Curly & Jack, The Shelton Brothers by Wayne Erbsen

Among the favorite pastimes in the mountains was music. They say fiddlers and banjo players were so numerous they practically fell out of the trees when it rained. Although banjos and fiddles were common, it is said that guitars were a rare and precious commodity in the early days. Anyone who could play one was awarded the respect due only to a preacher or a moonshiner.

Accordingly, it was a special day in the Shelton household when Charlie Pack came to visit. Charlie always brought with him a black Stella guitar. In the evenings, Charlie would chord the Stella and sing the old-time songs, sometimes accompanied by Manly Shelton on fiddle. These special evenings of music making did not go unnoticed by the young Shelton boys, Manly Jr. and Carson. They watched Charlie with an intense fascination as if a miracle was unfolding before their eyes. By copying the chords that Charlie played, the Shelton boys both began learning on the beat-up guitar that had been left abandoned in the corner. The guitar itself proved to be more of an obstacle than an aid in learning to play, as the strings were “this high” off the fretboard. Noting their interest in the music, Manly Shelton finally ordered his sons a better guitar from Sears and Roebuck.

Soon the Shelton home was filled with the music of guitars and before long the boys were trying their luck at harmony singing. After school they could be found with their ears glued to the family radio listening to WWNC (Wonderful Western North Carolina). Among their favorite groups was the JFG Coffee Boys. From the Sons of the Pioneers they learned “Way Out There,” which contained a difficult harmony yodel. Excited by the progress they had made with their music, the Shelton boys entered and won an amateur contest at White Rock School, in nearby Madison County, North Carolina. Also entertaining that evening was Fred Kirby and fiddler Tiny Dodson. As part of the prize for winning the contest, the Shelton brothers were given the chance to play over WWNC in Asheville. As luck would have it Fred Kirby and Tiny Dodson, who were also performing over WWNC, were breaking up so Tiny joined forces with the Sheltons. Tiny, a robust and jovial man and a nimble fiddler, renamed both Sheltons. Manly became “Jack” and Carson was called “Curly.” Their new names stuck.

Just before Tiny Dodson and Fred Kirby went their separate ways, they did a final recording session for Decca in Charlotte in 1938. The Shelton brothers, who were invited along, had recently changed their instrumenal and vocal arrangements with Curly switching from the guitar to the mandolin. Originally, Curly had sung lead and Jack, tenor, but when their young voices changed, things were switched around until Jack was singing lead and Curly the tenor part. It was with this arrangement that they held a successful audition for Decca. Among the eight sides they recorded were “Little Rosebud,” “Sitting on Top of the World,” and “Jesus Hold My Hand.” The recording was held in a hotel room with two microphones and the recordings came out under the name Tiny Dodson and the Circle B Boys. The fact that the Shelton brothers’ name was not featured did not seem to bother Jack or Curly, as they were just beginning their career and were still teenagers.

In late 1939 or early 1940 Tiny Dodson and the Shelton brothers moved to radio WFBC in Greenville, South Carolina and worked there for some time. After “playing out” the Greenville area, they moved to WOPI in Bristol, Virginia, which was a 250 watt station. Playing on the barn dance held on Saturday night, they used the radio to advertise shows in school houses throughout the area. The station was not powerful enough to broadcast over a wide area, so their stay in Bristol lasted only six to eight months. From there the Shelton brothers moved back to Flag Pond, and Tiny to his home in Walnut Cove, North Carolina. Before long, however, Tiny had made contact with the Sheltons with news that Wade Mainer and Zeke Morris had parted company and that Wade was looking to start another band. The Sheltons were asked to audition for Wade in Winston, North Carolina. They were promptly hired and together with Tiny Dodson, they played in the Winston area. From there the band, now known as Wade Mainer and the Sons of the Mountaineers, moved to Asheville and WWNC. Playing school houses and theaters, the group started packing the house. A typical show included Wade singing lead and playing the banjo in a two finger style, Tiny on fiddle and singing bass, Curly playing mandolin and singing tenor, and Jack on guitar and baritone. The Sheltons also did duets and Tiny and Wade did a comedy routine. It might be pointed out that the band had the exact instrumentation (minus the bass) and harmony that would later be called bluegrass music.

In early 1941 folklorist Alan Lomax made contact with Wade and invited Wade and the Sons of the Mountaineers to come to Washington to play for President Roosevelt. Billed as a concert of old-time music, the program also included Burl Ives and the Golden Gate Quartet.

In September of 1941 Jack and Curly journeyed to Atlanta, Georgia with Wade Mainer to record four sides on Victor’s Bluebird series. Among the songs recorded was a duet with Jack and Curly singing “Precious Jewel,” a cover of a song recorded by Roy Acuff.

