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James Alan Shelton clinches his dream

By John Lupton, September 2002

For generations of American boys raised in the cities and suburbs, the ultimate dream and fantasy has been to become a professional athlete and play for the hometown team. For James Alan Shelton, the musical version of that dream came true in 1994 when he signed on as the lead guitar player for the most legendary bluegrass band outside of the Blue Grass Boys, Ralph Stanley's Clinch Mountain Boys.

Born in Kingsport, Tenn. and raised across the state line near Gate City, Va. in the heart of Stanley Country, Shelton grew up steeped in the music of the Stanley Brothers.

Now 41 and living in Church Hill, Tenn., just a few miles from his birthplace, Shelton's lifelong love of bluegrass and country music has given him not only the opportunity to perform and record with Stanley, but also to record and release projects outside the band, such as his new solo Rebel release, "Song For Greta."

"I never got to see Carter," says Shelton, speaking of Stanley's brother and partner who died in 1966. "I saw Ralph perform for the first time when I was about 12 years old. I was already starting to learn to play the guitar and the banjo. I got my Daddy to buy me my first guitar, and I worked out the a dollar and a quarter an hour."

He pauses a few seconds, and laughs as he recalls, "It took a while to work out an $89.95 guitar. That's how I started, listening to the Carter Family, Stanley Brothers records, Flatt and Scruggs records and Bill Monroe. I could relate to the Stanley records more, for some reason or another. I guess (it was) them being from this region and them singing about the Clinch Mountains...What really got me was the guitar playing."

Like many young guitar pickers, Shelton had become fascinated by the deceptively complex "cross-picking" guitar style developed by North Carolina native George Shuffler, who has performed with the Clinch Mountain Boys intermittently for nearly 50 years.

"The first record I got was Ralph's 'Something Old, Something New,' and it had the song 'Will You Miss Me' on it, and Keith Whitley played the lead on that album. I branched off from there and started going back and getting the Stanley Brothers records, and that's when I discovered Shuffler, and I tried to buy any Stanley records I could get so I could get the guitar stuff."

For years, Shelton admired and idolized Shuffler from afar until the opportunity to meet him presented itself about 15 years ago.

"I met him at Ralph's festival in '86, (which was) a kind of 40th anniver sary reunion, and George came over ' there, and I was scared to death, you know, to go and meet your hero, but I walked up to him and got his autograph, and spoke...just a real brief encounter. Then, several years later - I used to do leather work, I made guitar straps, and I made George a strap, a custom-made guitar strap with his name on it, and I just mailed it to him, out of the blue, and he wrote me a letter back and thanked me for that. Then, when he put out a guitar tape, I ordered one from him."

"When I started working for Ralph, he'd be around some, like he'd come to Ralph's festival, or he might come out and play a date with us somewhere, and I got to know him a little bit better. The latter part of 1999, he worked with us for about six months, he played bass for the band while Jack Cooke (outside of Ralph himself, the longest-serving band member) had open heart surgery, and during that time, I traveled with him every weekend, and me and him roomed together and got to be real good friends. He would come down a day early and spend the night at my house."

In 2000, the fantasy-come-true continued as Shelton collaborated with Shuffler for "The Legacy Continues," released on the Copper Creek label. Though Shuffler's influence on Shelton is evident on that disc, as it is on "Song For Greta" and Shelton's other solo projects, it's equally clear that Shelton has developed his own distinctive approach to his playing that mixes elements of Shuffler cross-picking, Watson-style flatpicking and, on occasion, downright bluesy finger-style picking.

"I've tried to take a lot of things that I've learned from a lot of people and meld them into my own way of playing. I can't play just like George, and I can't play like Tony Rice, and I can't play like Scruggs,or Maybelle Carter or whoever. But I can take little things I've learned from all of them and try to put them together with my own ideas, and try to come up with my sound, or the way I play...I just try to take all the parts and put them together, and mostly what I try to do with them is play mostly what I feel about it, the way I hear it in my head and the way I feel it."

In contrast to some of his guitar peers who seemingly, at times, view the melody as "marker notes" to squeeze as many notes as possible between, Shelton's playing on "Song For Greta" emphasizes his love and respect for the way a tune is supposed to sound. But, he admits, it took a while for him to understand that, and as in so many other things, it was the experience of working for Stanley that led to enlightenment.

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