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When it comes to traditional music bona fides, Sammy Shelor has most people beat: Charlie Poole, a country-music pioneer, taught Shelor’s grandfather how to play banjo, and Shelor’s grandfather taught Shelor.
“Charlie used to hang out in this area,” Shelor said from his home near Meadows of Dan, Va. “My great-grandfather was a fiddler and made liquor, and those were two things Charlie liked.”
Poole, born in 1892, recorded some of the biggest hit records in early country music in the 1920s, including “White House Blues” and “Don’t Let Your Deal Go Down.” He lived for more than a decade in Spray, now a part of Eden. The city holds the Charlie Poole Festival every June.
The latest addition to the Lonesome River Band, Jesse Smathers, is from Eden as well, Shelor said. He sings and plays mandolin. Smathers also grew up in a family steeped in traditional music.
The group recently recorded a new album that will be released in 2017. The band’s latest album, “Bridging the Tradition,” came out in March. It’s a sequel of sorts to the band’s 1991 album “Carrying the Tradition,” but pushes the boundaries by adding drums.
“I’ve always described the Lonesome River Band as a traditional bluegrass band with a rock and roll downbeat,” Shelor said. “It has a different energy than a lot of bluegrass.”
Paul Brown, host of the weekly radio show “Across the Blue Ridge” on WFDD, will host the shows at Muddy Creek. He respects the band for its willingness to both honor tradition and break from it.
“What I like about the Lonesome River Band is that it’s a real regional bluegrass band that has roots in old-time music and has managed to appeal to three or more successive generations of listeners,” he said. “They’ve been out there a long time, and they’re still drawing enthusiastic crowds with an interesting mix of old time, classic bluegrass, and some newer strains of bluegrass that push the envelope. So they have a good, broad constituency.”
“Bridging the Tradition” earned the Lonesome River Band a nomination for Album of the Year from the International Bluegrass Music Association, the latest in a long line of IBMA nominations and awards for the group and individual members. The record has also received good reviews.
“This is a project that will not disappoint the fans of traditional bluegrass, while giving fans of the more progressive bluegrass sound something they will enjoy as well,” Rick Amburgey wrote in a review of the album for No Depression.
John Lawless reviewed the album for Bluegrass Today: “If LRB can continue to re-create themselves like this as needed, one can imagine them rolling on for quite some time to come. Nicely done.”
Brown first got to know Shelor while working at WPAQ radio in Mount Airy in the 1980s.
“The family goes back into the earliest days of the country-music industry as we know it, and beyond,” Brown said. “These were mountain and Piedmont banjo players and fiddle players, and Sammy is descended from that. He’s a part of that stream of tradition.”
His grandfather made Shelor’s first banjo using bands from a pressure-cooker lid and a hand-whittled neck. He promised Shelor he would buy him a real banjo after he learned two songs.
“He played,” Shelor said. “That’s how I got started, just watching him.”
Shelor moved to Richmond during the 1980s, performing with the Virginia Squires and other groups. He returned home to southwestern Virginia in 1990 and joined the Lonesome River Band shortly afterward. He has also performed around the Triad over the years with Last Resort and Lacy Green.
More than a quarter century after he joined the Lonesome River Band, Shelor is the most senior member. He has sustained the group through several personnel changes.
“I liked the music, and the style, and I wanted to find a way to keep it going,” he said.