George Shuffler & James Alan Shelton Remembered Through The Same Eyes!

I-40 to I-81.

I've traveled these roads before. Too many times in the last few months -- to bury my father, two dear friends, and a relationship or two -- effectively turning the so-called Crooked Road into a Trail of Tears.

I had one of "those nights" last night where you can't turn your brain off, finally breaking down and swallowing a couple of Tylenol PM's, and awaking punch drunk with my eyes rolling in my head like a pair of cherries in a bowl of leftover cereal milk.

Image635385837925756873This isn't supposed to be about me, but how can I help but take it personally? But I must keep my attention on the highway as I make my way to Church Hill, TN. I've had (don’t laugh) a vanilla latte with three espresso shots and loaded "Song For Greta" on the iPod to take me home (or as close to “home” as any place I’ve known in the last decade).

When George Shuffler passed away just a few short weeks ago, the editor of Prescription Bluegrass asked me to write an article – or blog, or blarticle, if you will -- about him for their publication.

"We don't need another biography or list of stats,” he told me. “Let us see George Shuffler through your eyes." I had to put it aside when James was diagnosed with his illness a couple of weeks later, and now find myself in the sad position of having to retrieve and expand the article to include him as well.

So I'd like to try to let you see a little bit of George Shuffler, and James Alan Shelton, through my eyes, if I can. You can't hardly mention one without the other.

In 2005 I got a call from the Barter State Theatre of Virginia with an offer to appear in a play they were developing called Man of Constant Sorrow: The Story of The Stanley Brothers. I had a number of roles, including Bill Monroe (cut after previews!), a Primitive Baptist preacher and a radio DJ, but my main role was as George Shuffler. No pressure, right?

Out came the Stanley Brothers records, along with my old D-18 (nicknamed, of course, “George”), and I started to woodshed.

Once I got to Virginia and started rehearsals, the music director told me that the crosspicking pattern was "down, up, up."

"Are you sure about that?” I asked. Because I’d researched it, see?

“I'm positive," he told me, so I dutifully re-learned everything, including the intro to "Rank Strangers," with what I was told was the "correct" picking pattern -- while, as my stage blocking directed me, climbing stairs onto a raised platform! Are you kidding me?

Flash forward several weeks to opening night: I’m peeking through a hole in the curtains before the show and see the first row VIP section Image635385842041062255filled with Dr. Stanley, Mrs. Dr. Stanley, as well as various family, friends and Clinch Mountain Boys past and present.

No pressure, right?

Somehow we got through opening night, and the director asked us to come out for a meet and greet and photo session with the VIP's. So there I was in the house, in my vintage suit, skinny tie and hair all pomaded up like a Tasty Freeze, and the first thing I saw was George Shuffler walking towards me with his hand extended.

"Buddy boy, I have two things to tell you: number one you've got so much wax in your hair I could twist it up and light you like a candle. Number two, that ain’t right: it's down, down, up! Down, down, up!"

The next person who came up to me was James, who put his arm around my shoulders and quietly said, with a knowing chuckle, "He kinda let you have it, didn't he?" and handed me a copy of his crosspicking instructional video, which was invaluable re-re-training my right hand over the next 24 hours.

You can bet I played it the right way from then on.

Oh, one more memory from opening night. I had a photo op with George and Dr. Stanley. While the photo was being taken, George reached around behind Ralph and poked me in the ribs to get me to laugh. They snapped the photo right when I hissed, “hey, cut it out!” out of the side of my mouth. Ralph looked at me and frowned, thinking I was talking to him. George thought that was hysterical. Welcome to the club!

James and I kept in touch going forward, and he never failed to make me feel like an old friend. On one occasion he brought me on Dr. Stanley’s tour bus (“Boy, you ain’t hardly ugly enough to play George Shuffler!” said Jack Cooke), and even invited me to sit in with the band (pending Ralph’s approval, of course) at the Clinch Mountain Music Fest. I had to decline because I had a performance at the Barter Theater that evening. Can you imagine?

Over the course of the next couple of years James introduced me to a lot of good folks in the area, pickers, people he grew up with, friends in the business, instrument builders, and so on, and I came to realize that what he was doing, in his understated way, was letting people know that I was OK. And if James gave you his seal of approval, people listened. Doors were opened and friendships were made thanks to him.

Besides, I wanted to study his right hand every chance I got. Smooth, clean, articulate are the words that pop into my mind.

As I drive I’m dictating into a little hand-held digital recorder that I use for songwriting on the road. I just now had to turn the car radio off for a while so I can collect my thoughts and memories, which are all jumbled and are flying in at me in random order like enraged sparrows in an Alfred Hitchcock movie.


When I would bump into George Shuffler at the IBMA World of Bluegrass trade show every year, he would clap me on the shoulder and say, “Hello, GEORGE!,” introduce me to people as his “son,” and even once referred to me in a private conversation as someone who was helping to carry on something he started.

I’m not sure I’m worthy of that. He had a way of snapping the string off the end of his pick (as opposed to the pick off the string – it’s a subtle, but crucial, difference) that I could never hope to replicate.

I also wasn’t as aggressive as I should have been with his open invitation to visit with him and his family any time I wanted. I’m shy. I don’t like to impose. And I let a remarkable opportunity slip through my fingers.

