People die, but songs live forever, if people keep playing them.
Ninety-five years ago, the Shelor Family was invited to the Bristol Sessions, later heralded as the “Big Bang” of country music by the Smithsonian-affiliated Birthplace of Country Music Museum, and called “the most important event in the history of country music” by Johnny Cash.
On Aug. 3, 1927, the family band, consisting of Jesse J. and Clarice Shelor, Jesse’s brother Pyrhus, and Clarice’s father, Joe Blackard, performed four songs for producer Ralph Peer. The Shelors were preceded by the Carter Family, who recorded on Aug. 1 and 2, and were followed by Jimmie Rodgers, on Aug. 4.
The Bristol-era Shelors are gone, but other Shelors are still bowing the fiddle, strumming the guitar, picking the banjo, and singing the songs.
On Sept. 3, 2022, the Shelor family gathered for their annual reunion in Meadows of Dan, in Patrick County, a couple of turns off the Blue Ridge Parkway. They shared a potluck meal and sang shape-note hymns at Concord Primitive Baptist Church. Some checked the progress on Jesse and Clarice’s old home on Squirrel Spur Road, which is being restored by a great-grandson. They played the old music (and newer songs too) at another family home nearby.
Down the road from the old homeplace, Jesse J. and Clarice Shelor rest side by side in the cemetery at Meadows of Dan Baptist Church, adjacent to the Blue Ridge Parkway, where soon, the hardwoods will turn yellow and red. Jesse died in 1985, Clarice in 1989.
Jesse S. Shelor, a grandson of Jesse and Clarice, was asked what his grandparents would think of their descendents still playing their music.
“Granny would love it,” he said, “and Granddad, he’d think it was great.”
Shelor Family band, 1927, year of the Bristol Sessions. Standing in back (from left): brothers Pyrhus and Jesse Shelor; sitting, in front: Joe Blackard and his daughter Clarice Blackard Shelor. Photo taken at Joe Blackard’s house, no longer standing. Courtesy of Clay Shelor.
Jesse and Clarice (pronounced CLARE-iss) never bragged about being part of the Bristol Sessions.
“My grandparents were not the bragging type,” Jesse S. said. “In fact, if we bragged about something, Granddad had a wicked sense of humor, and he was good at putting us down a peg or two.”
Bristol was recognized decades later as a foundational event in the commercialization of country music.
“To them, given when it was, and the times, it was an opportunity for some money,” Jesse S. said. “And I don’t think they realized what was going to come of the Bristol Sessions. And even after the Bristol Sessions, I don’t think it really made a big difference to them. They didn’t think it was a big deal. I didn’t know about it until after they were gone, that they participated in that. And I don’t remember my dad or my uncles ever talking about it.”
The family still doesn’t make a big deal of it.
“No, no, we don’t,” Jesse S. said. “We don’t put on airs about it. It’s just a nice piece of family history.”
An essay on the Shelor and Blackard families by Ray Alden (died 2009) can be found on fieldrecorder.org, the website of the Field Recorders’ Collective, “an IRS-recognized nonprofit organization dedicated to the preservation and distribution of noncommercial recordings of traditional American music.” Alden and another researcher spent time with the family in Meadows of Dan in 1975. The Shelors made recordings for them, although, Jesse S. Shelor said, “my grandmother did not feel comfortable around those ‘boys whose hair was too long,’ as she described the two researchers.”
“Jesse Shelor (born December, 1894) was the youngest boy of the fourteen children of Reverend William Ellis Shelor,” Alden wrote. ‘Even though all of Jesse’s brothers played fiddle or banjo, it was not their influence, but rather a more startling event that started ten year old Jesse fiddling.
“One day Jesse’s father came home, picked up a fiddle, and played ‘Callahan.’ This impressed young Jesse greatly since he had no idea his father played! … Community pressure against a Baptist minister playing the ‘Devil’s Box’ was strong.”
While working in Danville, Jesse and his older brother Pyrhus (pronounced “Purse”) began to play music with a local boy. After World War I, Jesse returned to Meadows of Dan.
“He renewed his music by playing with his old mentor, Wallace Spangler and with Joseph Blackard, who often played clawhammer banjo with Wallace. Jesse also renewed his friendship with Joe Blackard’s two piano playing daughters, Lorna and Clarice.”
Clarice, born 1900, was among the last generation to remember when the chestnut grew tall in the Blue Ridge, a source of split rails and barn frames and food and cash; children collected bags of chestnuts which were traded at local stores for shoes and clothes.
“In 1919, Jesse married Clarice Blackard and they began to play music nightly in their home with Pyrhus and Joseph,” Alden continues.
When Cecil Sharp was collecting songs for ‘English Folk Songs From the Southern Appalachians,’ published in 1917, “he found Joe Blackard a rich source.”
