“I Love The Music.” A Conversation with Sammy Shelor of The Lonesome River Band (Coming to Harrisburg on November 15th)

The Lonesome River Band, which won the 2012 International Bluegrass Music Association (IBMA) Award for Instrumental Recorded Event of the Year for their song “Angeline the Baker,” comes to Harrisburg for a Sunday, November 15, 2015, Susquehanna Folk Music Society concert. The program starts at 7:30 p.m. at The Abbey Bar, Appalachian Brewing Company, 50 N. Cameron Street, Harrisburg. Colebrook Road, an award winning local bluegrass band with a growing fan base, opens.

Concert tickets are $30 General Admission, $26 for SFMS members and $10 for students ages 3-22. Advance tickets are available through Brown Paper Tickets online HERE or toll-free (800) 838-3006.

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(not pictured, Jesse Smathers on Mandolin)

Staff writer Peter Winter, a musician and writer living in Harrisburg, was able to talk with Lonesome River Band anchor member Sammy Shelor.  Sammy has won countless awards on the banjo, including the Steve Martin Prize for Excellence in Banjo and Bluegrass.  He has played with Lonesome River Band since the 90s and is one of the most respected banjo players in Bluegrass.


Peter: I wanted to start at the beginning.  What initially drew you to the banjo? What is the story between you and this instrument that became your life?

Sammy: Well the area I grew up in in Virginia is very rich in music, and my family is rich in music. My grandfather on my mom’s side played the banjo, and my grandfather on my dad’s side loved the music, and I think between the two of them they decided I was going to be a banjo player before I was born. So from the time I was about three years on, it was always around me and I think I started playing when I was about five. I started playing in bands when I was ten, and have been on the road since I was 15, so that’s a lot of years.

 Peter: That’s fantastic. And were you self taught, or were family members there to show you the ropes?

 Sammy: Well my Grandfather got me started, and then it was pretty much listening to all the great Banjo players of that era: Earl Scruggs, J.D. Crowe, Terry Baucom, Bill Emerson, and listening to records and trying to pick up on what they did and do the best I could to do what they did and kind of take it in my own direction

 Peter: What continues to draw you to the banjo? You’re such a celebrated player. How do you relate to the instrument? Are there still uncharted territories with you and the instrument? How do you relate to it?

 Sammy: Oh definitely. Some of the stuff we are recording this week is kind of uncharted for me. We try to do different styles of material on every album we do to try and keep it fresh for our fans, but to keep it fresh for us too.   It inspires us to do different things, to be able to expand our creative minds. Every new song you learn has a melody you’ve never played before. You end up learning new things on the instrument to recreate that melody.

 Peter: That’s true. I read a quote from you where you described the Lonesome River band as “Traditional Bluegrass with a rock ‘n’ roll downbeat,” you described that as your sound, as well as what you first brought to bluegrass. I was wondering if you could break that apart and explain that statement a little bit.

Sammy: Well, as far as us being a traditional bluegrass band, when Bill Monroe started bluegrass, and as bluegrass evolved through the first and second generations it was pretty much the instruments would play what the singers sing. Whenever you hear a song and you hear the vocal melody, what I try to do is recreate that vocal melody within the banjo. I want people to know what that song sounds like before the singer ever starts to sing if I’m doing the intro on the song. Our instrumental stuff is based totally on melody. And then, we kind of feel the downbeat differently than a lot of bluegrass bands, and that’s what set us apart in the 90s when the band first really started taking a foothold. But it just has a stronger downbeat feel than a lot of bluegrass bands and a lot of the predecessors. We’ll use kick drum on a lot of our tracks to kind of fatten up the bottom end. It’s my rock ‘n’ roll influences at an early age, the blues influence I’ve listened to through the years, just all kinds of different music that we’ve all listened to we’ve just tried to incorporate that into traditional bluegrass to give it a different sound.

Peter: Yeah! And I think that’s such a good idea. Going between those lines of tradition and innovation. I read another interview with you where you said “The only kinds of music are good music and bad music” and so I really respect how you guys aren’t afraid to go to different areas for inspiration. I think some people get stuck and are afraid to look at different influences.

Sammy: That’s true. I’m limited in as far as what I can play, in that you can only play what your mind hears (in as far as being able to create). If I can’t hear or process a line in my head, I can’t play it. So we tend to choose songs that are within the realm of our capability, but also that we can make sound different than your typical bluegrass band or our predecessors. We respect all the guys that have done their thing through the years, but it’s time for us to do ours, and that’s the way we’ve always looked at it in the 25 years I’ve been in the band.

Peter: That’s great. Let’s talk about the fact that you’ve been in the band for 25 years, which is longer than any other member at this point. As the lineup changes and people come and go, is there a struggle to remain true to the Lonesome River Band sound or is it free to change as people come and go?

