James Alan Shelton first heard the Flatt and Scruggs song “Foggy Mountain Breakdown” watching the movie “Bonnie and Clyde” at Kingsport’s State Theatre when he was just 6 years old. That song, coupled with local musical influences like the Stanley Brothers, the Carter Family, Flatt and Scruggs, and Bill Monroe, sparked Shelton’s lifelong interest in bluegrass.
“Now here I am, going to be playing 46 years later, right in front of that same theatre,” he said. “So the whole thing is coming full circle.”
On Friday, Aug. 16, Shelton will perform with Audey Ratliff (mandolin), Daniel Grindstaff (banjo) and Janice McCombs (bass) at Bluegrass on Broad in downtown Kingsport. Show time is 7 p.m.
Admission is free. Bring a lawn chair to sit in, but leave the coolers and pets at home.
Shelton has been the lead guitarist and road manager for Ralph Stanley and the Clinch Mountain Boys for 19 years. The group currently plays about 60 shows per year and has toured as far away as England, Ireland and Scotland.
“I don’t get to do solo performances very often, so this is really a rare opportunity for me, and I’m thrilled to get to do it in Kingsport,” Shelton said of his Bluegrass on Broad gig.
This is only his third solo show this year, and one of few he has played in his hometown.
“I’ll probably be really nervous because the folks around here know good bluegrass music, and they know what it’s supposed to sound like,” he said. “It will be really nice to get to play in front of friends or family. It’s rare that I get to play like this.”
Shelton, 52, was born in Kingsport, raised on a tobacco farm in Scott County, Va., and now lives in Church Hill with his wife, Greta.
When he was 12 years old, his grandfather began teaching him to play guitar, and he picked up the banjo a year later. Shelton was fascinated by George Shuffler’s cross-picking style and made a point of learning the technique.
Shelton will demonstrate melody-oriented lead guitar as well as cross-picking at his Broad Street performance.
“It’s a way of playing the guitar where you use a flat pick but you make your right hand do a role pattern where you hit two strings down and one string up in a flowing rhythmic pattern and you work your melody notes into that rhythmic pattern,” Shelton explained.
His experiences with the Clinch Mountain Boys have given him the opportunity to play at Carnegie Hall and the Grand Ole Opry, and have connected him with many legendary musicians. On one album, “Clinch Mountain Music,” a number of famed bluegrass, country and folk icons including Bob Dylan, George Jones, Ricky Skaggs, Patty Loveless, Alison Krauss, Ralph Stanley and others met and recorded a tribute to Stanley. Ralph Stanley and the Clinch Mountain Boys with Jim Lauderdale won the 2003 Grammy Award for Best Bluegrass Album for “Lost in the Lonesome Pines.”
Shelton has enjoyed plenty of achievements as a solo performer as well. He has released five albums, including several he produced on his own label, Sheltone. “Half Moon Bay” was released in 2004 and nominated in 2005 for Best Instrumental Album of the Year by the International Bluegrass Music Association. “Walking Down the Line” followed in 2007, and “Where I’m Bound” was released in 2010.
He also compiled songs from various albums to form “Gospel Guitar,” which he released on the Sheltone label. Another album, “Copper Creek Sessions,” is a combination of two albums which had been discontinued by Rebel Records and which he re-released in 2012 under his label.
The Huss and Dalton Guitar Company in Staunton, Va., designed a signature Shelton guitar series, modeled after one they made for him prior to the release of the signature series.
“We were just fans of his playing,” said company owner Jeff Huss.
A signature series Shelton is valued at $4,800, and there are only 10 in the world, one of which is Shelton’s personal guitar.
“It was quite an honor to get a whole series of guitars with my name on them,” said Shelton, who typically plays either his signature guitar or a 1946 Martin herringbone.
For over 30 years, he has been making leather guitar straps by hand.
“A lot of well-known people use my straps,” Shelton said. Among them are banjoist J.D. Crow and guitarist Larry Sparks.
Shelton begins with raw leather and does all the cutting, tooling, staining and finishing, and even boxes them up and ships them out himself.
He hopes that as his schedule allows, he will be able to record and perform solo more often.