The Virginia Squires’ reunion show will take place June 3, 2017 at the Graves Mountain Festival of Music. On this page, you will find photos, video of a recent rehearsal and their bio! Check it out as its highlights their impressive career!
The Virginia Squires are one of the founders of contemporary bluegrass music and their sound has proven to be one of the top influencers of today’s mainstream bluegrass sound. Although the members were born and raised on bluegrass, their interest and appreciation of modern styles of music strongly influenced their sound and allowed them to very successfully cross over to rock, modern outlaw and country, gospel, blues and folk-style ballads while maintaining an acoustic framework.
Members Mark Newton (guitar, mandolin, lead & tenor vocals), Rickie Simpkins (fiddle, mandolin, guitar banjo, and lead vocals), Ronnie Simpkins (bass, bass vocals) and Sammy Shelor (banjo, guitar, mandolin and baritone vocals) stayed together through five albums, four of which were released on Rebel Records. Their tenure on the Rebel label was met with critical acclaim, and established the group as one of the most innovative forces in modern bluegrass.
The Virginia Squires’ performances took them to almost every state in the U.S, including Alaska, and overseas to Japan. Their performances were not limited to the live stage, but included radio and television as well. They not only played night clubs and bluegrass festivals, but performed at least 20 children’s benefits each year and a 30-day USO tour.
It all began in 1982 when 19-year old banjo player Sammy Shelor joined the Heights of Grass band led by Donny Grubb. Soon after, Rickie Simpkins, Mark Newton and Ronnie Simpkins joined the group and they set off on tour. Mark had been involved in many groups in the ‘70s and early 80’s including Cabin Hill and the Knoxville Grass. Ronnie had gained his initial exposure as a member of The Bluegrass Cardinals in 1980. Rickie Simpkins learned the banjo, guitar, and fiddle as a child, even performing with heroes Flatt & Scruggs at the age of nine. By the time he graduated from high school, he was being recruited by the McPeak Brothers as a full-time member, a gig he continued throughout the 1970s and early 80’s.
The Virginia Squires came into existence in 1983 after the Heights of Grass disbanded. The four new members had decided they wanted to take a different direction than what they had been doing. Al Hopper was the band’s manager at the time and came up with the new band name when the Heights of Grass were on a Caribbean Tour.
Sonny Osborne had seen the Squires perform and invited them to go out on tour opening for The Osborne Brothers. He also needed someone to provide a sound system, which they gladly agreed to do because they were grateful for the steady work. They set off on 20-day tours performing all around the country, gladly accepting the steady work.
Sonny produced the band’s first album Bluegrass With A Touch of Class, released in 1984. Much to the dismay of the band members, their manager wanted them to wear tuxedos for the album cover photo shoot, so they posed in front of Virginia Governor’s Mansion. The album was recorded at Studio 19 in Nashville, Tennessee on January 11 and 12, 1984. The Squires met Mark Collie who was a sound tech at the studio and lived next door at the time. Later, Collie went on to have a successful career as a country artist, writer and actor. He pitched the Squires his original song, “War Between the Hearts” which they later recorded on their third album. After Bluegrass With A Touch of Class was finished, Sonny sent the band a letter on Grand Ole Opry stationery. An excerpt reads….
“… to produce this album for you was truly a pleasure. Now, I know you’ve heard that old line used dozens of times by as many producers, but you also know me well enough to know if I didn’t mean it just that way, I wouldn’t have said it! A tremendous amount of hard work, on your part, went into the preparation of this album, and it shows in the quality of your music. You were well rehearsed, the choice of material is excellent, and the performance is superb, instrumentally, and vocal. Sitting in the control room watching and listening to you, I felt very comfortable with the realization that Bluegrass music is in such good, young, hands. I congratulate you on a great album, and thank you for allowing me to be a small part of it. CARRY ON!” – Sonny Osborne, The Osborne Brothers
In 1984, the Squires were selected as “Best Bluegrass Band” by the Country Music Association of Virginia and also featured on the Nashville Network’s television program Fire on the Mountain.
Sonny told them he had called Dave Freeman with Rebel Records and he encouraged them to sign with the label. Rebel Records released The Virginia Squires’ second record in 1985 titled Mountains and Memories – again produced by Sonny Osborne. The album received national exposure and significant airplay. In the May 11, 1985 issue, Billboard Magazine selected the album as a “Recommended Country” album only two weeks after the album’s release setting an unprecedented peak for a bluegrass album The article said, “These boys sing with the mesmerizing fervor of the old bluegrass masters. To add to the delight, there are some new songs here worthy of becoming standards.”
Mountains and Memories included two songs by Randall Hylton including “Cold Sheets of Rain” that became one of the band’s biggest hits. The song could be heard at jams all across the country. The album also included “Ticket to Ride,” a cover by Lennon/McCartney, that certainly appealed to younger fans. The album reached #5 on Billboard Magazine’s Top 10 Bluegrass album of 1985.
