The Will to Play
We lost two great men who were also great guitar players recently – George Shuffler and James Shelton. They were friends, and both played the cross-picking style of lead guitar which was vital to the sound of the Stanley Brothers and Ralph Stanley. George originated the style and James carried on the tradition, and added his own personality to it.
George Shuffler began playing with the Stanley Brothers in 1950 and kept playing with them until Carter Stanley’s passing in 1966, then stayed on with Ralph for another year. James Shelton was lead player for Ralph Stanley & the Clinch Mountain Boys for 20 years until a few weeks before his death on June 3, 2014. He was 53.
The last two times I saw James were at Merlefest at the end of April and at a show in Knoxville on May 9.
At Merlefest, during soundcheck, he told me he had just been diagnosed with cancer. I couldn’t begin to imagine what he was going through inside. He mentioned how difficult it had been emotionally to play at George Shuffler’s funeral a few weeks earlier. He played that evening like the master he was and even joked around on the bus before they left. I was surprised to see him at the next show in Knoxville, thinking he might stay off the road now. But, again, he gave it all he had and played with such purpose and intensity. After the show, his main concern was getting away in time so that his wife Greta wouldn’t have to drive too late to meet him at the bus. She was by his side whenever a show was close enough for them to travel together – a sweet, beautiful, soft-spoken woman who James loved and adored.
We were all stunned when he passed less than a month later.
Similarly, George Shuffler’s lovely wife Sue, and his family, were with him whenever he got out and played in his later years. The last time I saw him play was two years ago at Ralph Stanley’s annual Memorial Day Festival in the hills of Coeburn, Va. George had been very ill but was determined to make his yearly reunion appearance with Ralph. He was very weak and had to be helped, slowly, on and off the stage. I was afraid this would be the last time I would see him, as he used every bit of effort he had to play to the love and delight of the crowd.
The next fall at the IBMA (International Bluegrass Music Association) gathering in Nashville, I was surprised and glad to see him and his wonderful family. The sparkle was back in his eyes and he was holding court, graciously and jovially greeting well-wishers.
James and George were good friends and had a mutual respect and care for each other. They were both tall and tough, but were gentle too, and not big headed about their skill, excellence, and innovation on guitar. There is so much to say about them as people and players. Luckily for us there, is a rich body of work that is there for us to treasure. Check them out and you’ll get a glimpse of their greatness and know that they were also great people.
There is a classic Stanley Brothers’ gospel recording that features George’s playing and bass singing, which James also played with Ralph Stanley & the Clinch Mountain Boys many times through the years, called “Will You Miss Me When I’m Gone?” We do miss George and James both, so very much. At the end, these men summoned up a strength inside to play for as long as they were able. That was such a big and important part of who they were – adding their part to the music. From their early days of learning until the end, the will to play shaped their lives.
Jim Lauderdale is a Grammy and Americana Music Award-winning musician and songwriter. His latest album, I’m a Song (out July 1, 2014), features 20 songs all written or co-written by Lauderdale. It features guest appearances by Lee Ann Womack, Patty Loveless, Buddy Miller, Kenny Vaughn, John Oates, and more. Among the album’s co-writers are Elvis Costello, Robert Hunter, Bobby Bare, and others. Visit Jim Lauderdale’s online store.