IBMA Banjo Winner: Sammy Shelor

On Saturday, November 17th, 7:30 pm, the Lonesome River Band will be performing at Christ Church in Poughkeepsie. This is a great opportunity to come out and hear this award winning group. Founded 30 years ago with a stack of recordings, and dozens of awards and nominations the latest (2012) being IBMA for Instrumental Recorded Performance of the Year for “Angeline The Baker” by Lonesome River Band and a 5th IBMA Banjo Performer of the Year for their banjoist, Sammy Shelor, this band is one of the most respected bands in bluegrass, today. Sammy Shelor graciously shares his thoughts and history in the following article. Thank you to Gary DiGiovanni for putting this interview together for HVBA!

“Shelor is the lynchpin. His right-handed precision infuses every song with a solid rhythmic pocket, and his laying is unique due in part to his ability to be ever-so slightly on top of the beat without speeding up.” – Vintage Guitar Magazine Interview with Sammy Shelor, Oct. 3, 2012

HVBA: I understand you started playing banjo at a very young age, specifically, four years old.
Sammy: Yeah, thereabouts, four or five. It’s been a long time, so it’s hard to remember exactly all the logistics on it.

HVBA: Is this something you wanted to do, or did your family kind of encourage you to do it?
Sammy: Well, it’s something I wanted to do. My grandfather was a banjo player. My other grandfather loved the music, and exposed me to it – just kind of made it possible for me to have access to instruments at an early age, and the music just interested me a lot, from my earliest recollection. I remember getting to see Flatt and Scruggs when I was about four years old, and seeing a lot of live music at an early age.

HVBA: I understand one of your grandfathers made your first banjo from an old pressure cooker lid.
Sammy: Right. It was, actually, the pressure cooker pot. He cut rings off of it, and then built a wood rim inside of that, and used bolts – there was a Ford tractor dealership there – and he got some bolts from there. He used clothes hanger wire, and hand-carved the neck out, and it was just a small-scale banjo. It was a playable banjo, and I still have it today.

HVBA: That was my next question – whether you still had that one.
Sammy: Oh, absolutely. It stays in my safe. It means a lot to me.

HVBA: How excited were you to get your first “real” banjo?
Sammy: Oh, very much so. My other grandfather – who didn’t play, but loved the music – told me if I learned two songs on the little one, he would buy me a full-size. I learned Cripple Creek – a very rudimentary version of Cripple Creek – and Old Joe Clark. He lived on the same farm we did, and I went dragging the little banjo across the field to his house, played him those two songs, and I dragged the big banjo back to [my] house.

HVBA: And what brand of banjo was that one?
Sammy: That one was a Japanese-made banjo called a Ventura. They sold them at the local general store there in the little town I grew up in.

HVBA: When you were growing up, how much time did you devote to playing, and did you have any interests besides music?
Sammy: I was interested in everything but school (laughs), and, you know, I managed to graduate, but I would come home from school in the evenings, and start [playing]. From the time I was about 10 years old I really, really got interested in [the banjo] and had met a teacher, from the high school, who was big into bluegrass and had a great record collection, and he started making me eight-track tapes of a bunch of great albums – Seldom Scene, J.D. Crowe and The New South, Flatt and Scruggs – just a bunch of different styles of bluegrass, and some Ralph Stanley stuff, and I would sit and listen to those eight-track tapes and try to learn what I could. Some days, I would spend six or seven hours in the evenings, and my parents would have to make me go to bed.

HVBA: Are you completely self-taught, or did you take lessons from anyone?
Sammy: I’m pretty much self-taught, and that’s probably the reason I play differently from most people, because I didn’t have anybody to show me the Scruggs style or what the real Scruggs rolls were. So, I was just trying to emulate it the best I could, and I kind of learned in a backwards way, but it’s kind of turned into my own style, so I guess that’s good, in a way.

HVBA: Did you always know you wanted to be a musician and, specifically, a bluegrass banjo player?
Sammy: Well, I mean, that’s just what I concentrated on, like I say, from the time I was about 10 years old. Ralph Stanley got me on stage with him when I was about 10, and I was, actually, playing in an adult band at that time, locally, there in Stuart, Virginia. We opened for Ralph Stanley at the local high school, and then Ralph brought me out to play with him during their set, so I got a taste for it at an early age. I had been on stage before that and, I guess, I was just too young and stupid to know you’re supposed to be nervous or scared, so it just always kind of felt natural to me.

HVBA: So, you don’t get nervous on stage?
Sammy: No. I love what I do.

HVBA: What other types of music do you listen to?
Sammy: To me, there’s two kinds of music, and that’s good and bad. Right now, I’m on a big Texas country kick. The Texas country market right now is just playing some of the best traditional country music there is on the marketplace. There’s a bunch of great artists down there – Amber Digby, Justin Trevino, Bobby Flores, Jake Hooker – I’m big into that stuff. I love electric guitar too. I play some Telecaster, or I play at it, and I just love that old country stuff.

