It’s been quite some time since Ronnie Bowman, Kenny Smith and Don Rigsby have been this Lonesome.
As the foundation of the contemporary bluegrass troupe Band of Ruhks, the three established their far-reaching musical profiles as bassist, guitarist and mandolinist, respectively, with the Lonesome River Band. All three departed in 2001, after solidifying the group’s mighty instrumental drive alongside banjoist Sammy Shelor and, in the process, fortifying a level of popularity carried on by subsequent versions of the band.
But the chemistry between Bowman, Smith and Rigsby was never forgotten as the three established separate careers. Band of Ruhks rekindles it. While its self-titled 2015 debut album hardly ignores tradition, as shown by a vocal cameo by the late bluegrass patriarch Ralph Stanley on “Coal Mining Man,” the record regularly extends its reach to more contemporary country and Americana inspirations.
“We’re a bluegrass band with traditional sensibilities but are forward-leaning,” said Isonville native Rigsby, who served as the inaugural director of Morehead State University’s Kentucky Center for Traditional Music for eight years, following his exit from the Lonesome River Band.
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“We definitely pay respect and revere the old guys. I mean, shoot, we had Ralph on the last album. But it’s one of these deals where we know we can’t beat the guys who have already done this, so we’re going to do our own thing. When I play with these guys, I think that I’m with some of the best musicians on the planet. There is nobody who can sing better than Ronnie Bowman. There is nobody who can play guitar better than Kenny Smith.”
The three re-teamed with Shelor for a one-off reunion of their Lonesome River Band roster in 2010. But with Shelor still committed full time to the group’s present lineup, Bowman, Smith and Rigsby worked with a succession of other banjoists to form Band of Ruhks. Its current enlistee is Brian Fesler, who preceded Shelor, Bowman, Smith and Rigsby in the Lonesome River Band.
“When the three of us were all in the Lonesome River Band together, we knew we could make great music and get along because we did so for years,” Rigsby said. “But at the same time, everybody kind of gets in a spot where they feel they need to explore more, so we all went our separate ways. Ronnie became quite a well-known songwriter (he has penned chart-topping songs for Kenny Chesney and Brooks and Dunn, among others), Kenny went on to teaching and did great records with his wife, Amanda. I went into the education field and had my own band together. There were growth opportunities for all of us.
“But when I was getting ready to leave my job at the university, I had been kind of itching to play with the guys again, so I contacted all of my band mates for a Lonesome River Band reunion. We only did one concert, because Sammy already had his Lonesome River Band lineup going since we had all been gone. We talked about doing some more dates, but I think it got to the point where Sammy felt like it might be counterproductive to have two Lonesome River Bands out there. Still, Kenny, Ronnie and me decided there was a lot of great music left for us to make together.”
A sophomore Band of Ruhks album, the group’s first with Fesler on board, is in the planning stages. Before that will be considerable summer touring, including a Festival of the Bluegrass debut on Saturday. When off the road, Rigsby calls Sandy Hook, just a few miles from Isonville, home.
“They couldn’t run me off if they tried,” he said. “Even if they did, I’d just wind up back there in Elliott County. It’s good because they keep you humble there. They don’t want you to get too big. They like to keep you in anonymity. I kind of like that anonymity, too.
“It’s nice to be able to go out and hear someone say, ‘Hey, there’s ol’ Don. He’s no big deal.’”
If you go
Festival of the Bluegrass
When: June 8-11
Where: Kentucky Horse Park Campground, 4089 Ironworks Parkway
Tickets: $20 (June 8 only), $50 (June 9 only), $55 (June 10 only), $10 (June 11 only), $100-$115 (entire festival)
Call: 859-253- 0806
6:30 p.m.: Camp Kids
7:30 p.m.: Custom Made Bluegrass
9 p.m.: Flatt Lonesome
10:30 p.m.: Lonesome River Band
1 and 8 p.m.: Sideline
2 and 7 p.m.: Hammertowne
3 and 10 p.m.: Newtown
4 and 9 p.m.: Michael Cleveland and Flamekeeper
5 p.m.: Cumberland Gap Connection
6 and 11 p.m.: Russell Moore and IIIrd Tyme Out
Noon: Open Stage
1 and 10:30 p.m.: The Wooks
2 and 6 p.m.: Joe Mullins and the Radio Ramblers
3 and 11 p.m.: Town Mountain
4 and 7 p.m.: The Grascals
5 and 8 p.m.: Band of Ruhks
9 p.m.: Seldom Scene
10 a.m.: True Life Travelers
11:15 a.m.: Dry Branch Fire Squad