Just a few months after the passing of his guitar hero George Shuffler, longtime Clinch Mountain Boy James Alan Shelton has passed away in Kingsport, TN. James had been diagnosed with Stage 4 cancer of the liver and pancreas just over a month ago. He was 53 years old.
James was born in Kingsport, but grew up just a few miles away in the Yuma community of Scott County, VA. He began learning to play both guitar and banjo at age 12, but eventually found his musical home on the guitar. The Stanley Brothers, who hailed from just a few counties away from James’ home, were one of his favorite groups, and he grew up aspiring to play like the man many considered to be the third Stanley “brother,” renowned guitarist and bassist George Shuffler.
Though Shelton played music throughout the Tri-Cities region for much of his life and held several non-musical jobs as well, he is best known for the twenty years he spent at Ralph Stanley’s side as lead guitarist for the Clinch Mountain Boys. James played his first show with Stanley on March 4, 1994 in Northfield, MN. He had happened upon the job a few weeks earlier, after attending one of Stanley’s shows and learning that guitarist Junior Blankenship was leaving the band. In his time with Stanley, James became recognized for his attention to the melody of a song, smooth style of playing, and his continuation of Shuffler’s signature crosspicking style.
In addition to his guitar duties, James also served as Stanley’s road manager and publicist for several years. He released a number of solo albums over the past two decades, including Half Moon Bay, which was nominated for IBMA Instrumental Album of the Year in 2005. James also made hand-tooled leather guitar, banjo, and mandolin straps, which are worn by some of the best in bluegrass, including Larry Sparks, J.D. Crowe, and Adam Steffey.
I grew up, and still live, about five miles from the home James and his wife Greta shared in Church Hill, TN. I can remember as a child being in awe that I was neighbors with such an impressive musician. My parents had a bluegrass band for most of my childhood, so I spent many of my weekends seeing James on stage with Stanley and the Clinch Mountain Boys at the festivals they played. James was a guest on my parents’ band’s albums, as well.
As Shuffler was for James, James was a musical hero to me. I’ve long admired his melodic style and tried to replicate it somewhat in my own guitar playing. In the past few years, I tried to stop in and see him when I could. It was usually just to say hello and talk for a bit, but I also had the opportunity to play guitar with him and even play a few tunes on his old Martin guitar. He knew almost as much as there was to know about bluegrass history, especially concerning the Stanleys, and I learned so much every time I talked to him.
James will be greatly missed in the bluegrass community, and our thoughts and prayers are with his family and friends.