This remembrance is a contribution from James Alan Shelton, guitarist with Ralph Stanley & the Clinch Mountain Boys.
Today marks the passing of a true bluegrass legend and a personal guitar hero to many of us who have aspired to learn the Shuffler down-down-up crosspicking roll. At a little past noon today, George Shuffler was called up to join the Angel Band. For all of us who have tried down through the years to fill his shoes in Ralph Stanley’s Clinch Mountain Boys – Larry Sparks, Keith Whitley, Ricky Lee, Renfro Proffitt, Hank Smith, Junior Blankenship and myself – we all owed a debt of gratitude to George Shuffler for showing us the way.
Folks who follow bluegrass really need to be aware of the contributions that George Shuffler made to this music. His bass playing on the Stanley Brothers’ first Mercury sessions is still being talked about today and has influenced many of today’s players including Tom Gray, Missy Raines and Mike Bub. Although not the first to do so, he certainly brought the flat top guitar to the public’s attention as a lead instrument at a time when there weren’t too many people playing lead guitar. And his crosspicking style of playing was deeply rooted in the melody, which is sadly missing from most modern guitar players. George has said many times, “If it don’t have any melody in it then I don’t want no part of it!”
George was the ultimate sideman. He did whatever was asked of him and more to help Carter and Ralph Stanley front a band that could compete with the other giants of their day. He was always creative in his playing. His daughter Debbie said that she had watched him at home while working out licks over and over on his guitar until he had honed them to perfection.
If you listen to his solos on those old King records it will amaze you at how many good ideas he had to make a break or a backup lick sound interesting. He always played from the heart. At various times he played lead guitar and bass in the band, plus he did a lot of bass and baritone singing in the trios and quartets.
It is a little known fact that he helped Carter write some of those wonderful songs. He said, “Oh, I’d feed him a word or two here and there,” but he never asked for any songwriting credit. Two songs he specifically mentioned that he helped to write were Hallelujah I’m Ready To Go and It’s A Wonderful World Outside. On top of that George and Ralph took turns driving the car all night to get them safely from one show to another.
Perhaps his greatest legacy is the way he was respected by his peers, and the way he carried himself with quiet dignity long after he left the road. George was a fine Christian man (he wanted to be in his usual seat for every service at Lakeview Baptist Church in Valdese), and remained the center of the universe to his large and loving family. His wife Sue and his children were his pride and joy. Anyone who spent any time around George heard stories about “Momma and the kids.” Momma was his pet name for Sue. When asked how he came to raise such a close and loving family he didn’t take any credit but gave it all to Sue. He said “Aw, Momma just loved ’em all to death!”
While sitting beside him at the record table I have seen countless people come up to him and say “Mr. Shuffler I have waited 30 years to shake your hand.” He always responded with a warm handshake, a big smile and a kind word. A lot of times they walked away with tears in their eyes. He loved his fans and he was proud of the work he had done on those old Stanley records, although he seldom talked about his accomplishments.
On a personal note, George Shuffler and the Stanley Brothers were the biggest influences on my musical career. The first time I met him was at Ralph Stanley’s Hills of Home Festival in 1986. It took me three weeks to get over that before I could talk about it without becoming emotional. Over the years, George and I became very good friends and he was a larger than life hero to me.
He came back out on the road and played bass with the Clinch Mountain Boys in late 1999 on up into early 2000 when Jack Cooke had his heart bypass surgery. During that time we always roomed together and I spent many hours listening to him tell stories of the old days. I would often sit at the breakfast table with him and Ralph and I could not believe that I was allowed to be part of that intimate circle. It was one of the biggest highlights of my life to stand on the stage of the Ryman Auditorium on September 29, 2011 and induct George into the IBMA Hall of Fame. My wife Greta and I have spent countless hours in his home surrounded by the warmth and love of all the Shufflers.
Because of what he did over 45 years ago, it created a job in the Stanley band and a chance for me to take my shot at carrying on the Shuffler crosspicking legacy. In the year 2000 George and I did an album together for Copper Creek Records called The Legacy Continues which was nominated for Recorded Event of the Year by the IBMA. I think he appreciated the fact that I was trying to carry on his work and he knew how much I respected him.
I feel blessed that I got to live in the time of George Shuffler. As so many of our musical heroes are leaving us at a rapid pace these days, it is important to pause and reflect on how much they enriched our lives. Rest in peace Georgie….I love you, Bud!