But I did make sure the signature riff in the chorus of “Down on the Crooked Road” was cross-picked on guitar. And I also decided to launch an awareness campaign which we hoped would help get George inducted into the Bluegrass Hall of Fame. We performed “Will You Miss Me (When I’m Gone)” at every festival gig we did over the next year and a half. I know James had been working behind the scenes for years to make that happen as well. It was an incredible honor to pay tribute to my hero every time I stepped on stage, and then to finally see George “get his flowers while he was living” in 2011 when he was officially inducted into the Hall of Fame in a heartfelt ceremony lead by James at that year’s IBMA awards show.

As I was researching this article I came across something kind of neat that I thought perfectly described the kinship between James and George: In the culture of Korea, they have a word for the special kind of relationship one enjoys with a mentor: "sangbu."

That’s a great word, isn’t it? You’re not sure whether to ask for cream and sugar, or go and cut yourself a switch and wait for your mom behind the tool shed.

Sangbu is a combination of "foster father" and "elder brother." More than an apprenticeship, it signifies a true family tie. That’s a powerful thing. And it’s meant to be passed down the line, with gratitude for the gifts you’ve been given, and offered freely to others with no expectation of reward. What a concept.

Memories and images are flying in faster now, and IImage635385874753513300 can’t separate them into any kind of a coherent narrative. I’m sewing the wind, and you get to reap my whirlwind.

I once asked George how he kept up such a forcefully positive attitude in the face of the frankly morose subject matter of the Stanley Brothers’ music.

That’s not a knock, that’s an observation from someone who has lived and studied the music in the “birthplace of country music” almost like an anthropologist. It’s a mournful sound, full of funereal sadness, almost bordering on desperation, that is endemic to traditional mountain music from the southwest Virginia/northeast Tennessee region. It’s in the water, it’s in the blood, its dyed-in-the-wool and colors every note they play or sing regardless of the subject matter. It’s in equal parts compelling and intimidating.

“Well it’s simple,” he said with a huge smile. “They’re Primitive Baptists in that part of the country, and they believe in predestination. I’m a Missionary Baptist, so I KNOW I’m going to heaven!” And that was that.

I often thought of asking James the same question, but it never seemed a convenient time, so I’m not sure what his answer would have been. I can guess it may have had something to do with living in the mountains with a beautiful, supportive wife, having a circle of good friends that thought the world of him, and working the job of his dreams every day for the last 20 years. Not many people can say that, and I’m pretty sure he never took it for granted, because he was always happy to pass the joy along.

It takes poise and humility to be a side man, and they both had that in spades. I’ve heard countless people pay tribute to George Shuffler’s kindness, patience, friendship, encouragement and enthusiasm for young talent. And I’m about to hear the same things said about James at his memorial service tomorrow morning.

10:45pm: I just got back from the visitation, and am at my lodgings. Greta Shelton asked me to give a eulogy at the service tomorrow. Now I really do have to try to organize my thoughts. No pressure, right?

Here are some of the things I will need to work in:

In many ways James was as much of a musical hero to me as George Shuffler. He was also a mentor, a wise and generous older brother, and a treasured friend who treated me with kindness, the respect of a peer, and genuine familial warmth.

I will never forget the way he held us all together with strength and dignity at George's funeral. He played at the service, and again at the grave site, and even though his heart was surely breaking his hand was steady and true. James was our rock. As we were leaving the grave site, he embraced me and asked if there was anything he could do for me. I told him, "you have no idea how much you’ve already done for me, but I would love it if you would record a song with me for my new CD.”

He nodded, “Yeah man, its time.” I can’t tell you what that meant to me.

I learned of James' passing from Tom Netherland, music journalist for the Tri-City Herald. As I was cursing the unfairness of having him taken from us so soon, Tom said, "you know there's a lesson in this..." and I'm ashamed to say I angrily cut him off, because I couldn’t handle it at that moment. But I knew he was right.

There are a couple of lessons, actually. One, don't put off telling people what they mean to you. I'm glad I had the opportunity to be George’s friend and let him know how much of a hero he was. I’m glad I got a chance to reiterate to James in the last few weeks just how much his friendship and generosity meant to me. Life is too short to leave it for another day. Do it now. And do it often.

The other lesson is when you take a sip from the jar, pass it on. After we laid George to rest, the Shuffler family invited me back to the Lakeview Baptist fellowship hall to eat with them. At the end of the day as I was about to drive home, I was asked to pull out my guitar. Once again I launched into the familiar pickup notes of "Will You Miss Me." I'm sorry to say my hand was nowhere near as steady as James' was that day, but the Shufflers surrounded and carried me to heaven with pure mountain style family harmony. What an incredible gift.

This is what we can do for each other today, tomorrow, and every day going forward: take a sip, and pass it on. And every time we play their music, or crosspick a solo, every time we freely offer friendship, a kind word, encouragement, knowledge, and guidance, James and George continue to live on.

Because what you give out comes back to you. I mean, it’s really that simple. I saw proof of that back in April, with all of George Shuffler’s friends and loved ones gathered together in that chapel to pay tribute not only to the gifted musician and legend, but also the warm-hearted, genuine man that we all loved. And I will see it again tomorrow morning in Church Hill when we congregate to lay James Alan Shelton to his rest.

Pass it on. Take what you need, and then plant a seed. And that is, as Mike Seeger so aptly called it, Music From The True Vine.

No pressure. Right?

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