another 20 years, so his new son can see his daddy play onstage. “I have a six-month-old child, my first kid, so I have definitely gone through a bunch of changes, and it’s all been for the better. Having my kid has been absolutely the greatest thing in the world. With my job, I get to be Mister Mom for three or four days a week and I love it. Everything about it is cool. From the moment he came into this world, it’s been an amazing experience. His name is Ellis Shelor, named after my great grandfather, whom I never knew.”

So, it’s onward and upward for Shelor and the Lonesome River Band, who keep doing great bluegrass music their own way. “I consider us a traditional bluegrass band with a rock-and-roll downbeat,” Shelor said. “We play the melody, we sing the melody, and we don’t go outside of that. We do play traditional bluegrass; we just feel it a little bit different. To me, there are two kinds of music; good and bad. That’s how I look at it. I’m a bluegrass musician, yet my favorite album of all time is Mirrors Of Embarrassment by Col. Bruce Hampton & the Aquarium Rescue Unit. I wanted to meet Col. Bruce badly and it made me sad when he passed away this past May. As for life as a bluegrass musician, I try to stay positive about it, but I also see the numbers and it makes me kind of crazy sometimes. We need another boost in the bluegrass world, although I don’t know what that will be. But, I’m hoping I have another 20 years out here. I bought a new bus two years ago, and it will take 15 years to pay for it, so my goal is to ride in it for five years for free.”

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