Sammy: Well it changes to a point. Every time a new member joins, you bring in a different personality. Our latest band member to join, Jesse Smathers, he’s 23 years old and he grew up listening to Lonesome River Band, so he developed his sound around what we had already done so he knew what our feel was and he knew so much of the older material that he was able to just walk in and has done a tremendous job. Even on this new stuff we’re recording; he’s got it down, he knows exactly what we want. We try to remain true to the rhythmic sound. Our guitar player Brandon Rickman, he’s been in the band 14 years now, but he was 22 when he joined and had grown up listening to what he had done prior to that.   So I’ve been able to find guys who grew up on what we do, and just come right in and continue what we do.

Peter: That’s fantastic. So your new record “Turn on a Dime,” came out in 2014 and now you guys are already working on new stuff and going back into the studio.

Sammy: Yeah that album’s been out a year. Normally we wait like two years between each album.   But we just felt with the momentum we’d gotten from that album (we had 3 nominations from the IBMA from that album) we just wanted to try and keep the momentum up and we got an earlier start this year. So we’ll be releasing this album I think in March.

 Peter: How are the sessions going?

Sammy: It’s been a lot of fun and very productive. We got eleven songs well under way in two days. It’s going very fast and we’re real happy with what’s transpired so far. We’ve got two more days this week, then three more days the third week of November and we’ll be finished with all the tracking by then

 Peter: That’s fantastic. How is it different for you playing live vs. playing in the studio, do you have a different headspace going into it?

Sammy: Well sometimes playing live can be a lot easier cause you have the energy of the crowd to play off of. You have to try and recreate that energy in your mind as you’re going into the studio. When you’re playing it [the song] live for several months after you’ve recorded it, it evolves into different things. The recording is just the basis for the song, and then we just take it from there.

 Peter: You guys have released so many great albums. How do you keep the setlist fresh and decide what songs make it into the show? Do you vary the setlist or do you find a group of songs you like to stick with for a while?

Sammy: Well we usually stick pretty close to a setlist for a season, especially when we do a new album, when you’re playing festivals and stuff a lot of times you do two sets, one in the afternoon and one in the evening and you try to pick out when you’re going to have the most people there and to feature the new material to try and sell records. That’s your goal to help with road expenses by selling stuff. So you try to get their attention with the newer music but you still have to mix in the older stuff that had charted in years past; you get a lot of requests too. So one set or the other is going to be built around requests and the other is going to be built around the latest project.

 Peter: Going back to this idea of your back catalogue, you released this year the record “Coming Back Home To You” and it’s a retrospective?

Sammy: Yeah that’s actually a compilation of three records that we did on Mountain Home in 2002, 2004, 2006 that are out of print now, and there is a lot of good material on there that a lot of people haven’t heard. So we went back in and took some of the best songs from those projects and put them on this compilation just to try and keep those songs out in the marketplace. You feel like you lost something that you worked really hard on, so we’re just trying to keep some of that out there.

 Peter: Was it tricky to figure out which songs to save and put on the retrospective?

 Sammy: Well anytime you do a record you’re gonna have four or five songs that you really like over the rest of them. I just went through those albums and listened to them and said “that one there really stands out to me” and just kind of eliminated from that point on.

 Peter: Just a couple more questions, are there any albums (bluegrass or any genre) that have been released this year or recently by either new bluegrass bands or your peers that you’ve really liked and would recommend someone to listen to?

Sammy: Well there are so many great groups out there right now. Over the past 3-4 years there’s come along a group called Flatt Lonesome; their vocals are just impeccable and I’ve really enjoyed their projects. Some of the old school guys, JD Crowe, Paul Williams and Doyle Lawson got together last year and did an album that was just phenomenal [2014’s “Standing Tall and Tough” ed]. Paul Williams is still one of the greatest singers ever. There is just so much good music out there, and so much great young talent coming along.

Peter: That’s so true! Last question. You’ve spent such an extended part of your life playing with Lonesome River Band. What do you like about playing with this band? What about it do you love, you wake up every day and you’re still playing with this band you’ve been playing with since the 90s?

Sammy: Well, I love the feel of the music. I love the basis that we created back in the early 90s and that we’ve been able to maintain through the years. I guess in the past 15 years or so it’s kinduv evolved around my banjo playing, so it fits me to a T.   Everyday when I walk on stage, it’s the energy I want to portray as a musician and it’s the material I want to portray as a musician. I get to do a lot of sideline things with other artists and stuff that I love doing as well, but Lonesome River Band has always been my priority. I get a lot of diversity in my life being able to do the sideline things, but I always come back to playing with Lonesome River Band.

 Peter: Sammy thanks so much for taking time out of your sessions to talk to me I appreciate it

 Sammy: Well thank you man!


Once again, be sure to catch  The Lonesome River Band when they come to Harrisburg for a Sunday, November 15, 2015 show! Tickets are still available HERE. Check out this music video for their song “Lila Mae.”

Here’s a video of openers Colebrook Road tearing it up at Little Amps Coffee in Harrisburg.  This is a double bill you do not want to miss!


Peter Winter lives in Harrisburg PA. He plays Guitar, Hammered Dulcimer, Bodhran and sings in the Progressive Celtic Band Seasons with his siblings.  He also writes about music on his blog All The Day Sounds and tweets @peterwinter38

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