20 Questions with Katy Daley – Sammy Shelor

With this post we introduce a new feature, which will appear sporadically at Bluegrass Today. The column may be new, but you all know the contributor, Katy Daley, a familiar voice from the Katy Daley Show each weekday morning at WAMU’s Bluegrass Country. As the situation allows, Katy will conduct interviews with bluegrass artists and personalities, bringing her wide knowledge of the music to bear. There won’t always be twenty questions, but you can be sure they’ll be good ones.

This first is with Sammy Shelor, fearless leader of Lonesome River Band. Katy caught up with him yesterday at The Hamilton in Washington, DC where the band was performing.

Sammy Shelor at the August 2016 Gettysburg Bluegrass Festival - photo by Frank BakerKD: Lonesome River Band’s nominated for IBMA’s Album of the Year Bridging the Tradition (on Mountain Home Music), Song of the Year Thunder & Lightning, Gospel Recorded Performance of the Year for Rocking of the Cradle and you have a nomination again for Banjo of the Year, an honor you’ve already won 4 times.

SS:  Five. It was 14 years in between wins. I won 95, 96, 97 & 98 and then 2012.

KD:  What did you think with 14 years between wins?

SS:  One thing I can say is I’ve only missed one year of being nominated since 1994 and it was either 2008 or 2009 was the only year I wasn’t nominated. If I can do that for that many years consistently, I don’t care if I win or not. To be recognized that many years in the top 5 is humbling and very gratifying that I must be doing something right.

KD: I noticed a post you put on Facebook the other day on JD Crowe’s birthday. You said, “Happy Birthday to the great JD Crowe, the main reason I do what I do.” So what is it about JD’s playing that inspired you?

SS:  JD’s take on the Scruggs style, playing within the Scruggs’ realm but not playing exactly like Scruggs and not playing like Scruggs on everything. That inspired me. Also Gene Parker did the same thing for me. The main reason I do what I do is because I watched JD Crowe as a banjo player and baritone singer be a bandleader. That’s what I patterned myself after is the business side of things. Also, Sonny Osborne. Sonny was the bandleader of that group, The Osborne Brothers. Both those guys were big mentors teaching me about the business side of things and the fact that you didn’t have to be a front man or lead singer to run a band. The Osborne Brothers never had anyone’s name out front – they had their family name – and JD always had his name out front of New South but I never wanted to do that. But I’ve always been the bandleader, manager, road manager, bus driver and did all the business things for the band.

KD: Explain to people exactly what role the bandleader plays. Of course, there’s the sound of the band, hiring people, worrying about the price of gas. What else do you have to do?

SS:  All the business things. The road managing. Making sure you’re in the right place at the right time. Doing all the logistics to get everyone to the bus, the pre-leave logistics, making sure the bus gets to the venue on time, all the set up stuff, the financial stuff afterwards like writing the paychecks at the end of the weekend so the band’s happy when they go home. Luckily I have management and booking that’s handled for the band so I don’t have to do that. Thank goodness. It’s just a lot of stuff to keep track of. Keeping the merchandise stocked, keeping the oil changed in the bus, doing the mechanical things.  There’s 30 hours a week in addition to what we do on the road. Somebody has to do that. As bandleader, you’re the one who has to take that on.

I consider these guys as equal members of the band musically. If they don’t take responsibility for paying for the bus, they’re not going to make as much money. That’s the bottom line.

KD: Who are your other banjo heroes?  You mentioned Sonny Osborne, Gene Parker and JD Crowe.

SS: Gene being probably one of the biggest. He was from my area and I got to see him a lot when I was young. Bill Emerson, Bela Fleck, I mean there were just so many people I listened to and tried to learn what I could from them. Of course, Earl Scruggs. I saw Earl play in Hillsville, Virginia at the VFW building in 1966. I was 4 years old and that was the first professional band I ever got to watch. Their choreography and their tightness of their music and so forth, that heavily inspired me.

KD: You remember their choreography from age 4?

SS: I remember watching their movement on stage and watching them go in and out of that microphone and those hats and those suits. My eyes were as big as saucers. I remember it well. My grandfather played the banjo so I had been exposed to banjo music from the time I was born. But to see that in action and to see what it was really supposed to be like. Up to that point I had just heard my Grandpa playing the banjo sitting on the couch but to see them, that was inspiring and I started playing soon after that.