Just before the outbreak of World War II, the band moved to WNOX in Knoxville, Tennessee. When the war finally broke out, Wade quit and returned to North Carolina. Wade’s brother, J.E., had earlier taken Tiny Dodson’s place on fiddle, so the band was renamed “J.E. Mainer and the Sons of the Mountaineers.” It was then that Curly, who was the oldest of the Shelton brothers, was ordered to report for induction. With Curly’s departure, the band turned in their notice and went their separate ways. Jack moved back to Asheville and joined Carl Story and the Rambling Mountaineers. It was Carl Story’s band who took over the spot at WWNC that was left open when Wade Mainer and the Sheltons moved to Knoxville. Carl Story’s guitar player, Ed McMahan, had just been called into the service, so Jack Shelton took his place. Jack stayed with Carl for about a year until he too was called into the war. Also in the band at that time was Dudley Watson singing tenor and playing guitar, and Johnnie Whisnant, who was known as “Half Pint,” playing 5-string banjo.

Jack served in the army until 1946. While overseas Carl Story had written to Jack several times about forming a band after the war. When the war was finally over, Carl landed a spot on WNOX in Knoxville, Jack Shelton’s old stomping grounds. Joining Carl was Jack and Curly Shelton, Claude Boone on guitar, Hoke Jenkins on banjo and Carl on fiddle. Maintaining a heavy schedule, the band played everyday in school houses and theaters and on the Saturday night barn dance. By this time the band members were each receiving a salary of $40 a week for playing on the Mid-Day Merry Go-Round.

After playing with Carl Story for about a year, the band broke up with Jack and Curly going to Raleigh, North Carolina. Joining them there was Hoke Jenkins on banjo and Lonnie Glosson on harmonica. After a short stay in Raleigh the Sheltons returned to Asheville and got a program started on WWNC. A young fiddler by the name of Benny Sims came to the radio station to meet the Sheltons and persuaded them to hire him on as fiddler. Also playing with the band was Chuck Henderson on banjo and Carl Smith, (yes, the legendary country music singer) who played bass and sang solos. In 1949 the band moved to WCYB in Bristol with Wiley Morris taking Carl Smith’s place playing bass and singing solos. The band worked out of Bristol for about a year until a knee injury put Jack in the hospital, which broke up the band. Disgruntled with the music business, Curly followed many southerners to Detroit to work in the automobile industry.

By the time Jack got out of the hospital he received a call from Benny Sims who, in the meantime, had been playing fiddle with Flatt and Scruggs. Tired of the road, Sims persuaded Jack to take over as bandleader on the MidDay Merry-Go-Round on WNOX in Knoxville along with Fred Smith on guitar, Speedy Krise on Dobro, and Sims on fiddle. Calling themselves Jack Shelton and the Green County Boys, the band stayed in Knoxville for four years. After it became apparent that they had once again “played out” the territory, the band decided to call it quits for good. Jack, especially, was tired of moving to yet another station and could see “the handwriting on the wall,” as he tells it. Unable to secure a major recording contract, the band was dependent on radio to advertise their shows and spread their name. But with TV coming into prominence and live radio shows on the decline, it seemed like an uphill struggle to continue to keep a band together and working.

Faced with these changes in the entertainment world and relishing some stability, Jack returned to Asheville to take a regular job at WLOS-TV where he still works today. Curly returned from Detroit and died of a heart attack in 1968. Unlike many performers who were forced out of professional music by the changes in the music industry after the war, Jack is not at all bitter about the way his career, turned out. He still keeps his guitar under the bed and promises one day to get his fingers toughened up enough to where he can get back to singing and playing again. I, for one, am going to hold him to that promise.

BLUEGRASS UNLIMITED, MAY 1984

For more information about bluegrass music, check out Wayne Erbsen’s book, Rural Roots of Bluegrass, This book is richly illustrated with 107 vintage photos and includes history, lyrics to 94 songs, musical notation, chords, playing tips, and historical sources for each song. Includes profiles on the Bill Clifton, Bill Monroe, the Blue Sky Boys, Bradley Kincaid, the Callahan Brothers, Carolina Tar Heels, the Carter Family, Charlie Poole and the North Carolina Ramblers, the Coon Creek Girls, Earl Scruggs, Eck Robertson, Ernest V. “Pop” Stoneman, Fiddlin’ Arthur Smith, Fiddlin’ John Carson, G. B. Grayson & Henry Whitter, Jimmie Rodgers, Karl and Harty, the Lilly Brothers, Monroe Brothers, the Morris Brothers, Riley Puckett, Samantha Bumgarner, Vernon Dalhart, Snuffy Jenkins and Wade & J. E. Mainer. 6″ x 9″, 180 pages.

 

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