One of the most respected and loved bluegrass musicians of any era, James Alan Shelton, passed away earlier this week (during the evening of June 3).
James Alan Shelton was born on November 3, 1960, in Kingsport, Tennessee, and raised on a tobacco farm near Gate City, in Scott County, Virginia. As such, he was a neighbor to the internationally renowned Stanley Brothers and they were a major influence on a young Shelton. Other influences included The Carter Family, Bill Monroe and Flatt & Scruggs.
When he was 12 years old his maternal grandfather guided him through his first lessons on playing the guitar, and at the age of 13 he began learning to play the banjo also.
A year later Shelton became very interested in the Stanley Brothers music to such an extent that he studied closely the guitar playing of George Shuffler, a specialist in the art of cross-picking and often referred to as the third Stanley Brother. Shelton became determined to become a member of the Clinch Mountain Boys, at this point led only by Ralph Stanley. (Carter Stanley passed away on December 1, 1966.)
At the age of 15 Shelton became the banjo player for a band called the Bluegrass Travelers, with whom he remained for about 18 months and appeared on one of its albums. He also played banjo for the Larkin Brothers, staying with them for two years. Afterwards Shelton went on to devote four years as a Dobro and guitar player in the band Flint Hill.
Following his time with Flint Hill he ventured briefly into country music, playing electric guitarist in a band.
However, in 1985 Shelton returned to bluegrass music, playing banjo and mandolin for Blue Ridge.
For a while he found employment in non-music fields such as factory work and house painting.
Having already expressed a desire to work for Ralph Stanley, Shelton was invited to sit in on a few occasions. Periodically during 1992 Shelton deputized for Junior Blankenship the then regular lead guitarist in the Clinch Mountain Boys.
In 1994 Shelton realized his teenage dream and joined the Clinch Mountain Boys as replacement for Blankenship.
He remained a trusted employee of Ralph Stanley’s for about 20 years, during part of that time handling virtually all of the band’s business affairs, doing bookings and publicity, and serving as road manager.
From 1992 when he released his first solo album, Blue in the Blue Ridge, Shelton recorded 10 CDs, with releases on the Freeland, Zap, Copper Creek, Heart and Sheltone labels.
His Half Moon Bay was nominated as best instrumental album of 2005 by the International Bluegrass Music Association.
In 2003 he won a Grammy award for his work on the Jim Lauderdale, Ralph Stanley album, Lost in the Lonesome Pines.
As with Shuffler, Shelton’s playing was always true to the melody, with a distinctive rich, full tone; instantly identifiable.
When not out on the road, Shelton made hand-tooled, customised leather instrument straps, for guitar, banjo, and mandolin.
- Blue in the Blue Ridge (Freeland FRC-CD 645, 1992)
- Clinch Mountain Guitar (Freeland FRC-CD 650, 1995)
- Road to Coeburn (Copper Creek CCCD 0154, 1997)
- Song for Greta (Rebel REB-CD 1785, 2002)
- Half Moon Bay (Rebel REB-CD 1809, 2004)
- Walking Down the Line (Sheltone SR 1961, 2007)
- Gospel Guitar (Sheltone SR 1960, 2008), a compilation, with recordings from earlier albums for Rebel, Copper Creek and Freeland Recording
- Where I’m Bound (Sheltone SR 1962, 2010), his final album
A two-time Editor of British Bluegrass News, he has been seriously interested in bluegrass music since about 1970. As well as contributing to that magazine, he has, in the past 30 plus years, had articles published by Country Music World, International Country Music News, Country Music People, Bluegrass Unlimited, MoonShiner (the Japanese bluegrass music journal) and Bluegrass Europe.
He wrote the annotated series I'm On My Way Back To Old Kentucky, a daily memorial to Bill Monroe that culminated with an acknowledgement of what would have been his 100th birthday, on September 13, 2011.
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