KD: Your grandfather built your first banjo. Tell us about that. It is a charming story.

SS: It’s been told many times. He wanted to build me a miniature banjo when I was 4 because I had shown an interest in it. The only thing he could find to build the pot out of that was small enough was a pressure cooker. He took one and somehow sliced rings out of the pressure cooker to use as the outside and then built a wood ring inside. He went to the local tractor supply place and bought a bunch of bolts and drilled holes through the wood and through the bolts themselves and used those and clothes-hanger wire to hold on a tin head. I need to take some pictures of that thing and post it some time. It’s in my safe at home. I wouldn’t take a million dollars for that.

KD: What was his job that he would have those skills?

SS: He was a State Highway Department worker. He drove a truck and heavy equipment. He just loved tinkering with wood. After that he built 16 or 17 banjos. They were crude.They were nothing like Gibson or whatever. I’ve managed to buy back 4 of them in the last 5 years or so that I’ve run across.

KD:  Run across? Or do you try to track them down?

SS:  I would track them down or somebody would tell me or I’d hear about somebody having one. I’d go see them and most of them sold them to me for what he sold it to them for back in the ‘70s, which was like $200/$300. They wanted me to have them so I’ve collected a few of them back.

KD:  Now the banjo players out there will go crazy if I don’t get you to geek out about what banjos you’re playing now.

SS:  I endorse for Huber Banjos. I have my own model Huber – the Sammy Shelor model, and a  1941 original Gibson TB-75 flathead  that’s had a reproduction 5-string neck built for it. I’ve owned that one since 1998. I play them about half and half.  Those are my two main banjos. I have a Gibson RB-11 that I play that’s got more of an old timey sound to it. We incorporate a lot of old timey music into what we do. So I play that banjo on it because it has a more mellow sound. It’s also lighter, too so when I’m limping around with my back  bothering me, it helps a lot.

KD:  You know that old joke, How do you get to Carnegie Hall? Practice, practice, practice. Obviously you’ve done a lot of practice. In every career there’s a moment or a person that brings raw luck to you and makes a difference. Tell me a moment or a person who brought that kind of luck and changed your career.

SS: Well, I did get to play Carnegie Hall with Alan Jackson and that was a very lucky opportunity. The gentleman who put that band together happened to be a fan of mine through playing with Tony Rice. I guess my association with Tony Rice started….that was a chance happening. This was back in Virginia Squires days ‘86/’87. We were playing in Withlacoochee, Florida and Tony was living near there. We were all just huge Tony fans but had never had a chance to meet him. We happened to look out in the audience and he was standing out there. You know we geeked out. You talk about banjo players who influenced me…Tony influenced my music more than anyone. I think he’s influenced more people than anybody in this industry. He came along and did something nobody else had done. Rhythmically, playing lead on guitar in bluegrass to the level that he did it, but I think mostly rhythmically he single-handedly changed the sound of bluegrass. And he incorporated what he learned from Lester Flatt and great rhythm players from the ’40s and ’50s. He took it all in his own direction and it changed the feel of bluegrass music.

KD: So it’s good to honor the tradition and it’s important to move it forward?

SS: I think so. One of the things I’ve noticed recently…seems like the remakes are more popular than new music. We’ve always done new songs. I mean we may pull one or two or three old ones out and record them from somewhere else be it country, rock or old bluegrass. The rest of the album’s going to be filled with fresh material that Brandon had a part in writing or writers who are close to us had a part in writing. We have a pool of about a dozen writers we really like and we go to constantly to get material.

KD:  Would you name some of them for me?

SS: Adam Wright, Marvin Clark, Jerry Salley and a lot of the guys Brandon writes with. We also have a gentleman in Nashville who is a song plugger named Sherrill Blackman and knowing him over the past 5 or 6 years have gotten us a lot of great songs. I just found his card one day. I needed some songs for a project I was producing. I called him up and said, “Most of you guys in Nashville don’t want bluegrass cutting your songs.” He said, “I don’t care who cuts them. I’ll send you anything you want.” And I said, “You’re my friend.”  We got nominated for Song of the Year for Turn on a Dime. We got that from Sherrill.

