As most of you know, Appalachia has a rich & vibrant musical heritage; particularly where Folk, Gospel, Bluegrass & Ballad music are concerned.
In 1916, noted folks song revivalist Cecil Sharp came to Madison County, North Carolina in order to notate and record old English Ballads which were thought to be lost at that time.
However, the old Ballads had been passed down through the generations of mountain people by oral repetition.
Most families in Appalachia are musical and almost all love to sing, especially in church.
If someone not from here were to come to the Shelton Laurel Community of northern Madison County, North Carolina and pose the question “Which family in the community is the most musically gifted”?, the answer undoubtedly would overwhelmingly be “The Sheltons”.
This writer simply calls him The Michael Jordan of Guitar playing, not only for his ability but also due to the fact that he sticks his tongue out when he plays. When David sticks his tongue out, do like Briscoe Darling on The Andy Griffith Show said, “Just jump in and hang on”.
The tenth of eleven children born to James and Lura Norton Shelton, David entered into this world in September of 1927. He will soon be 89 years of age, but his quick wit and easy smile contradicts a fate given to most his age.
David is devoutly Christian. However, he is not a judgmental man. He is more concerned with The Church of God and the eternal well-being of his fellow man.
With the sole exception of the family moving to Tennessee for a short period, David has spent the entirety of his life on Big Creek in the Madison County community of Shelton Laurel. He lives in a comfortable but modest brick home within one half mile of where he was born and raised.
Having known David for years, I approached him about doing an interview and taking a few photographs. True to his nature of kindness and desire to spread his testimony, he graciously agreed so I told him I would return on Sunday after church.
When I arrived, he greeted me warmly and told me “We’ll get to it after I eat my crackers and water. Sit anywhere you want to”.
Dressed in a nice blue checked shirt, slacks and lace up brown dress shoes, David told me that he had cancelled a dinner date for after church because he knew I was coming.
David has been a widow for about a decade but I couldn’t help but tease him a little, asking “You got you a younger woman, David”?
He simply replied “Nah. She’s close to seventy”, which made me laugh heartily and shake my head.
When we do get after it, he catches me a little off guard with his straightforwardness and honesty.
“Dad was a Moonshiner, my Mother was an absolute Saint and I was caught in the middle”.
“One time when I was about three years old the revenuers caught Dad. The first one grabbed him by the coat tail. Dad simply put his arms behind him and run out of the jacket leaving the revenuer holding it but they had another agent on up about 100 years and he caught him. Dad did about 30 days or so for that”.
He paused in awed reverence when he talked about his late Mother.
“There were at least 30 times I caught her praying when she thought nobody was around. That never left me”.
Our focus shifts to the musical side of things.
David said “In 1937, when I was ten years old my older brother Lloyd, aged seventeen then, bought me a Stella guitar. He only gave five dollars for it but it sure played good. Even though he bought it for me, my brothers and sisters said it was ‘The Lord’s Guitar’. Every day, we would race home from the fields because whoever got to it first was the one that got to play it. I wasn’t big enough to run that fast so I learned by watching my older siblings playing a guitar that was bought for me”.
Knowing the family, I asked about the mandolin playing legend of his late brother Woolsey, the youngest of the clan but a man I never met.
David does not hesitate “He was absolutely the best mandolin player I ever heard. Doyle Lawson is a close second. Woolsey just never chased after fame or the big time”.
That statement leads me to asking David if he has any regrets of not chasing fame or recognition in the Bluegrass world.
“No. I had a lot of opportunities but I just never really wanted to do it. In 1962 or 1963 they made a movie called ‘My Name Is John’. I went with Byard Ray and Obery Ramsey to maybe do it but that movie bunch is bossy…..sit here, sit there, do this, do that. I told ‘em I wasn’t doing it.”
However, there was a scene where a guitar was playing gospel music and the concept was that the Lord’s light off of the guitar strings coupled with a dirty look from one particular woman would destroy Satan. David’s late wife Leona got the role. Said David “She was a natural for the part”.
“Later on, I went with Obery Ramsey to the opening but we didn’t sit together. When it got to Leona’s part I yelled out ‘Hooray for Spillcorn’. I could hear Obery busting out laughing behind me with that squeaky laugh he had.”
Spillcorn is the community in which his late wife Leona grew up in.
Shortly after that, David became a born again Christian.
He met up with some fellas playing under the name of “The Wilsons & Riddles” in about 1963. David joined them and became the very first guitar player and founding member for what is now known as “The Primitive Quartet”.
In 1971 and 1972, David won back to back National Flatpicking Chamionships. He also won a Bascom Lamar Lunsford Heritage Award a few years back.
When asked about his talent, David again quotes the Bible: “The Spirit wasn’t given to Jesus in measure but was given to man in measure. What that relates to is gifts. We all have gifts. Use them in service of the Lord.”
We talk about his guitar, a 1968 Martin D-28. Avid says “I bought it brand new and gave three hundred fifty dollars for it.” It is beautiful and worn, its Spruce top showing pick mark wear from where David has spent years, playing hundreds of thousands of licks in service of God.
Our conversation then leads to the passing down of talents and gifts.
All three of David & Leona’s daughters, Barbara, Jane & Kathy play a musical instrument and/or sing.
Kathy’s son, Jared Hensley, is the lead guitar player for The Darrell Webb Band. He cites his grandpa David and Tony Rice as his biggest influences.
Kathy’s son Justin teaches music and her daughter Jackie can sing like Allison Krauss.
As our interview comes to an end, David encourages me. He tells me to bring up my Martin guitar and play with him sometime, something I plan to do.
In final, all I can say is that my cup truly runneth over with David’ Measure.
Y’all have a great week!