James Alan Shelton has been playing, touring and recording with Ralph Stanley for twenty years, longer than any guitar player Stanley has ever worked with. I reached him by phone to talk about what it’s like to have your dream job.
GH: You’ve been doing this a long time.
JAS: I’ve been with Ralph almost 20 years. Nineteen and a half years. It’s what I’ve always wanted to do, play lead guitar for Ralph Stanley. When I was about 14 years old I got interested in Stanley Brother music and that’s what I set my sights on when I was young. And I was able to land the job in 1994.
That’s a long time to be with the same band. You know, most guys stay with a band for maybe three or four years and then move on to something else, but this is what I always wanted. And I told Ralph when I started that I wouldn’t use him as a stepping stone to get to somebody else because you are who I want play with. It’s been my life’s goal to play for Ralph Stanley, and when you get there, get into that position, why look for something else?
How did you get the job with Ralph Stanley?
I had filled in with him for a couple weekends back in 1992, back when Junior Blankenship was playing guitar. Junior went deer hunting for a couple weeks and Ralph asked me to fill in. We hit it off well, and we got along good. He saw that I was real interested in his music, I think, and he knew that I was dedicated to trying to play his music right. And when the opportunity came up, I think I just happened to be in the right place at the right time. I went to see one of his shows in Valdese, North Carolina and that particular night he asked me if I’d take the job playing guitar and I’ve been with him ever since.
The first time I saw him I was 12 years old. I saw him and Bill Monroe together in Gate City, Virginia. It was the nearest down to where I grew up. They had a show at the National Guard Armoury and it was January 17, 1973. And I saw Bill Monroe and Ralph Stanley for the first time. I can still picture them up there on stage.
You’ve said that the first Stanley Brothers’ song that caught your ear was “Will You Miss Me When I’m Gone.
Yeah, it’s because of the cross picking guitar, the George Shuffler style. That’s what caught my ear. To me that’s what sets the Stanley Brothers apart from everybody else. That style of guitar. George was one of the guitarists that did it. Bill Napier I guess was probably the first. And then everybody that followed after those two played in that style.
What do you think attracted you to their music?
I think, with the Stanleys, what attracted me was that it sounded like something from around my part of the country. It was something I could relate to. Musically, it sounded like something I could attain. It wasn’t flashy or fancy, but more down to earth.
I think when some people first hear the Stanleys’ music, it can seem quite dark, thematically.
I think everybody, deep down, kind of likes mournful songs. It gives them a place they can go to maybe to help them with their troubles. I don’t understand that, but just about everybody likes sad songs. I know Alison Krauss has said that she just loves the old, mournful sad songs. I don’t know, I guess it just gives you a place in your mind where you can go, it can help you along life’s way.
Is Ralph Stanley a dark person?
No, he’s a real quiet person. He doesn’t talk much at all, you really have to draw him out. But he doesn’t seem to be a dark person. I love working for him. … You know, what you see with Ralph is what you get. He doesn’t put on any airs or try to be something he’s not. He’s just a down-to-earth, southwest Virginia boy that grew up on a mountain-top farm.
Have there been highlights along the way, things that really stand out in your memory?
Well, of course, when the Oh Brother Where Art Thou? movie became so big. You know, we were turning people away because the auditoriums just weren’t big enough to hold all the people who wanted to come. Of course we played a lot of big shows, festivals, and there were thousands and thousands of people. We played upwards of twenty thousand people at one time, and that’s a pretty good feeling.
It was kind of a surprise to everybody, but what it did, in my mind, was let the whole world know what a great talent Ralph Stanley is. And all of us who follow bluegrass music consider Ralph a big star all along, and that movie kind of clued the rest of the world in.
The songs that you include on your own releases tend to range further than the music you present with Ralph Stanley. On your latest CD, “Where I’m Bound,” you’ve got material from Tom Paxton, the Beatles, Donovan, as well as things from the bluegrass canon, such as Cherokee Shuffle and Home Sweet Home. How do decide what you’re going to include?
For me, I’m attracted to the melody more than anything. And I like a broad spectrum of music … and to me if it’s a good song, it doesn’t’ matter where it came from. … I’m not a singer per se and I get more into the melody than I do [lyrics]. And I try and find singing songs that will make good instrumentals. That Beatles tune “I’ll Follow the Sun” is a vocal song all the way through, but it made a nice finger-picking guitar instrumental.
You do a fantastic job of it, but you make some really challenging choices as well, such as “Sounds of Silence.” It’s a great melody, but it’s a challenge, I would think, to pull it off as a compelling instrumental, as you included on “Walking Down the Line.”
Yeah, it’s so stark. There’s a lot of distance between the notes! [Laughs] … But, you know, I don’t really get into playing fast. There are young guitarists, players out there that can eat me alive, and I know that and that’s fine. But that’s just not my bag, playing fast and flashy. I’d rather play the melody, play from the heart, and play something you can feel.
Some people approach it like an Olympic sport, don’t they?
[Laughs] You know the most important thing I’ve learned from Ralph Stanley is when he told me “play for them people out there.” He says, don’t play for the other musicians, because they’re not going to buy your records anyway. He says play for those folks out there. And that was a valuable lesson because you can play over people’s heads. And I’ve seen people get up and play a hundred notes in a twenty-second span or whatever, and blow people away. But when it’s gone by, you don’t feel anything. I’d rather play something that will hit you in the heart. A lot of times I’ll go into a solo not necessarily knowing what I’m going to play, but will just see how it feels when it gets there. … I try to make what I feel inside of me come out through my fingers. And if I want to hand a note out in the mid-air and let it hang for a few seconds, then I’ll do it.
I know you read on the bus when you’re on the road. Are you reading anything good these days?
Nothing in particular. I just finished Ricky Skaggs’ biography the other day. He had a lot of stories about his time with Ralph, and that’s what I was really interested in, how it was in the band back in those days.