It’s important to have access to really good material that normally a bluegrass band wouldn’t get because most song pluggers ….like when we cut Stray Dogs and Alley Cats, we got it off Harley Allen’s Live at the Bluebird. He’d already recorded it and released it but the publishing company didn’t want us to cut it. After we’d already finished it, they weren’t going to release it. So I had to drive to Nashville, walk in their office and just sit there and pitch a fit for about two hours and they finally let us have it. They kept saying, “we’re trying to protect the writer” because it may not get cut. And I’m like “country people don’t care whether it’s been cut in bluegrass ‘cause it never made the radio … not where they’re trying to get. Sherrill understands that. But so many publishers in Nashville don’t. It’s great to have people like him and Adam Wright. Adam Wright is Alan Jackson’s nephew and he was a co-producer on the Alan Jackson Bluegrass Project. That’s how I got to know him and at the same time Brandon got to know him through the writers’ circles. And he don’t care who cuts it. He just likes to get cuts.

One of the songs we did on the song check, I’m On to You,  I recorded in 1997 and that was written by a guy named Jimmy Yeary. That was his very first cut. Last year he won the ACM Song of the Year, the CMA Song of the Year… I cut his very first cut and now he’s making all the money.

KD:  With the IBMA Awards Show coming up, let me wish you the best of luck with Album of the Year, Song of the Year, Gospel Recorded Performance and Banjo Player of the Year.

SS: Yes, the Gospel Recorded Performance! We really didn’t consider it a Gospel song. It’s an inspirational song and I’m glad they looked at it that way. When we cut this record basically what we did was go in and cut an acoustic country record for our own enjoyment. We weren’t out to impress anybody but us. We got to the studio at 6:00 on a Sunday night and we had the studio booked for 10:00 Monday morning and we didn’t have a single song picked. Pulled into the parking lot with the bus and we had a bunch of catalog that we had collected over a year’s time so we just sat down and started listening. We had Tony Creaseman coming in to play drums and percussion Monday morning. He’s the staff drummer at Mountain Home and one of the most amazing musicians I’ve ever been around in my life. We had him coming in so we said we’ll pick what we think the drums will fit on. We got to listening and Rocking of the Cradle came up, Brandon co-wrote that Mirrors Never Lie, we had been sitting on Boats Up the River for three years. We got that arrangement from a gentlemen over in Shenandoah Valley, James Leva. It was an old time version but we like to put our twist on the old time songs. We picked six songs that we really liked that weren’t bluegrass at all and said we’re just going to go in and have fun and cut these songs. If we don’t finish up these six with Tony, well, maybe he can come back another time and overdub or whatever. We started recording at 1:15 on Monday afternoon and at 6:15 he was packing his drum kit and we had finished the six songs. I mean finished. It was so much fun, we would go in and listen to them and chart them, go in and start playing, get halfway through and I’d tell the engineer, “Turn that thing on.” We would play it the next time through and be done with it because it was fun. It felt good. We basically cut this record for a fun thing for us and had no intention of every getting any nominations.

KD:  And it worked.

SS: Well, when we go in to cut one with the intention of getting nominations, it never happens.

KD:  Then, I’ll see you in Raleigh.

SS: Yup, we’ll be there Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday.

KD:  What are you doing in Raleigh besides taking home awards?

SS:  We’re doing some kind of kick-off thing for Huck Finn, I think on Tuesday. Then we’re doing some stuff for the Virginia is for Lovers campaign. They’re making a big presence down there. I know I’m doing something with Wayne Henderson, not sure yet if the band is or not.  I think that Wednesday we may be doing something with the luncheon they do on Wednesday.

KD: Momentum Awards?

SS: Momentum Awards. I think we may be doing something with that I don’t know if this has been announced yet or not but we are playing on the awards show.

KD: I’ll be back stage during the awards show interviewing the winners as they come off.

SS: Well, I hope you get to interview us.

KD:  I do, too.  Thank you Sammy.

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About the Author

Katy Daley

Katy Daley is the former morning host on WAMU's Bluegrass Country, streaming bluegrass worldwide online, and over the air in the DC market at 105.5 FM. She has been a prominent fixture on the radio scene in our nation's capitol since the early 1970s.