For generations of American boys raised in the cities and suburbs, the ultimate dream and fantasy has been to become a professional athlete and play for the hometown team. For James Alan Shelton, the musical version of that dream came true in 1994 when he signed on as the lead guitar player for the most legendary bluegrass bands, Ralph Stanley''s Clinch Mountain Boys.
Born in Kingsport, Tenn. and raised on a tobacco farm across the state line near Gate City, Virginia in Scott County, Shelton grew up steeped in the music of the Stanley Brothers, The Carter Family, Flatt & Scruggs and Bill Monroe. As a matter of fact, he was raised within about fifteen miles of the homeplace of A. P. Carter. At age twelve, his maternal grandfather taught him his first licks on guitar and he also began learning the banjo a year later. Like many young guitar pickers, Shelton had become fascinated by the deceptively complex "cross-picking" guitar style developed by North Carolina native George Shuffler, who worked with the Stanley Brothers in the 1950’s and 60’s.
Now 47 and living with his wife Greta in Church Hill, Tenn., just a few miles from his birthplace, Shelton''s lifelong love of bluegrass and country music has given him not only the opportunity to perform and record with Stanley, but also to record and release projects outside the band, such as his compilation album, "Gospel Guitar" and his new solo release “Walking Down The Line”, both on his own Sheltone label. His last solo project, “Half Moon Bay” on Rebel Records, was nominated for Best Instrumental Album Of The Year by the International Bluegrass Music Association (IBMA) in 2005.
In contrast to some of his guitar peers who seemingly, at times, view the melody as "marker notes" to squeeze as many notes as possible between, Shelton''s melody oriented playing emphasizes his love and respect for the way a tune is supposed to sound. He also strives for a rich, full tone on his guitar. His main performing instruments are a 1946 D-28 Martin “Herringbone” and a custom built “James Alan Shelton” signature series guitar built by Huss & Dalton Guitars in Staunton, Virginia.
In describing his own style Shelton stated in a 2002 interview with John Lupton for Country Standard Time, "I''ve tried to take a lot of things that I''ve learned from a lot of people and meld them into my own way of playing. I can''t play just like George Shuffler, and I can''t play like Tony Rice, Earl Scruggs,or Maybelle Carter or whoever. But I can take little things I''ve learned from all of them and put them together with my own ideas and try to come up with my sound, the way I hear it in my head and the way I feel it."
In his fourteen years and counting with Ralph Stanley''s band, Shelton has become much more than the guitar player. For nearly 50 years, Stanley had handled virtually all of the band''s business affairs, and it serves as an impressive vote of trust and confidence that for several years, he turned over most of the chores of booking, publicity and road management to Shelton. Although Stanley is now booked by a Nashville based agency, James Alan Shelton continues as guitarist, road manager and ambassador for the band as they travel abroad, bringing their old-time mountain style of bluegrass music to fans all over the world.
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