James Alan Shelton clinches his dream

By John Lupton, September 2002

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"For one thing, Ralph wants you to play the melody. There's been a couple of occasions during the last eight years when he's come to me and said, 'You're not makin' that say the words right there, you need to change that...'you're not coming out of that line right,' or something like that...'You need to make it sound like this.' And I realized how right he was, to make it sound like the tune goes. I've always tried to play fairly close to the melody. When I first joined the band, I guess I had had enough Tony Rice influence to where I was throwing in a few hot licks, and to Ralph's credit, he let me get by with that for a little while, until I found my way around it and realized what I was really supposed to be doing. He never called me down for doing hot licks, or anything like that, he let me figure out on my own that I wasn't doing it right."

It is difficult, he agrees, for young guitar pickers to get past the "machine gun" stage and learn that playing faster is not necessarily playing better.

"(Playing) a whole bunch of notes...you know, you're not going to impress anybody but the other musicians, and as Ralph says, they're not going to buy your records anyway. They're going to expect you to give 'em one. So, you've got to play to the people. I had a guy come up to me, he was just an old farmer in overalls that came up to me in Cherokee, N.C. at a festival, and he said to me, 'I like the way you play, you make it say the words.' I never will forget that. If you try to make the guitar say the words, and play the melody, no one can accuse you of doing it wrong."

And, he adds with a chuckle, "As I get older, I really don't want to play fast."

In his eight years and counting with Stanley's band, Shelton has become much more than the guitar player. For nearly 50 years, Stanley had handled virtually all of the band's business affairs, and it serves as an impressive vote of trust and confidence that in the last few years, he has turned over most of the chores of booking, publicity and road management to Shelton.

Though previous Clinch Mountains Boys like Larry Sparks, Ron Thomason and Charlie Sizemore have gone on to found their own successful bands, Shelton has no such plans.

"I've been with Ralph for eight years, and I'm in no hurry to go anywhere else. I've enjoyed it, I like playing for him. He may cut back some, he's talked about wanting to cut back a little bit next year...As far as the long term, I don't know, I'm just gonna sit back and see what happens."

Though mostly instrumental, one of the highlights on "Song For Greta" is a version of one of Shelton's favorite Carter Family songs, "Fifty Miles Of Elbow Room," and he was delighted when Gillian Welch and David Rawlings enthusiastically agreed to join him in the studio to do the vocals.

"I've been saving that tune for years, waiting for the right person to do it, and I think my wife came up with the idea of getting Gillian to do it, and I just asked (Gillian) last year at Ralph's festival if she would be interested in doing it, and she said she'd love to...It was real simple, we just used two guitars, and a bass and their voices. I just wanted to stick as close to the style, as what the Carters did, real simple and basic and down to earth, and I think it worked out pretty well."

Though Stanley's involvement as a solo performer with "Down From The Mountain" last winter and this summer gave Shelton and his fellow Clinch Mountain Boys some welcome extended time off the road, he's looking forward to watching how the new wave of interest in traditional music plays out.

"As soon as ('O Brother') came out, our crowds started to increase. We've been getting good crowds and good response everywhere we go, and finally, after all these years, I think Ralph is finally getting the recognition he should have had a long time ago."

Mostly, though, Shelton sees hope for the future of traditional music and traditional musicians like himself.

"One thing, more than anything else, is that this is drawing more young people to the music, and in order for the music to go on, you've got to have younger people coming along to pick it up, 'cause if not, it'll die out."