As a long-time fan, it’s hard to believe that this band has been going for nearly 30 years. The list of bluegrass greats that have cycled through Lonesome River Band during that time rivals the star-making power of Doyle Lawson’s outfit. Luminaries like Ronnie Bowman, Dan Tyminski, Adam Steffey, Don Rigsby and Kenny Smith all came to prominence with LRB. In addition, journeyman artists (future stars?) like Jeff Parker, Darrell Webb, Shannon Slaughter and current River Band guitarist Brandon Rickman also thank the band for their first big break.
Several other well-known musicians did some time with them, like Steve Dilling, Barry Berrier, Ron Stewart and Rickie Simpkins. And we can’t leave out Tim Austin, a founding member of the group, who defined their driving rhythm sound on guitar until he left the group to focus on recording.
That’s quite a resume, and it gives each successive edition of Lonesome River Band a lot to live up to. But rest assured that the 2010 line up is more than up to the task. Sammy Shelor remains on banjo – the lone survivor of the 1990s bands that redefined modern bluegrass. He is on everyone’s list of the most influential stylists in banjo today, doing as much in his way to reshape the way the banjo is played these days as anyone else out there.
I recall a discussion at IBMA about 6 years ago with Matt Glaser, master fiddler and former chair of the String Department at the Berklee School of Music. I ran into him mere moments after he caught Sammy and LRB on stage, and he was obviously both impressed and excited, offering the sort of effusive praise that is rare coming from musicians as skilled and experienced as Glaser.
I won’t try to quote him from memory, but the gist of his remarks centered around Sammy’s ability to “push the beat” – staying just ahead of the rhythm section, but without speeding up. Matt was dumbfounded by the rhythmic mastery Shelor displayed – and how he maintained this tension without letting go for an entire song. I recall him saying something like “Now I get it,” referring to the high praise of Sammy he had heard from others.
Joining Shelor in the current LRB are the same four guys who cut the previous release, No Turning Back, a model of consistency in the band’s recent history. The previously mentioned Brandon Rickman in on guitar, Andy Ball is on mandolin, Mike Hartgrove on fiddle and Mike Anglin on bass. Rickman and Ball take turns singing lead vocals, another LRB trademark since the Bowman/Tyminski days.
But no amount of history and experience can make an album by itself. You need great material for a successful recording, and these guys have found plenty for Still Learning. There are a number of originals from Rickman, and some fine new bluesy bluegrass songs from contemporary writers like Ashby Frank and Daniel Salyer.
Rickman and Jerry Salley wrote the “almost title” track, a self-reflective song called I’m Still Learning.
Another strong cut is Andy Ball’s reworking of the Mel Tillis song, Goodbye Wheeling, a Top 20 hit in 1967.
They also snagged one from Merle Haggard, his 1979 classic Red Bandana.
But my favorite may be Don’t Cry Blue, a lovely song by Malcolm McKinney which was on folk/pop singer Jonathan Edward’s debut album in 1971.
Sometimes legendary bands like LRB becomes victims of their own success. Once you reach the 30 year mark, fans may think of you more as an institution than a contemporary touring act. Still Learning shows just how to be both.
This is a terrific record, by a terrific band. Check it out online.