The Squires were further honored by being asked to feature Mountains and Memories on The Nashville Network’s television program New Country – a show that primarily featured top country acts. They appeared on New Country in September 1985 that was re-aired again in December 1985.
1985 continued to be a landmark year with Rebel releasing yet another Squires’ album – the all-gospel Working My Way that featured a variety of tunes from a capella to untempo bluegrass. The band also filmed a Michigan United Way commercial that year.
The Virginia Squires were viewed as a contemporary band; making a bigger splash in the music world and building broader audiences. Although the band members were all influenced by the first-generation talents such as Jim & Jesse, Bill Monroe, The Osborne Brothers, Jimmy Martin & Sunny Mountain Boy’s, they were cutting edge and certainly ahead of their time. The Virginia Squires weren’t afraid to arrange a Rolling Stones, Beatles, Pure Prairie League or a country hit because they wanted to play what they liked. Artists like Doyle Lawson and J. D. Crowe were already having successful careers and were paving the road for the next generation by moving the music forward.
By 1987, the popularity grew and they were averaging 200 dates a year including a USO Tour that took them to Alaska. Media exposure continued to build including numerous magazine covers, and stellar album reviews. They filmed yet another TV commercial, this time for Sara Lee. In September of that year, they hosted their first Festival in Tres Rio Park just outside of Glen Rose, TX.
Michigan promoter, Tom Laing and his wife, Barbara were members of the symphony board of directors in Waterford Township and booked the Squires to perform at the annual Pontiac-Oakland Symphony Orchestra cabaret concert at the Room Hall in Bloomfield Township. The concert was billed as “An American Hurrah” and a fundraiser for the symphony. The orchestra and the band alternated sets, then combined on a Bob Wills medley, “This Land Is Your Land,” a gospel medley and closed with “The Devil Went down to Georgia.” Tom and Barbara Laing became friends of the Squires and were very supportive throughout the years.
Music fans absolutely loved the Virginia Squires. Rickie was the entertainer, Ronnie’s smile was a hit with the girls, Mark was the more quiet and mysterious type, and Sammy was developing what would become his award-winning trademark banjo style. They were also versatile – routinely exchanging instruments like Rickie and Sammy on two guitars, or Sammy singing “The Devil Went Down to Georgia.”
Fans were anticipating each new album by the Virginia Squires, so in 1986, Rebel Records released the band’s Hard Times and Heartache album. By this time, the band members had been meeting more songwriters including Larry McPeak who provided some of the group’s more popular songs. The album also including more tune by Randall Hylton like “Longing for the Southland,” “Maquoketa” written by Rickie Simpkins and Mark Newton, and the cover song “Hooked On a Feeling.”
Variations was the fifth and final album by the Virginia Squires and the fourth release on Rebel Records in 1988. Although this was a contemporary bluegrass album, it also included songs by Buck Owens and Flatt & Scruggs. Variations helped bring on many younger fans and musicians like Josh Williams who frequented their shows. There weren’t that many young bands around that time, but some significant artists were coming on the scene like Russell Moore out of Texas joining talents such as Scott Vestal to make their mark on the bluegrass scene.
Illinois bluegrass music promoters, Terry and Jan Lease were one of many people who were so supportive of The Virginia Squires. During one of the band’s visit’s, Terry kept telling them about a young girl named Alison Krauss and would say, “you need to listen to this girl because she will be a star one day.” Terry called her Mom and arranged a guest performance with the Virginia Squires. After 30 seconds in, they all knew Terry was right. She was a star in the making. Due to exciting shows like this, the band kept seeing more and more young people coming to their performances.
Around 1988, the band kept hearing that Tony Rice wanted to meet them. All the band members already knew his brother Wyatt. Tony had been living in California, but had moved back to Crystal River, Florida after touring with David Grisman. The Virginia Squires performed in Withlacoochee and Tony just lived about 20 miles away from the festival. Sammy and Mark were standing behind the stage one night when Tony and Wyatt walked up. Tony was a huge star at the time and the guys loved the direction of Tony’s music as it was the same as their own musical taste. Tony ended up jamming with the band and it was certainly one for the history books.
In 1989, the members collectively said the band had run its course and felt like they should all look at other opportunities, but they came together again in 1990 for a Japan Tour. The group sold out every show from major cities to smaller towns. The tour came about thanks to Hironobu Oda whom they had met at a festival in Ohio in 1983. He was a huge fan of the Squires and became a lifelong friend to the guys. He is still a driving force in bringing Bluegrass and American talent to Japan. He plays mandolin and performs with the band Longing for the Southland that recorded some of the Squires’ songs off their third Rebel project, Hardtimes and Heartaches including one written by Randal Hylton. Rickie, Ronnie Sammy had already toured Japan with Larry Rice in 1986. After the Squires disbanded, Mark had a 10-day tour of Japan, and Sammy and Rickie later toured with other groups.
