Sometimes in planning an anniversary bash, one must be practical. Take, for instance, the various celebrations Sammy Shelor considered in honoring the Lonesome River Band as it reached its 30th year at the start of 2012.
One option was organizing a gala concert that would involve all of the celebrated bluegrass ensemble's former players.
"But there have been over 50 members in the band over the past 30 years," said Shelor, a banjo great who headlines Thursday's opening night of the 39th Festival of the Bluegrass with the Lonesome River Band. "That would mean something like a 15-hour show. Who would want to sit through that?"
Another consideration was to corral the alumni pickers into a recording studio. That idea earned an even quicker veto.
"Yeah, I thought about trying to get a reunion album together. But that was going to be a logistical nightmare."
So Shelor settled on a series of three EP albums of eight songs each. Each record would be devoted almost exclusively to a single decade of the Lonesome River Band's career. But instead of involving past members or simply re-issuing old material, the current band lineup — Shelor, fiddler Mike Hartgrove, guitarist Brandon Rickman, mandolinist Randy Jones and bassist Barry Reed — would offer new recordings of works from the band's past repertoire.
Hence the three-volume series Chronology. The first volume, released in February, is devoted to material cut from 1982 to 1992. It's an especially interesting period to explore, because Shelor, the band' current leader and most longstanding member, didn't join until 1990. That means the band's oldest material will, in essence, be new to nearly everyone, including its own personnel.
"The music is also new to the generation of fans that is out there now," Shelor said. "A lot of people are hearing this stuff for the first time. Maybe they weren't listening to the Lonesome River Band in the '80s. For those that were, maybe this will help them back to some of the old stuff again."
Chronology, Volume One does feature one previously unrecorded tune, as will volumes two (due out in July) and three (which is in the works). The song is new to the Lonesome River Band's recording catalog, but it has been around for ages: It's the traditional instrumental Angeline the Baker. It has been a part of the band's concert repertoire for years. It's a beauty of a recording, too, with Shelor and Hartgrove reverting to a spry old-time, pre-bluegrass string sound.
Shelor said he included it on Chronology, Volume One because the radio stations that play bluegrass thirst for new material. The first Chronology is an unintentional study in irony. Its newest recording is the album's oldest tune. Similarly, what seem like the older songs — those from the band's first decade — are represented by entirely new versions.
"Go figure," Shelor said with a laugh.
A native of the Blue Ridge Mountains region of Virginia, Shelor has been surrounded by music his entire life. He cites the different but highly complementary influences of his two grandfathers as helping to set the stage for a career that has made him one of today's most honored bluegrass banjo artists.
"My mother's father was a banjo player. He learned to play from watching (1920s-era banjo pioneer) Charlie Poole, who used to travel through the area and stay at his house. My other grandfather loved music, too. But he was my transportation to anywhere I needed to go to play. And that started when I was about 5 years old. He got me around a lot of great musicians, a lot of the old-time players, so I could learn from them."
And exactly how far did his grandfathers' help take Shelor? Try the Ed Sullivan Theatre in New York and the stage of The Late Show With David Letterman. At the Letterman show, flanked by his Lonesome River Band-mates last fall, Shelor was presented the second annual Steve Martin Excellence in Bluegrass and Banjo Award by Martin himself.
"I had actually been asked by Steve to be on the board for that award a couple of years ago. I just didn't feel comfortable doing that. I already work 60 hours a week with the band just trying to get by. That's just the nature of this music. Nobody is getting rich on it. Besides, I thought there were guys that have been around a lot longer than me that have gotten a lot more recognition than me that were more suitable for the job.
"Of course, I told Steve this without ever thinking I would actually be considered for the award. That was quite a surprise."