There aren't a lot of bluegrass bands that can boast that they've lasted more than a quarter-century on the national scene, but the history of the Lonesome River Band as one of the most competent and dependable bands in the business goes back to the late 1980s. Banjo player Sammy Shelor's tenure doesn't go back quite that far, having joined "only" in 1990, but for the past 15 years, he's been the leader and front man. If the title of their newest release sounds a bit familiar to the band's longtime fans, the photos on the CD cover feature fiddler Mike Hartgrove holding an LP copy of 1991's "Carrying The Tradition," Shelor's first with LRB.
If that's not enough of a hint that there's a bit of evolution on display in the dozen tracks on "Bridging The Tradition," Shelor gives an additional sly hint in the shots (and the interior shot carries echoes of The Beatles' legendary "Abbey Road" album cover) by holding a pair of drumsticks, and indeed, there are doses of drums and piano throughout. This is, of course, nothing new in the world of bluegrass. As far back as the 1950s the Osborne Brothers were incorporating drums and other "non-bluegrass" instrumentation as they tried to stay contemporary during the Elvis Era. Shelor is a student of the history of the music, and Sonny Osborne has been among his banjo inspirations and mentors.
In the end, though, "Bridging The Tradition" is as solid and satisfying an album as LRB fans have come to expect. The arrangements are artfully crafted to cover the varied moods and tempos that bluegrass can convey, and the veteran Hartgrove is still among the finest fiddlers in the genre. The vocals are highlighted by the smooth and distinctive harmony work featuring Shelor and the three remaining band members (guitarist Brandon Rickman, mandolinist Jesse Smathers and bassist Barry Reed). The material reaches out - "bridges" - into some classic mainstream country fare like "Rose In Paradise" (a Waylon Jennings hit), and three songs co-written by Rickman ("Showing My Age," "Mirrors Never Lie," "Waiting On My Heart To Break") are ballads that show a lot of depth.
For the traditionalists, the highlight is likely to be a spirited (and drum-free) version of "Old Swinging Bridge," an old tune that was a staple of the repertoire of Ted Lundy, a legendary banjo picker of the 1960s and '70s who was also, like Shelor, a native of southwest Virginia. Whether it's intended as a tribute to Lundy or not, it certainly proves that under Shelor's leadership the Lonesome River Band continues to move toward the future, but will never quite leave the past behind.