HVBA: Was there a defining moment, when you heard a particular band or player, and you knew this was what you wanted to do for the rest of your life?
Sammy: I think it was probably between J.D. Crowe and The New South and Boone Creek. Those were the two bands of the ‘70s that really sparked my interest. They had just a different feel for the music. It had almost a rock ’n’ roll style bass to it, and the rhythm section was definitely different from anything I’d ever heard. The energy was there that just sparked my interest, and that’s kind of what I patterned myself, and what Lonesome River Band was patterned, after – before I even joined – and that made me really interested in playing in this band when the opportunity came along.

HVBA: Of all banjo players, besides Earl Scruggs, who, would you say, has been the biggest influence on your style of playing?
Sammy: Man, it’s hard to narrow it down to one. I listen to so many different ones. There’s Bill Emerson. He was a big influence. J.D. Crowe was a big influence. Terry Baucom was a big influence. Béla Fleck, Tony Trischka. The list goes on and on and on, and, you know, I listened to everything I could, tried to learn a little from each one and just kind of combined it into what I do.

HVBA: When you’re not rehearsing with your band, how much time do you devote to just basic practice? Learning new licks, that kind of thing?
Sammy: (laughs) Whenever you’re a band leader, that time is kind of hard to come by, unfortunately. I do all the bus maintenance. I do – well, this year I’ve signed with a new manager company, and it’s kind of taken a big load off of me in the management area, because I’ve done that for years. But we’ve been so busy on the road this year, there hasn’t been a whole lot of time to practice. What we do is we record albums, and then we learn them, so once we finish an album, then we get together and work out all the bugs and try to learn what we recorded. That works the best for us. It seems like we get more of an impromptu sound on all our records by recording that way. Then I have to go back and learn what I played and, you know, the arrangements change every year as you find other things that you want to do in songs, and that’s what’s kind of been cool about this series of CDs we’re doing this year. This series is called Chronology, Volume 1, 2 and 3. Volume 1 was taking songs from the first decade of the band and re-recording them with the current band, and then Volume 2 was the second decade. Volume 3 was the fans’ choice of a poll that we did on our website, and we let the fans pick the songs we recorded, but in the first decade it was learning songs that other people in the band had recorded. I only did one album with the band during the first decade. [Lonesome River Band] was eight years old when I joined, and then, through the second decade it was all stuff that I had recorded, so I went back and just tried to change things up from the original recordings. If it was a real signature sound, you know, that people identified with, I kind of left it alone, but other songs I just tried to find new things, and stuff that had evolved over the years with the different configurations, and kind of combined all that, and captured that on the recordings.

HVBA: Every bluegrass player wants the ability to play fast. Did that come to you naturally, or did you make a conscious effort toward that?
Sammy: I think we all just have to develop over the years, and build that speed. I’ve never been one to want to play as fast as I could, unless the song – well, if the song needed that, then I did what I could. We recorded a couple of things on this final volume – a song called Whoopin’ Ride and then, also, a song we did back in the early ‘90s called Sittin’ On Top of The World – and we did Sittin’ On Top of The World at 165 beats a minute, and I really didn’t think I could play it that fast anymore, but it just fell in place and, you know, it happened. But I tend not to push the issue, because I am getting some age on me.

HVBA: Is there a method you would recommend to someone who wants to play faster, or is it just a matter of playing a lot?
Sammy: Well, it’s a matter of playing a lot, and building your dexterity. My advice to players, for practice, is to buy a drum machine. I know that goes against every grain of bluegrass tradition, but a drum machine is a constant, and to develop the timing and your consistency – like J.D. Crowe said, “It’s not the notes you play. It’s the space in between.” And being able to space those notes perfectly and get the timing and everything falling on the down- and upbeat, and, you know, we’re playing 16th notes around a four-beat measure, or a two-beat measure, and there’s a lot involved there. A drum machine, if you get it set up with a straight pattern, like a bass and mandolin chop, and then just sit there with headphones on, with the drum machine in back, where you can hear your banjo as well, and just sit there and play along with it, you’ll realize real quick whether you play in time or not.

HVBA: How important is it to have a high-quality instrument?
Sammy: Very. Through my teenage years I never really owned a great banjo – I had some good ones – and then, back in 1983, I think it was – ‘83 or ‘84 – I was with a band called The Virginia Squires, and Sonny Osborne was producing an album on us, and I was having a lot of trouble with my banjo. I just called him up and asked him if he had something I could play on the record, and he brought his prized [Gibson] Granada over there for me to play. That banjo is a historic monument to banjo players. And it was, like, within 30 minutes of picking that banjo up I became a different player, and then I realized right then that I had to own a good instrument. And the end of the week of that session I ended up buying one through him – an old pre-war Gibson flathead. I’ve owned two of them now – the one I got in 1998, and it’s what I record with, and then I endorse Huber banjos, which is the closest thing to the pre-wars that you can buy, and I play those on the road. I’ve been blessed, since around 1984, to have a really good instrument at all times.

