Lonesome River Band

Virginia, North Carolina, and Tennessee

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From the mid-’70s through early ’90s, bluegrass experienced a musical evolution. The high lonesome mountain vocals and deep country sound of first-generation bluegrass bands were augmented by a rock and roll energy and attitude. Bands like J.D. Crowe & the New South, Boone Creek, and, of course, the Lonesome River Band were key in creating this new sound. The Lonesome River Band’s signature tight harmonies, solid instrumentals, and innovative repertoire produced one of the most distinctive ensembles in bluegrass. This year will mark the band’s 37th anniversary. It is an enduring legacy.

The group was founded in 1983 by singer and guitarist Tim Austin, but it wasn’t until he added mandolin player and singer Dan Tyminiski, singer Ronnie Bowman, and banjo master Sammy Shelor in the early ’90s that the ensemble came to national attention. Propelled by their relentless rhythm section and high-octane live shows, the group built a die-hard following. That, along with the praise around their 1991 breakout album Carrying the Tradition, fully solidified their place in the pantheon of bluegrass greats. Austin, Tyminski, and Bowman have since left the group, but Shelor continues as the bandleader and driving force behind the Lonesome River Band. Over the past 18 years, he has recruited stalwarts such as Kenny Smith, Don Rigsby, Ron Stewart, Ricky Simpkins, and Mike Hartgrove to contribute to the band’s sound. With Sammy at the helm, the band has received several awards from the International Bluegrass Music Association (IBMA) and the Society for the Preservation of Bluegrass Music of America (SPBGMA) for Album of the Year, Instrumental Recorded Performance of the Year, Bluegrass Band of the Year, and Song of the Year. Their most recent album, Mayhayley’s House, was nominated for IBMA Album of the Year in 2018.

Sammy Shelor was born, raised, and still lives in Meadows of Dan in Southwest Virginia. His roots in old-time country go back generations; his great-aunt Clarice Shelor, a rocking old-time pianist and a major influence on him, recorded for Victor at the famed 1927 sessions in Bristol, Tennessee. Sammy started playing the banjo at the age of four—his grandfather made his first banjo out of an old pressure cooker lid—and he was performing with local bands by age 10. At 19, he became a full-time professional musician, joining the band that became the Virginia Squires. When he joined Lonesome River Band, Shelor was already regarded as one of the finest bluegrass banjo players around, and since that time he has captured the IBMA Banjo Player of the Year award five times. He has earned numerous other awards and recognitions during his impressive career, including his induction into the 2009 Virginia Country Music Hall of Fame, winner of the 2nd Annual Steve Martin Prize for Excellence in Banjo and Bluegrass in 2011, and three-time winner of the SPBGMA Banjo Performer of the Year award.

It is now 2019, and the Lonesome River Band still plays with the fire and energy that has become their hallmark. Alongside Sammy are longtime members Mike Hartgrove (fiddle) and Brandon Rickman (guitar, lead vocals). They are joined by Jesse Smathers on mandolin and vocals, and Barry Reed on upright bass.