KINGSPORT — The bluegrass music community is mourning the loss of celebrated guitarist and longtime member of the Clinch Mountain Boys James Alan Shelton, who died this week after a short battle with cancer.
Shelton, 53, of Church Hill, passed away Tuesday afternoon with his wife, Greta, beside him at Holston Valley Medical Center, just over a month after he announced his stage 4 cancer diagnosis on the BluegrassToday.com blog.
Shelton, who worked with Dr. Ralph Stanley and the Clinch Mountain Boys, was mainly known for his crosspicking style of bluegrass guitar playing. A multi-instrumentalist and talented singer, Shelton was also accomplished on the dobro, banjo and mandolin.
Stanley said Shelton's death was a loss for those who knew him, and for bluegrass music as a whole.
"It's a big loss," Stanley said. "He's been playing with me for over 20 years and he's one of the best lead guitar and country pickers that there is on a guitar for a band like me. He fit me like a glove for 20 years.
"He told me it was his ambition to play with me some. When I hired him, I kept him with me for 20 years, and he told me that was what he had always wanted. He did a fine job, he knew what to do and he knew why I wanted it and that's how he would do it."
In addition to playing guitar, Shelton handled the business side of Stanley's music career for the better part of a decade, including in the years following the release of "Oh Brother, Where Are Thou?"
Stanley said Shelton was as good a man as he was a musician.
"He was easy to get along with he was good natured," Stanley said. "I never had a cross word with him that I could remember in 20 years. He made me a good man, and that's all I can say."
Shelton was born in the Scott County community of Yuma and graduated high school from Gate City. Growing up, Shelton was taught to play guitar by his grandfather and went on to master the style of guitar known as cross-picking, which was first made widely popular in the 1960s by Stanley Brothers guitarist George Shuffler. Following Shuffler's death earlier this year, Shelton wrote a tribute to his hero, detailing the legendary guitarist's influence on his own playing.
Shelton also released 10 solo albums, including one that claimed a 2005 IBMA award, and in 2003 won a Grammy for his work on the Ralph Stanley, Jim Lauderdale album, "Lost in the Lonesome Pines." Along with his own musical pursuits, Shelton produced records for other performers and played as a guest on tracks for hundreds of other bluegrass musicians. A business man, Shelton was also known among musicians for his custom-made guitar, banjo and mandolin straps.
Bluegrass musicians from the area, like mandolin player Adam Steffey and Blue Highway guitarist Tim Stafford, expressed their respect for Shelton as both a musician and a person.
"James Alan Shelton was one of the best musicians in the world of bluegrass music," Steffey said. "He played a melodic crosspicking style of guitar that few emulate these days, and he was a true master at it.
"I met James when I first began playing the mandolin and we became very close friends. Not only was he a great musician, but he was a good man and a great friend. He will be greatly missed as a friend and musician. He helped a lot of young players over the years and his legacy will live on. I can only hope to be nearly as good a man as he was. My thoughts are with his wife and family during this trying time."
Stafford, who said he first met Shelton in the 1980s while both were giving lessons at the Guitar Shop in Kingsport, described his friend as a mentor for numerous musicians who went on to pursue a career in bluegrass.
"That was his nature," Stafford said of Shelton's influence. "He was kind to a fault, but very common sense and no-nonsense. He was attracted to the beauty and simplicity of the Stanley Brothers' music, and was the world's foremost practitioner of crosspicked guitar."
Although technically gifted, Stafford said Shelton was not one to show off with fancy licks or by playing too many notes.
"Like George, he emphasized playing the melody with great tone instead of showing off his chops with flash and speed," Stafford said.
Those thoughts were echoed by other musicians, including Will Mullins of Lonesome Will Mullins and the Virginia Playboys, who said Shelton became a friend after helping him early in his career.
"He was one of the finest people you'd ever want to meet and a dear friend of mine," Mullins said. "I never saw anyone go to James that he didn't take time to sit and talk with him for as long as they wanted. He really helped get my career started and he was very accommodating to someone who was green to the business."
John Goad, a staff writer for the bluegrass music blog Blue grassToday.com , said Shelton was the same no matter who he was with, whether they were famous musicians or someone just wanting to learn about the guitar.
"He would take people he knew and didn't know into his home," Goad said. "He and his wife Greta were real welcoming and super nice and kind. He was always really gracious with his time and really cared about people who showed a real interest in the music."
"He is one of the most underrated guitar players that I know of," Goad added. "I can't say any more than that. He really was something special."