HVBA: What type of fingerpicks and thumbpick do you use, and do they make a difference in your playing?
Sammy: Back in 1984, a gentleman over in western Virginia by the name of Jim Hypes had been hand cutting stainless steel fingerpicks since back in the 1950s, and he gave me a set of them, and I started using those things, and I could not believe the difference in how they fit, how they felt on my fingers, how they changed the attack on the string and all those kinds of things. I got used to playing those, and it was just a totally different feel, and so over the years I kept using his picks, and then he retired and quit making the picks, so I ended up finding somebody who could continue producing them, and I’ve had those on the market for about 10 years now under my name. They’re still available as Sammy Shelor Fingerpicks, and I’ve got a narrow-band and a wide-band. I use the wide-band that are just extremely comfortable. You can play a lot of hours with them, and they don’t hurt your fingers. And, then, about two years ago, I discovered the Blue Chip thumbpicks, and that’s where I regained a lot of speed I’d lost over the years. Seems like when I started using it – it’s much lighter than a plastic pick, unbelievably, and my speed picked up 10 to 15 beats a minute immediately. They just glide off the strings so easy, and I’ve been using the same one for, like, two years, and it has zero wear on it. It’s just a really fast pick.

HVBA: What gauge of strings do you use?
Sammy: I started using the D’Addario JS60s. It’s a .010, .011, .012, .020, .010. It’s a stainless set that they finally came out with. They had been known for the phosphor-bronze 4th for years, and they came out with this stainless 4th string, and whole stainless set, and I’ve started using those, and I love ‘em.

HVBA: Do you prefer the sliding 5th-string capo or the HO railroad spikes, and why?
Sammy: I love the railroad spikes, just because they’re not in the way. The sliding capo gets in the way, and I like to have the open neck.

HVBA: Have you ever had moments when you got tired of the music, or tired of hearing the banjo, and had to give it up for a while?
Sammy: No, I’ve been consistently playing for 45 years, and never…well, I took six months and went out and played country music, but I was still playing some banjo, but I was playing a lot of guitar back in the early ‘90s and toured with a band called Matthews, Wright & King, and we opened for Reba McEntire for about six months on a big country tour, but I just missed the bluegrass. The mentality of the country thing, to where you don’t get to go out and visit with fans and meet people, and stuff, just didn’t appeal to me. That’s what I love about the bluegrass – we have constant fan contact, and it’s just a blast.

HVBA: So, the country thing is more of, like, being a star and separated from the fans?
Sammy: Yeah, and even being a side player, and like Harley Allen said, “I never wanted to be a big star and, so far, it’s worked out really well.” (laughs) But, with the country thing, even the sidemen in the band – you just didn’t get to get out and mingle with the fans. That’s what I love about [bluegrass] – I’ve made thousands of friends over the years, and hundreds of them I can call close friends, and I try to stay in contact on a regular basis, and that’s all been through the bluegrass.

HVBA: If you had to choose some type of work, other than music, what would it be?
Sammy: (laughs) When you’ve done something so long, that’s hard to imagine. All I’ve ever done, for the most part, has been music-related, except for a couple of things. During high school and up through graduation, my father worked for the little town…city government, and I was living in, and he was the water and sewer treatment plant operator, and I did that kind of work for a while through high school. I’ve done construction work – excavating, running heavy equipment, you know, I’ve done a little bit of all of it. I guess, the thing I’m best at is driving a bus, other than playing banjo, and, probably done as much of that, or more, than playing banjo the last 15 years. Probably, I would be a bus driver.

HVBA: But it’s hard to imagine not having music in your life.
Sammy: Oh, yeah, definitely, and I hope I’m able to continue that for the rest of my life.

HVBA: And so do we. On behalf of the Hudson Valley Bluegrass Association, I want to thank you for giving us some of your time today, and I know we’re all looking forward to seeing you on November 17, when you and Lonesome River Band come to Poughkeepsie and play a concert for us.
Sammy: Oh, you’re welcome. That’s going to be a blast. We love that area. That part of New York is so beautiful, and it reminds me of home. I live on the eastern side of the Blue Ridge Mountains, real near the Piedmont of Virginia, and just love the mountains. I’m sitting here in Erwin, Tennessee, right now, looking at some beautiful mountains. The leaves are starting to change, and so we’re really looking forward to coming up and visiting with everybody.

HVBA: Well, thanks again, Sammy.
Sammy: Alright, you too, man, and we appreciate everything and look forward to seeing you up there.

Gary DiGiovanni

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