John William Shuffler, one of the better known bass-playing brothers of the Shuffler family, passed away on Friday, December 21, at Grace Hospital, Morganton, North Carolina, after a period of declining health. He would have been 82 years old on January 16.
The bluegrass veteran had a stroke in February 2009, which led to a two-month spell of hospitalization.
He began his musical exploits as a 12 year old by playing guitar in brother George’s western swing band, the Melody Mountain Boys.
Shuffler played with the Stanley Brothers from February to June 1951 before he was drafted into service later that year. He returned from service in 1953 and in the Fall he re-joined the Stanley Brothers for whom he played bass on the November 1953 Mercury session with How I Long to See The Old Folks, Poison Lies, Dickson County Breakdown and A Voice From on High.
He once passed an audition to play with Jim and Jesse McReynolds, but he opted to get married and to stay at home in Burke County, North Carolina. In 1989 Shuffler formed his own band for whom he played both guitar and bass and sang the lead and baritone parts.
As well as the session for the Stanley Brothers, Shuffler worked with Jim Shumate on his Heritage Records recordings, and on Steve Kilby’s Plain & Fancy CD.
The John Shuffler Band continued to be a bluegrass mainstay in the Valdese area and Shuffler himself was a regular during the ex-Clinch Mountain Boys reunions at Ralph Stanley’s annual bluegrass festivals on Smith Ridge.
He was a U.S. Army veteran during the Korean conflict, and a member of Icards Grove Baptist Church.
Shuffler was a retired sales representative with Burke Oil and Better Homes Furnishing.
His contributions to bluegrass music are noted by the Bluegrass Hall of Fame in Owensboro, Kentucky.
Award winning flatpick guitarist Steve Kilby remembers his friend ….
“John Shuffler was a very humble musician, as are all the Shufflers. All he ever wanted to do was help his friends play music to entertain people. He never strived for fame or fortune just friendship in the bluegrass world. He played bass with the most rhythm in his hands of anyone the world has ever seen. In a band setting he was very easy to play with and would just carry the rhythm alone, letting the other instruments play their parts with the utmost ease. He also departed you telling you how much he ‘appreciated you.’
He told some great stories about the early days of bluegrass and his shows and recordings with the Stanley Brothers. Some stories were funny and some were very serious. Of course his brother George was more well-known for playing with the Stanley’s but John could hold his own with the bass on their songs. It was hard to tell his playing from George’s. He was a good friend to me, we played many a tune together and ate many a meal together. By the way, the man loved to eat also.”
Close family friend Michael Ramsey shares these thoughts …….
“John had seen some health issues in recent years, but his death still came unexpectedly.
Our families go back to the start of the previous century. John’s father, Will Shuffler, was a neighbor of my great Grandfather, John Clayton Ramsey. They hunted together and raised children in the same small rural neighborhood.
Through the years the Shufflers were aware of me, though it’s been within the last 20 years that I became very close to them, through music. I’ve never experienced a more loving family.
All of the brothers (6 of them, along with 3 sisters) were musically inclined. In the very earliest years, George (of Stanley Brothers fame) and John had a 4 piece band, along with two other neighborhood guys, Lester Woodie and Mert Williams. John played a homemade upright bass. He told me it was so heavy it took two of them to carry it to gigs.
While the other brothers played may varied forms of music (R&B, swing, Gospel, country, bluegrass) John stuck to playing bluegrass, much in the style of the Stanley Brothers and Flatt & Scruggs. He had patterned his bass playing style after older brother George, walking the bass line. He told me of playing bass for a short stint with the Stanley Brothers in the early 1950′s, when they used an aluminum bass. It rode on top of the car, uncovered, and they would pour the rain out of it at gigs, tune it up and play the show. He also recorded 4 sides with the Stanley Brothers, in Nashville, during this same time. He only used gut strings and nylon strings on his bass. He also played guitar and banjo and taught lessons in his home for many years.
I met Butch Robins at a show several years ago. Butch was a prominent banjo player for Bill Monroe in the 70′s. Butch told me he loved playing with John Shuffler, since he could ‘drive your butt up a wall, with that bass playing.’ He was very well respected by many in the bluegrass music industry. He was recognized by Ralph Stanley and Ricky Skaggs, and was often asked to appear at Ralph’s annual festival in Virginia. In the early 2000′s, the IBMA recognized John as one of the early, important sidemen of the first generation of bluegrass bands. This effort to recognize these individuals was spearheaded by Sonny Osborne.
He had his own band for many years, called The John Shuffler Band. Among the members were, Freddie Beach, David Wiseman, Jim Smith, Scott Haas, Eric Ellis, Perry Woodie, among many others. When my own son, Aaron Ramsey (current mandolinist for Mountain Heart) was beginning to play, John would often ask Aaron up to play a few numbers with the band at the shows. He was a very big musical encourager to my own son. I will remember him forever, for that act of kindness.”
Tom Gray was profoundly influenced by the athletic, moving bass lines of John Shuffler ….
“John Shuffler was a hero who I’d never met in person. He played that driving, walking bass fiddle on Poison Lies that made me want to learn how to do that. Years later, hearing some of his own influence on my recordings, he contacted me, just out of the blue. We maintained a pen-pal relationship for years, even talking by telephone, talking about our musical theories, and our mutual acquaintances.
John was a good man.”
About the Author (Author Profile)
Richard F. Thompson is a long-standing free-lance writer specialising in bluegrass music topics.
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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