Richard Thompson contributes this brief overview of a seminal bluegrass artist.
As already reported, banjo stylist Allen Shelton passed away on 21 November while in the Centennial Medical Center, Nashville. He was 73.
Initially he had been diagnosed as having leukemia, although it is thought that he subsequently had a heart attack and a stroke.
Shelton, born near Reidsville, North Carolina, was one of the most influential and innovative among bluegrass banjo players of the 1950s and 1960s. He developed a distinctive right hand technique with a swinging sound, and his timing had to a syncopated ‘bounce’ for which he is famous. His style of playing the banjo was unique and its influence even extended to Jesse McReynolds’s mandolin playing.
Shelton is also well recognized in bluegrass circles for the six years he spent with Jim and Jesse McReynolds, whom he joined in 1960. While with them he became noted for the showcase number Bending The Strings and the recordings South Bound Train and Maybelline.
He began his bluegrass career at the age of 14 with Jim Eanes. Later he played with Mac Wiseman, with whom he recorded Keep On The Sunny Side. During a second spell with Eanes, Shelton helped record most of Eanes’s material for Starday Records, including Your Old Standby, Bending The Strings, I Wouldn’t Change You If I Could, the original version of I’ll Pretend It’s Raining, Hand On The Glass and Log Cabin In The Lane.
Shelton recorded 89 cuts with Jim and Jesse, in the process helping to define their sound and arguably helping to take them to the peak of the performing career.
He made his first solo album Shelton Special (Rounder 0088) in 1976. It featured a diverse set of tunes, including Banjo Bounce, the country classic Crazy Arms, the jazz number Sweet Georgia Brown and the standard Lady of Spain.
Shelton had two other solo albums; Mr. Original Banjo Man (Outlet STLP 401) and 5-String Dobro & Banjo (Atteiram AP I 1630).
In 1987 he helped Jim and Jesse record In the Tradition (Rounder 0234).
However, above all his musical achievements, Allen Shelton will be remembered for his constant wide grin – like that of the proverbial Cheshire cat – and his willingness to help and encourage others.