Finding the Way (Lonesome River Band)

Lonesome River Band
Finding the Way
Sugar Hill SHCD-3884

Highlight Review

It seems that in each decade in the history of bluegrass music, we are blessed to see one or two bands at the absolute peak of their creative powers. In the late 40s and early 50s, it was the classic Bill Monroe band. From the 50s we have the incredible legacies from Flatt & Scruggs and from the Stanleys. In the 60s, it was the Country Gentlemen and the Osborne Brothers. In the 70s, the Seldom Scene, followed by the Johnson Mountain Boys in the 80s. What all these bands had in common was a period of unmatched creativity and maturity in their music. I don't mean to be dismissive of other bands working but in retrospect, each of these bands was on a roll, contributing classic song after classic song and making it look simple.

If we look for someone similar today, there are two obvious candidates - the Del McCoury Band and the Lonesome River Band. Consider the fact that, at virtually the same time, each member of the LRB also has a current, critically-acclaimed solo project out. Consider, too, that LRB is one of the hottest and most dynamic live bands working today. We're seeing something extraordinary going on, and we shouldn't miss the opportunity to put Finding the Way into perspective celebrate a band at the absolute peak of their profession.

You might expect it. After all, the Lonesome River Band regularly accumulates nominations and awards from IBMA and SPBGMA. Sammy Shelor has won Banjo Player of the Year three years running and Ronnie Bowman is regularly nominated for Male Vocalist of the Year.

But how often does the reality live up to the expectation? Finding the Way does, showing a tightly integrated band, road-polished and musically mature. When Tom Adams joined the Johnson Mountain Boys, it fundamentally changed the sound of the band, not just in replacing a Stanley-influenced sound with a Scruggs-influenced sound. It also widened the range of the band, giving them a bigger palette of sound to work from. The addition of Don Rigsby has done something similar for the Lonesome River Band. The material on Finding the Way has broader range and depth than previous LRB recordings. It may not capture the "in-your-face" rhythm of the LRB as well as "One Step Forward" did, but the sound is richer, more subtle and, yes, more mature.

The recording kicks off with Am I A Fool, displaying that powerhouse LRB sound, and shows why Bowman is one of the best bluegrass singers working today. Bowman and Rigsby share the lead vocal duties on the hard-driving Love's Come Over Me, which also features a sizzling guitar break by Kenny Smith. Let It Go is a touching tale of separation, written by Bowman and Jerry Douglas, colored perfectly by Douglas' lovely slide guitar. Bowman's performance on the dark murder ballad Perfume, Powder and Lead will have you looking over your shoulder if you ever stray from the straight and narrow. Finding Your Way and Better Days to Come deserve special mention, giving Bowman an opportunity to solidify his reputation as an exceptional ballad singer. Don Rigsby keeps the band firmly on the traditional side of the fence with Cardboard Mansion, Don't Worry 'Bout Daddy and the bluesy Baby Come Home. His mountain tenor style gives the band a vocal edge that plays wonderfully against Bowman's warmer voice.

Considering his status as the current "state of the art" banjo player, it's interesting that nothing on Finding the Way seems designed to highlight Sammy Shelor's banjo pyrotechnics. But his playing is so solid and his timing so perfect that, like J. D. Crowe, the simplest stuff speaks the most powerfully. Similarly, the role of the rhythm guitar is often overlooked in favor of machine-gun runs and lightning-fast breaks. Smith takes a back seat to no one as a lead player, but he is also a masterful rhythm player. The LRB sound is rooted in that guitar rhythm.

Finding the Way is a little different from past LRB recordings and that's a great thing. This is a band that works as a band, thinks about what they're doing and they're not sitting still.

(Sugar Hill Records, Inc., P. O. Box 55300, Durham, NC 27717-5300)
Published in Bluegrass Unlimited, February 1999. Used with permission.