Joseph sent Clarice to ‘singing’ school every summer. “The school would be a full day and lasted two weeks. At night, Joe helped Clarice associate the new shape notes with the more familiar ‘do-re-mi-fa-so-la-ti-do.’ Even though there was a pedal organ in the Blackard home, Clarice begged for a piano. When she was seven, she got one. Joe now wrote ‘C-D-E-F-G-A-B-C’ on paper and put them behind the white piano keys. Again Clarice learned to associate these letters with ‘do-re-mi-fa-so-la-ti-do.’
“At first, Clarice only played melody behind her father’s singing and banjo playing. He’d stop and correct Clarice’s every mistake. Then, she added the bass notes. Finally, using her imagination, she added her own special notes to the tunes. When Clarice was thirteen, she could play even the fastest tunes up to tempo. That meant music nightly in the Blackard home.
“The music would have stayed only in the home, except for a talent search by Victor Records. The owner of a Victrola record store in Hillsville, Mr. Walter Howlette, held auditions for local bands and Joe Blackard brought his group.” The Victor Record representative liked them and gave them a recording date in Bristol.
Bristol, Tenn., site of the sessions, is about 125 miles from Meadows of Dan. It was a long car trip; U.S. 58 did not exist yet.
“Joe, Clarice, Jesse, Pyrhus, and seven year old Joseph [Jesse and Clarice’s first child] arrived in Bristol on August 2, 1927. The recording session took place in a dusty millinery [hat] shop.”
Clarice, according to Encyclopedia Virginia, recalled that the studio men “said they had more instrumental than singing records and said that singing helped sell the records.” Joe wrote out the words to several songs for Clarice to sing.
“Pyrhus patted his foot so loudly that they finally had to put a pillow under his foot,” Alden continues. “Little Joseph was crying and getting dirt from the shelves on his face. Even with these less than ideal recording conditions, the group cut ‘Sandy River Belle,’ ‘Big Ben Gal’ (incorrectly labeled ‘Big Bend Gal’), ‘Billy Grimes the Rover,’ and ‘Suzanna Gal,’ producing four sides on two seventy-eight rpm records.”
The return trip was an ordeal.
“They left Bristol before dark,” Alden wrote. “Crossing New River by ferry, they had to straddle large holes in the ferry’s rotting timber and at the same time, calm Little Joseph. After that it was driving in complete fog. Jesse drove for hours with his head sticking out of the window. They arrived home at three a.m. Jesse had a stiff neck that lasted days. Even though the family was asked back to record, they never returned.”
Victor released “Billy Grimes” and “Big Bend Gal” as A and B sides of a 78 credited to the Shelor Family, while “Suzanna Gal” and “Sandy River Belle” were credited to Dad Blackard’s Moonshiners.
Clay Shelor, a grandson of Jesse and Clarice, said he wasn’t sure why two different names were used, but “I never ever heard them refer to themselves as Dad Blackard’s Moonshiners.”
Neither Clay nor Jesse S. Shelor owns one of the historic 78s.
According to the record pricing website popsike.com, an original 10-inch copy of Victor 20865, “Billy Grimes”/”Big Bend Gal,” auctioned for $516 in 2015.
Continuing the story after Bristol, Alden wrote: “Jesse and Clarice had six children of whom three, Joseph, Paul, and Jimmy, became particularly interested in playing music.
“Currently  all the children bring their families over every Sunday. Paul’s daughter, Susan Shelor, has learned many of her Grandmother Clarice’s piano pieces. And so the tradition is passed on.”
Jesse and Clarice Shelor at home in Meadows of Dan, 1970s. Courtesy of Clay Shelor.
Susan Shelor Deck, 61, was in eighth grade when the Field Recorders visited Meadows of Dan. She lives in Stephens City, near Winchester. A retired schoolteacher, she’s the director of music ministries at Macedonia United Methodist Church and plays piano, guitar, banjo and “a little bit of hammer dulcimer.
“I was always into the music and drawn to it. Granny taught me how to play the fiddle tunes on the piano.” Deck can still play “Mississippi Sawyer,” “Big Ben Gal,” “Callahan” and “Old Richmond.”
“Granny, when she would go to a show when she was a young girl, she would listen to the music and she would immediately come home and sit down at the piano no matter what hour it was, and play until she had it. And you know, Pa Blackard and Ma would fuss at her for playing late at night. She said, ‘I have to do it now so I remember it.’
“Well, I took classical piano from first grade through 12th grade, and I had worked up, in high school, Scott Joplin’s ‘Entertainer,’ the real version of it. I mean, took me months to master it. And I came here one Sunday afternoon and played it for Granny. And she just [said] ‘play it again, play it again.’ I must have played it ten times that night. When I came back the following week, she played it all — all the movements of it, everything. And I was just like, she was amazing.”
The most prominent musical Shelor is Sammy Shelor, banjoist and leader of the Lonesome River Band. Sammy Shelor said he is distantly related to Jesse Shelor through an ancestor in the 1700s, but is more closely related to the Bristol group through the Blackards. Joe Blackard’s sister was Sammy’s great-great-grandmother.
