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Shelton & Williams: Loving it All

Don’t try to pin Shelton and Williams, based in Danville, Virginia, down to any one musical genre. While rooted in bluegrass, you might hear them veer off to something traditional, contemporary, old-time or something else altogether.

“We love it all,” says Johnny Williams. “We may start off with a bluegrass tune and follow it up with Pat Benatar.”

Their love for all genres of music comes naturally. Jeanette Williams was the youngest of eight children on a tobacco farm. “My brother, who was eight years older than me, was involved in musical theatre. He always had the lead role in school plays, and we all went to see him. Another brother, two years older than me, was in a southern rock band in high school, so I was influenced by that as well. At church, I heard Gospel music and learned to sing harmony. And we always had a radio playing while we worked at the tobacco barn.” When she met Johnny Williams around 1988, she was exposed to bluegrass music.

“I grew up in a mountain town in Virginia,” says Johnny Williams. “No one in the family played instruments, but my parents and my granddaddy sang in church.” Johnny says he was a “late bloomer,” getting into music in high school. “I was the lead singer in a Motown band. My neighbor taught me three chords of a Johnny Cash song, and I learned to sing and play with his band.” Johnny started listening to Hank William’s greatest hits album and an album by Flatt and Scruggs and the Osborne Brothers. “I also listened to the radio and eight tracks. I was hooked.” When the band fizzled out, Johnny stopped playing until he was 36 or 37 years old. “I took up music again, and my major influences include Ralph Stanley, Doyle Lawson and Tony Rice.”

Johnny and Jeanette met at the Mock Grand Ol' Opry show, where Jeanette was Emmylou Harris and Patsy Cline, and Johnny was Hank Williams and Bill Monroe. “I joined his band after we met there,” says Jeanette.

As a child, Jay Shelton was the only one of the three exposed to bluegrass and old-time. “I got a good dose of Gospel bluegrass at the Hawker family reunions,” he says. “There would be three generations of family playing and singing, and that had a big influence on me. It got the fire burning in me to play music.” In the late 1960s and early 1970s, Jay says he always had country music on the radio and stereo. “I even explored rock and roll in the 1980s. I think that helped me develop my musicianship and made it possible for me to play all styles. I got into all of it.” The turning point for Jay was when he discovered Tony Rice. “Everything was over then. I was enamored with his music. I even had a chance to meet him when I was a young musician through my friend Bobby Hicks. I was a fiddle student of Bobby’s for a while.” Jay also sang in church and spent time as a singer-songwriter performing solo.

Jay knew Jeanette and Johnny, but not well.

“In 2016, they were playing some local shows, and I took my wife. I told her it was a great opportunity to see them perform.” Johnny recognized Jay from the stage and invited him to join them on guitar and vocals. “That worked out pretty well, and in 2019 Jay asked Johnny to produce a solo project for him. “Jeanette joined on vocals and bass. We didn’t know it at the time, but we lived five miles apart. We had been hiring other musicians from two and three hours away when Jay was right down the road from us.”

Now known as the Shelton and Williams, Johnny says the band plays all kinds of music. “Whatever a venue wants, we can do, from straight traditional to rock and roll. We pay attention to what the audience is responding to, and we adjust our set from there. We really play to the audience’s desires.” They make it work as a trio, but they will bring in banjo, fiddle, etc., when they play bigger shows and recording.

“It’s fun knowing we have the freedom to play what we want. When a band does the same twelve to fifteen songs night after night, it’s hard to keep up the excitement and energy for the audience.”

For the So Much Time, So Much Love album released last July, Jeanette says they focused on the folk market. “The Crosby, Stills and Nash tune 'Wasted on the Way' features all three of us. Then we each brought three additional songs that we felt passionate about recording." Two of the songs on the album are originals, written by Johnny. “Right now, we are gathering pieces and thinking about directions for our next project. We are bringing in whatever songs speak to us.”

Jay says that while the band doesn’t rehearse regularly, they will try out songs with each other occasionally. “We mesh well, and we complement each other.”

Each member of the band is accomplished. Jeanette has over 32 years of performing experience and many awards. She has more than seventeen SPBGMA nominations, with three wins for female vocalist of the year. She has won two IBMA awards and two songwriting awards.

Johnny was named Virginia State Champion male vocalist, PCABO male vocalist two times, and PICABO songwriter of the year. He has won the Chris Austin Songwriting Contest at MerleFest twice and has been a finalist for songwriter and male vocalist of the year at SPBGMA.

Jay was active on the bluegrass scene in the 1970s and 80s as a lead singer and guitarist before changing directions and being the frontman for a rock band for many years. He then became a singer-songwriter doing solo shows until he returned to Bluegrass in 2019. Jay is an accomplished lead guitarist, songwriter, and vocalist. His first project, Home (which included Johnny and Jeanette), was released in 2019.

Jay’s wife, Beverly, coordinates a fundraiser each year, and Shelton and Williams is the featured act. The sixth annual Bluegrass by the River Concert will be Saturday, September 16, at the outdoor amphitheater at 2 Witches Winery and Brewing Company in Danville, the birthplace of Tony Rice. Proceeds go to Project Lifesaver, a non-profit organization that provides wristbands to quickly locate individuals with cognitive disorders who are prone to the life-threatening behavior of wandering. A portion of the proceeds will also be donated to Pam Rice, widow of legend Tony Rice.

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