Bluegrass music seeped in history and the foundation of traditional, American music. American music in general started in the colonial days when the African board-instrument players met the European fiddlers. “Through those two instruments, it derived into everything that we have today. I feel like the historical significance of those two instruments, building the tradition of American music, needs to be taught and maintained in the world of music,” says multi-award winning banjo picker Sammy Shelor. “Bluegrass, as a genre, was born in the 1940s when Bill Monroe and Earl Scruggs got together. That’s what created the sound that we base everything we do on today.”
Shelor is a longtime member of the Lonesome River Band, considered among the most respected names in bluegrass music. Shelor and the talented Brandon Rickman (lead & harmony vocals and guitar); Mike Hartgrove (fiddle); Barry Reed (bass, harmony vocals); and Jesse Smathers (lead & harmony vocals, mandolin) have embraced the distinctive sound of traditional bluegrass with a modern twist.
“I’ve been asked to describe the sound of Lonesome River Band and I’ve always said we’re a traditional bluegrass band with a rock and roll downbeat. We try to do it a little bit differently than Bill Monroe, Flat and Scruggs and other bands did. I figured out when I was 12 years old that I could not play like Earl Scruggs so I had to figure out what worked for me and that’s what I’ve continued to do through the years. We try to have a high energy show and get the crowd involved. We have fun doing what we do.”
The Lonesome River Band will perform at the 12th annual Palatka Bluegrass Festival, held Feb 18-20. Performances include Audie Blaylock & the Redline, The Grascals, the Steep Canyon Rangers, The Gibson Brothers, The Spinney Brothers, The Marksmen, Breaking Grass, The Little Roy & Lizzy Show, Rhonda Vincent & the Rage, Dry Branch Fire Squad, The Bluegrass Brothers, Penny Creek Band and Joe Mullins & the Radio Ramblers.
Shelor joined the Lonesome River Band in 1990 and has been featured on dozens of successful recordings including the landmark album, Carrying the Tradition, in 1991. The critically acclaimed project ushered in a new era for bluegrass by acknowledging tradition while introducing new elements that expanded the genre.
Decades later, the Lonesome River Band is carrying on that tradition with their new release, Bridging the Tradition out in March. The new album offers bluegrass versions of country songs from the Waylon Jennings hit, “Rose In Paradise,” to the progressive and spooky rendition of the old time ballad, “Boats Up The River,” and the Carter Stanley classic, “Rock Bottom,” lives alongside the commanding, “Swinging Bridge.”
“This album is different than anything we’ve ever done,” says Shelor. “The songs are ones that we are really personally interested in doing. What we came up with has once again helped to recreate our sound. All the while, we are being true to ourselves as musicians.”
Music was the family way for Sammy Shelor. It was decided early on that ‘this kid will play the banjo’, a prophecy that would play out stages from festival grounds and concert venues to the Grand Ole Opry. When he was just 4, Shelor’s grandfather rigged a kid-size banjo from the lid of an old pressure cooker, telling the boy he’d buy him a real banjo when he learned to play two songs. It was a promise that led to a lifelong love of bluegrass music.
“Before I was born, my grandfather on my mother’s side played the banjo and my grandfather on my father’s side loved the music. I think they decided I was going to be a banjo player before I was even born. As far back as I can remember, I was exposed to the banjo,” he says.
Shelor was trying to plink out songs on a full-size instrument when he was preschool so he granddad started looking around the house for items to build his grandson a smaller scale-banjo. “He fashioned a wood rim and actually used the pot of the pressure cooker and cut it in slices to make bands. That’s what he used on the outside of the wood rim to hold it together,” Shelor says. “He went to the local tractor supply company and used blots and clothes hanger wire to hold a tin head on it and he hand-carved the fretwork work. I still have that banjo. I wouldn’t take a million dollars for it.”
By 10, Shelor was performing in local bands and became a full time professional musician by the time he graduated from high school. He joined The Heights Of Grass, later The Virginia Squires, at age 19. He caught the attention of banjo legend Sonny Osborne, who helped shape the young picker’s approach to his craft and introduced him to the sound of the pre-war flathead Gibson banjos regarded highly by banjo players worldwide.
“I was in the younger generation of players back in the 1980’s. Back in the 80’s, there weren’t a lot of young players. There are so many different ways that these younger folks are getting exposed to the music. I’m really glad to see this generation that is coming now. There are some really great players and singers,” he says. “I try to help younger players in this area as best as I can. There are so many things available for the younger people, smaller scale instruments and companies that make more good quality, beginner instruments. It makes learning a lot easier than it used to be.”
Shelor has produced a series of instructional DVDs to share his techniques with new players. “The age of video makes it so much easier for people to learn to play than it was when I was growing up, listening to a turntable and trying to slow records down. You had to learn by ear.”
He also has a signature model banjo produced by Huber Banjos and his own line of Sammy Shelor fingerpicks available that help copy his playing style while also providing a little income boost between gigs. “You learn early on, if you try to make a living playing a banjo, you’ve got to do more than just play to earn a living. I’ve tried to market myself as best I can. Everything you can do to market yourself gets your name out that much more.”
To many of his contemporaries in modern bluegrass, Shelor is a household name. He’s ranked among the top players by the Bluegrass Music Association and earned the distinction as Banjo Player of the Year five times over. Sammy also celebrated his induction into the 2009 Virginia Country Music Hall of Fame.
“It’s very humbling and honoring at the same time that your peers in the business believe enough in what you are doing to vote for you in that respect,” he says. “All the awards help in promotion and help further your career in one way or another but you still have to show up and play.”
In 2011, Shelor was the recipient of the second annual Steve Martin Prize for Excellence in Banjo and Bluegrass Music. The award was in recognition of Sammy’s high level of musicianship, and his impact on the development of modern bluegrass banjo. It carried a $50,000 cash grant, financed through Martin’s generosity.
“It was a great honor and a tremendous amount of generosity by Steve Martin to recognize the banjo players in our industry and in all walks of banjo playing, he’s a real music lover and he spreads that around the banjo community,” says Shelor. “He writes really great songs, too. I admire him the most for his creativity in his songwriting and writing instrumentals.”
Martin joined the Lonesome River Band to perform the band’s song “Molly” during a November, 2011 appearance on the David Letterman Show. “The first time I ever met Steve was probably 2008 or 2009 and he came up and talked to me about this particular song and how much he liked the arrangement. It had kind of an old-time music feel to it and he loves bluegrass and that old, claw hammer-style and he was complimenting me on how I blended the two,” says Shelor. “When it came down to picking a song, I told him ‘pick what you want to play’ and he picked that song.”
When asked about his favorite place to play, Shelor answered matter-of-factly, “If I have a banjo in my hand, I’m happy. If I’m playing with my friends, it really doesn’t matter,” he says. “It’s like a buddy of mine said one day. I was calling him about a gig. It wasn’t the greatest of gigs and he’s a phenomenal player and I said ‘are you sure you want to do this?’ and he said ‘I don’t care. I’ll play in a pig lot’ and I’m about the same way.
Palatka Bluegrass Festival
Feb 18 at 8pm
380 Rodeheaver Boys’ Ranch Road, Palatka, FL
Details:Ticket Price: $35 advanced; $40 gate.