Sammy Shelor’s Banjo Leads to Letterman

Steve Martin Extends $50,000 Prize, Invitation to Late Night Show

At the end of September, Sammy Shelor could be found relaxing in his ragged tour bus during the International Bluegrass Music Association’s World of Bluegrass week. It was a rare moment of calm in a week he calls “bluegrass music overload.”

As fervent bluegrass followers know, Shelor leads the Lonesome River Band, which turned 30 this year. Their calendar is booked with a never-ending highway of clubs, fairs and festivals. And, oh, by the way, on Friday (Nov. 11), he’s performing on the Late Show With David Letterman at the invitation of Steve Martin, a banjo enthusiast.

The low-key banjo player from Meadows of Dan, Va., was shocked to realize that he won — and many would say earned — that trip to New York City.

Martin, his wife, and other members of the banjo elite — if those last two words can be coined — determined Shelor would receive a $50,000 cash prize as a reward for his steadfast career as a banjo player. He is just the second winner of the Steve Martin Prize for Excellence in Banjo and Bluegrass, and the Letterman gig is part of the package deal.

Of course, as a bluegrass musician, Shelor is used to easygoing conversation with fans. On that sunny September afternoon, he chatted with about his bluegrass roots, his legacy with the Lonesome River Band and his ambitious plans for the future.

CMT: How did you discover bluegrass?

Shelor: I was born into it. My grandfather played banjo. He and my other grandfather loved the music, so I think they decided I was going to be a banjo player before I was born because I was exposed to it from the time I was born. I started playing it when I was 5, just fooling around with it as a kid. Then when I was 10, I started playing in some bands.

I had a school teacher that I got in a band with, and he was a huge record collector. He started making me eight-track tapes of all these albums that he had. He exposed me to J.D. Crowe, the Seldom Scene and all these bands from the ’70s, and also the early stuff — Bill Monroe, Flatt & Scruggs. He turned me on to a lot of great music, so I started listening to that and learning from it. It’s hard to learn from an eight-track tape because you had to wait for it to go all the way around to hear the lick again. It wasn’t too long until I got a turntable and started buying albums.

Where I live, there’s so much old-time and bluegrass music. You’re exposed to it constantly. Back then, there were always fiddlers conventions and contests. There was one every weekend somewhere, and my grandfather would take me. He’d walk up with me to a crowd of pickers and say, “Let this boy play.” That’s how I got exposed to a lot of great players.

Is that still the key for up-and-coming musicians — listen to the older records and go to festivals and play?

Absolutely. We do a style of music that is a little bit different than the traditional stuff in the sense of feel. It’s more rock ’n’ roll-oriented with downbeat, but still we play the melody like the pioneers did. When I kick a song off, I play it like the singer sings it. That way, the people know what the song is if they’ve heard it before. Our goal has always been to introduce younger people to it, so they’ll go back and listen to the pioneers and learn to appreciate that, as well.

The Lonesome River Band turns 30 this year. What kind of emotion does that bring out in you?

That I’m getting old! (laughs) I’ve been in the band 21 years. The last original member left the band in 1995 — and that was Tim Austin, who started the band in 1981. When I got in this band, it was Ronnie Bowman, Dan Tyminski, Tim Austin and myself. That’s kinda when we discovered our sound and found a personality within the four of us. We were doing something that nobody had ever done before. And it was by accident.

Newgrass Revival was our hero back in those days. That was our rock ’n’ roll, listening to those guys. We all tried to go for a more contemporary sound through the ’80s. I was in a band called the Virginia Squires, and we did that sort of thing. Then the Lonesome River Band had done that sort of thing up to that point, too.

When we got together, we just made the decision that we were going to cut the most traditional album that we were capable of. Well, that was kind of an oxymoron, I guess, but it ended up being a sound that nobody had ever put out there before.

My guitar player now, Brandon Rickman, was 14 when that record came out. And that was what turned him on to bluegrass. He became a student of that style, and that’s how he was able to step into this job so easily. For 10 years, he had done nothing but pattern his playing and singing to what we were doing.

How did you find out about winning the Steve Martin banjo award?

I went to the post office on the Tuesday after Labor Day — Sept. 6. I’ll remember that for a while. I went to the post office box, and there was a notice for me to sign for something. I saw Steve Martin’s name written on it, and I was like, “Well, I know a few Steve Martins.” So I go up to the counter and the postmaster hands me the envelope. It has “Beverly Hills” written on it and I thought, “Oh! OK.” …

I opened up the overnight package, which was sent out on Sept. 2. It takes a long time to get from Beverly Hills to Meadows of Dan. So I opened the envelope and I see another envelope in there that has the logo: Steve Martin Award for Excellence in Banjo and Bluegrass. It’s got my name written on it. I was standing there and my wife was standing there and the postmaster. I opened it up, and the first thing I see is a check for $50,000. And I don’t know what I said at that point! (laughs) I apologized to the postmistress several times. (laughs)

How does that prize affect your approach to the future?

It’s been a busy time since then. And my whole thing with this is, it’s another stepping stone. The frustrations and everything you go through, it brings it home that it was worth it. I’m here for a reason. Some days I wonder why, and then something like this happens. It’s such a generous and wonderful thing that Steve and his wife would do something like this. And that they’re generous enough to help people in our industry who work really hard.

This is my 35th year on the road. I started out playing clubs when I was 14. I was a big boy for my age, so I could get into clubs without getting questioned. You know, it’s a lot of miles and a lot of time and a lot of eating bologna sandwiches. Now, after all these years, I have a start on retirement, and I’ve never had that before. That was the first thing that went through my mind whenever I got the money: I’ve got to set myself up for retirement.

What does the future hold for the Lonesome River Band?

We feel like what we do can be shared. You know, the jam band thing has gotten so big. Some of the bluegrass-oriented acts in that marketplace got their upbringing on us. A lot of them will tell you that. I get told every day, and it makes me feel great to know that we’ve influenced people. And they’re succeeding with it. It’s just that I’ve got to succeed a little better. (laughs)

We are trying all the different things we can do to build a bigger following. … It’s all about the fans, and we want to keep creating stuff that the fans will get into. We want to keep on touring and hope for the best. And one of these days I’m going to be the old guy, where people say, “Oh, he can still play!” (laughs)