Jesse and Clarice were not full-time musicians; they ran a cattle farm. Their descendants aren’t full-time pickers either, but many play.
Clay Shelor holds the Sears, Roebuck fiddle played by his grandfather, Jesse Shelor, at the Bristol Sessions in 1927. It is occasionally played by Clay and by his daughter, fourth-generation fiddler Jamie Shelor. Zoom capture by Randy Walker.
Clay Shelor, 56, is the son of Jesse and Clarice’s sixth and last child, James. He grew up in Stuart and attended Virginia Tech. He lives in Cary, N.C. and works in IT.
As a child Clay was frequently taken to Jesse and Clarice’s house. “And so we would go there pretty much every Sunday … and Granny would play piano, Granddad fiddled, everybody sang, my uncles played various instruments.
“And I remember, as a child, one of my favorite toys, whenever we would have a cardboard box that we were throwing away, is I would cut it in the shape of a musical instrument and play music with it, ’til I got my first stringed instrument, which was a ukulele that a cousin … gave me.
“And then one year after the Shelor family Christmas gathering, my dad borrowed a fiddle from my grandfather. And dad wasn’t much of a fiddle player, but he could scratch out some tunes. And so I said, ‘Hey, would you show me how to do that?’
“And so dad taught me ‘Mississippi Sawyer’ and several other tunes. And then another cousin of the family and … master of the fiddle, a guy named Buddy Pendleton, started coming over to our house and he … would just sit around and play tunes with me and that’s kind of how I got started.
“Sometimes when you’re really up close and familiar with something, you don’t appreciate it or you might even look down on it. It was just the music that was around us.
“I went through a phase … where I lost interest in my teens and early 20s in old-time, and as I approached 30-ish I got interested in it again.”
Jamie Shelor. Randy Walker photo.
Clay often brings his son Dayne, 26, and daughter, Jamie, 18, to old-time festivals, including the Old Fiddler’s Convention in Galax, the Grayson County Old Time and Bluegrass Fiddlers’ Convention in Elk Creek, and the Mount Airy Blue Grass and Old-Time Fiddlers Convention.
1n 2021 Handmade Music School in Floyd conducted its Southwest Virginia Traditional Music Contest online. In the folk song category (adult), Jamie, then 17, took first place for her video submission of “Billy Grimes the Rover,” with Clay backing her on fiddle. Her arrangement combined the Bristol version with a 1975 recording by Clarice.
Of playing her great-grandparents’ music, Jamie said, “I definitely don’t necessarily think about how special it is all the time when I play. But yeah, when it comes down to it, it is pretty special that I get to keep playing their tunes and teaching other people their music. And I play my great-granddad’s fiddle here and there. So that’s been really special to have his instrument.”
Dayne Shelor, like his sister Jamie, lives in Weaverville, N.C., near Asheville. “But I’ve been staying up here in Meadows of Dan working on this house,” said Dayne, a carpenter. Clay and Pam Shelor own Jesse and Clarice’s old home, which was built around 1925, Dayne said.
“I play fiddle, upright bass, and guitar,” he said, “and I started playing guitar when I was 12. My dad took me to the Galax Old Time Fiddler’s Convention and I was pretty much hooked since then. He taught me my first chords, and then his dad, Jim Shelor, my grandpa, he really taught me a lot of guitar stuff.”
Jesse S. Shelor, 64, a son of Paul and grandson of Jesse and Clarice, grew up in Dublin, along with his sister Susan. “Sadly, I cannot say how it felt to play music with either my grandparents, my father or my uncles,” he said. “Regrets for things I did not do.”
In his younger days he was more interested in Bob Dylan, the Beatles, and Elton John than in his grandparents’ music.
“But I grew up listening to them play all the time, and then finally, wised up enough to realize how important this was.” Now he plays the lap dulcimer, an Appalachian instrument.
No art puts the artist more in the moment than music. On the other hand, music, especially in the folk tradition, also offers the artist the chance to put his mark, or his family’s mark, on something organic and living that transcends the human lifetime.
“You know, there’s a lot of songs even that my grandparents played that were standards,” Clay Shelor said. “‘Susanna Gal’ is one, yet they had their own distinct twist to it. So I was in a jam last week at Galax, in an old time jam. And before we played, I said, ‘I want to do the second part of this song the way my grandparents did, not the way everybody else plays. Yeah, here’s the chords. Here’s how it goes.’
“It’s really exciting for me to get to play songs the way they did it … And I love to play those songs in a jam just to put them out there in hopes that somebody young will like it and will want to play that song.”
Original 78 rpm Victor recording of Shelor Family performing “Billy Grimes the Rover” from the 1927 Bristol Sessions:
Jamie and Clay Shelor perform “Billy Grimes” in 2021: