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Karl Shiflett: the Texas, yes Texas, bluegrass boy makes good

By John Lupton, January 2001

As the proverbial crow flies, the town of Groesbeck, in Limestone County, lies in the central Texas plains just about 40 miles due east of Waco. It's the kind of country that hard-nosed dirt farmers have scratched out an honest living on for more than 150 years, but it doesn't necessarily evoke the sort of images that many people associate with bluegrass music.

Groesbeck is, after all, just about as deep into the heart of Texas as it gets, and a long, long way from the hills of Kentucky.

To Karl Shiflett, though, Groesbeck has been home for most of his 44 years, and if the folks who have flocked to hear him and his Big Country Show on the festival circuit over the last 3 years have trouble thinking of their music as bluegrass, he won't argue with them.

"We've always referred to our music as country music and not necessarily bluegrass. It's kinda like Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs. That's the way they referred to their music."

Shiflett is recalling the period of the late 1940's and early 1950's (before the term "bluegrass" even came into widespread use) when the music that Flatt and Scruggs and their former boss, Bill Monroe, the Stanley Brothers and others were making was as much a part of the whole fabric of country music as that of Hank Williams, Lefty Frizzell and Hank Thompson.

"It's not necessarily that I have anything against the word 'bluegrass,'" he says. "It's just that the trend of bluegrass music nowadays is so far from where bluegrass started, I'd almost not even want to be called a bluegrass band...it's just like the change in country music to what it is now, it's just so far from where it started...I wouldn't even call most of the country music that they're playing now 'country music'."

Bluegrass fans, though, have certainly warmed up to Shiflett and his band since the release of their self-titled debut on Rebel Records in 1999.

The album was critically praised, but it was the buzz created by their sensational appearance as a showcase act at the International Bluegrass Music Association (IBMA) convention that year that has made them one of the most sought-after acts on the festival circuit and has taken them all across the US and Canada).

The group's second Rebel release, "In Full Color," is out in January, and Shiflett couldn't be happier.

"I've had the band since '93, and we had worked the festival circuit, but I never had any kind of national release on any of our recordings. I was with a label called Atteiram Records...and basically all they ever done was provide us with tapes to sell off the table."

Although part of the appeal - "retro" has been the favorite description of many critics and reviewers - of Big Country Show is their true-to-tradition treatment of classic bluegrass and country tunes, they're not just playing to nostalgia.

Like the first Rebel disc, the new album includes a healthy sampling of the band's originals, but this time, Shiflett says, the production has tried to emulate the "single-mic" sound of their knockout stage shows.

"There's eight original songs on this album, so there's a little bit more original material here. One thing we done different that I really wanted to publicize was that we recorded it live around an RCA 77 ribbon microphone, and we done it like we do on stage, except I took a couple other mics and placed one on each side to capture the stereo effect. But basically, we recorded on the one mic, done live, no overdubbing, so I was real proud of that. It turned out real well."

Born in Longview, Texas, Shiflett began gravitating to bluegrass as a child when the entire family would listen to the weekly Opry broadcasts, and Bill Monroe became one of his favorite performers. He began hearing live bluegrass after moving to Groesbeck in the late 1960's.

"My first exposure to the music (was) back in the '60's. They had a fiddle contest here at the courthouse square every year. They still do, and they had live bluegrass bands the first year I went, when I was about 9 or 10 years old."

He proved himself to be a quick study not only as an instrumentalist (guitar, banjo, mandolin and fiddle), but he also showed a keen eye for the stylistic elements that made classic country music as entertaining in person as it was on radio and some of it he picked up from television.

Shiflett became particularly fascinated with banjo player David "Stringbean" Akeman, Monroe's banjo player prior to Scruggs and among the original cast members of "Hee Haw."

He stayed with music through his high school years (including radio appearances in Waco) and marriage (he and wife Linda were wed in 1979), working as a sideman for well-known bluegrass acts like Bill Grant and Delia Bell, and the Sullivan Family ("My first professional job," he says).

It wasn't until 1993 that he formed Big Country Show and began working toward his vision of fronting a band that would take an audience on a ride back to the Golden Age of Country Music.

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