Each band member had a lot of individual success after The Virginia Squires. Ronnie Simpkins took a short time off from music, only to resurface as bassist for the Tony Rice Unit. The Tony Rice Unit at that point was vocal oriented with mandolinist Jimmy Gaudreau and Rickie making up the trio. In 1995, Ronnie joined the Seldom Scene on New Year’s Eve at a performance at The Birchmere. The Seldom Scene remains as an enigma in the bluegrass community. Each member of the band has day jobs and other projects outside of the band. Ronnie spends his weekdays in downtown Washington, D.C. working for the Smithsonian Folkways recordings.
Rickie Simpkins also performed with The Tony Rice Unit, combining traditional bluegrass and jazz and cementing his reputation as a virtuosic performer. That reputation allowed him the chance to step out on his own when joined with an all-star bluegrass cast in 1997’s Dancing on the Fingerboard, where he would contribute the fiddle, mandolin, and lead vocals, as well as begin to catalogue his own life as a songwriter. By the late ’90s, Simpkins was splitting time between the Lonesome River Band and the gospel group The Isaacs, while also doing session work with Mary Chapin Carpenter and Randy Scruggs and performing with Emmylou Harris’ The Red Dirt Boys.” His second solo release, Don’t Fret It, arrived in 2002 with a similar cast of bluegrass elites in tow and his trademark instrumental prowess in full evidence. In January 2016 after the announcement of Ben Eldridge’s retirement, Rickie became the newest member of the Seldom Scene.
At the recommendation of Rickie, Mark Newton also worked with Tony Rice (along with Rickie and Ronnie) on and off for two seasons before heading back to Fredericksburg, VA to work at Picker’s Supply Music Store. In 1995, Mark joined up with banjo legend Bill Emerson, bassist Bob Goff, and mandolin player Emory Lester and performed as Emerson & Newton throughout the ’90s, playing shows all over the eastern U.S. In 1998, Newton released his solo album, Living a Dream that paid tribute to his bluegrass heroes, such as Bill Monroe, Ralph Stanley and Bill Emerson. A who’s who list of greats appeared on the album and during the release concert at The Birchmere including: Ralph Stanley, Tony Rice, Dudley Connell, Bill Emerson, Jerry Douglas, John Starling, Mike Auldridge, Alan O’Bryant, Ronnie Bowman, Don Rigsby and his former bandmates from the Virginia Squires. This opportunity became the catalyst for 2000’s Follow Me Back to the Fold, a tribute to women in bluegrass that included The Whites, Lynn Morris, Rhonda Vincent and more. The album earned several International Bluegrass Music Association nominations and earned the IBMA Recorded Event of the Year Award. These successes were followed up by the formation of the Mark Newton Band and numerous other albums like Hillbilly Hemingway on the Pinecastle label and later one with Steve Thomas where he toured as Newton & Thomas.
Fresh off his six-year stint with the Virginia Squires, Sammy Shelor joined the Lonesome River Band in 1990 and soon after recorded the band’s landmark album Carrying The Tradition along with Dan Tyminski, Tim Austin, and Ronnie Bowman. This album quickly moved the group to headliner status where they remain today with Sammy leading the band since 2000. He since been inducted into the Virginia Country Music Hall of Fame, is a 5-time IBMA Banjo Performer of the Year Award winner, and a 4-time winner of the SPBGMA Banjo Performer of the Year Award. Sammy is also the 2011 Award Winner for the Steve Martin Prize for Excellence in Banjo and Bluegrass. He was awarded the prize during an appearance on the Late Show with David Letterman where the Lonesome River Band performed with Steve Martin. Sammy has been featured on dozens of successful recordings, both with LRB and as a guest player. Sammy and fellow LRB member Mike Hartgrove performed in Hollywood with actor and comedian Martin Short during the televised AFI Tribute to Steve Martin. Sammy also recorded and performed with country super star Alan Jackson on The Bluegrass Album. They performed at Carnegie Hall, and more concerts to promote Jackson’s album, along with Sammy making his second appearance on The Late Show with David Letterman. As a testament to Sammy’s prominence and influence in the banjo world, he has his own signature Sammy Shelor banjo fingerpicks, and a signature model banjo produced by Huber Banjos.
All these years later, no matter where they go individually, people always come up them and ask about the Virginia Squires. They had a long-lasting impact with many fans and didn’t realize how broad their reach was until they got out of it. Pete Kukendall, founder of Bluegrass Unlimited Magazine once said, “you guys were ahead of your time.”