Lonesome River Band
by Kara Martinez Bachman
The Lonesome River Band’s Sammy Shelor hasn’t been with the band for its full 35 years, but he sure as heck has been picking his banjo with these guys for a long time.
When not doing that, he’s playing on-stage and in-studio with country star Alan Jackson. Or, making music with bandmate fiddle player Mike Hartgrove and comedian Martin Short, for a nationally-televised celebration of funnyman, actor, musician and writer, Steve Martin.
By any measure, Shelor’s done well as a performer.
Now celebrating its 35th year of making traditional bluegrass, The Lonesome River Band has learned to roll with the changes. For Shelor, his 27 years on board have offered both growth and challenge as the waves of the music industry experience their expected crests and troughs.
“I think you have to keep reinventing,” Shelor said, about how the band has such longevity. “You have to keep changing with the music industry.”
One change he personally experienced over the decades is knowledge that in the year 2017, selling records just won’t cut it. Today, staying working in the business is about touring. As he jokingly described it, a CD has become akin to a “very expensive” business card.
The band’s most recent “business card,” the 13-song “Mayhayley’s House,” was released in June and has been well-received. The album’s first track, “Wrong Road Again,” has done quite well.
“So far so good,” Shelor said. “Everybody seems to love it. It’s done well on radio.”
Shelor and the guys have a unique way of making these records; it’s not the way everybody else does it.
“We go to the studio and record them before we've even learned them,” he explained, of the band’s habits for putting together new music. “We just listen to the demo of it from the songwriter, then we just go in and cut it.”
Although the Lonesome River Band lineup has changed over the years, he said four of the core band members have been playing together for at least seven years, so “we know how to play off each other.”
There’s a sure method to what for other musicians—who often rehearse at length prior to going in studio—might seem to be madness.
“A lot of the time, the first three or four times you play a song, it has a certain feel to it that it’ll never have again,” he explained.
If there’s any truth to this system of grabbing spontaneity and freshness, it’s revealed in the fact that the band is still trucking after more than three decades.
Shelor laughed. “Our goal is just to stay in the business.”
Sometimes, that might be a struggle. It takes flexibility. Creativity. He said in addition to changes in the overall industry, the bluegrass genre has its ups and downs as well, and any successful outfit has to deal with those facts.
“I think it’s kinda on a downswing right now,” Shelor said, of the festival circuit. “We’re not quite working as many dates.”
He stressed, however, that he believes this waning period is more about our overall lifestyle habits than about bluegrass itself.
“Its popularity is as strong as it’s ever been,” he said, “but there’s a lot to do at home.”
He believes entertainment that keeps us at home on our couches has affected the festival circuit.
“It’s just an ever-changing world, and we try to adapt to it,” he said.
Part of that involves paying attention to trends. Even in bluegrass—which prides itself on a strictly traditional outlook—there are still things that come and go, and stuff that comes in and out of favor.
For instance, he explained, where in the past original music was the draw, today, it’s the revamping of old tunes that seems to get the most attention.
“A lot of the bands that are doing the best are actually doing cover songs.”
Shelor is tight-lipped about how The Lonesome River Band will cater to these trends, but he hinted several times that changes are on the horizon. He said the band will be doing “some things nobody’s ever done before … we’re trying to find some new outlets.”
He also spoke of how every now and then, bluegrass gets a sort of “boost” from somewhere outside, somewhere in the wider popular culture. An example, he said, might be The Nitty Gritty Dirt band’s “Circle” albums. Or, “Oh Brother, Where Art Thou.” These popular “boosts” will often bring brand new listeners into the bluegrass fold.
“We need another one,” Shelor said, with a sly tone of someone who just might have a new “boost” up his sleeve and he laughed again. “I just can’t give away my secrets, ya know?”