By Brad Hicks
Unicoi County High School senior Jacob Shelton always aspired to perform under the bright lights, entertaining enthusiastic crowds as a professional musician.
He just had no idea his big break would come so soon.
The 17-year-old Unicoi County native was recently chosen to become the newest member of the Darrell Webb Band. Shelton’s role in the bluegrass act will be to play the upright bass and sing tenor.
“I was kind of shocked,” Shelton said during a Sept. 8 interview on the offer to join the band. “But it’s definitely a happy shocked, to say the least.”
Webb is well-renowned in the world of bluegrass. The Grammy-nominated musician has recorded and performed with a number of notable entertainers, including Bill Monroe, Dolly Parton, Marty Rabon, Bobby Hicks, and the Queen of Bluegrass herself, Rhonda Vincent.
It was while working to further hone his musical talents that the opportunity Shelton described as a “dream” would present itself. Shelton was taking a lesson from a bass player who previously worked with Webb. Also present at the lesson was Webb’s current dobro player.
The two professional musicians were excited about what they had heard from the young Shelton and spread the word. Several days after the lesson, Shelton received a Facebook message from Webb himself asking Shelton if he could sing. Shelton let Webb know he could sing lead and tenor.
“He said, ‘Great. Will you send me some videos,’ and he said, ‘I might be looking for a bass player,’” Shelton said.
Shelton complied with Webb’s request, and an impressed Webb contacted Shelton again, this time to ask if the teen would be interested in performing alongside him. Shelton was invited to meet with Webb at the Ole Smoky Distillery in Gatlinburg – where Webb’s band frequently performs – for an audition. Shelton performed with Webb’s band, and it was quickly evident to Webb that Shelton would be a perfect fit for his group.
“He said, ‘I’ll give you a call in a couple of days,’” Shelton said. “I got off the stage and didn’t get out of Gatlinburg, and he called me and said, ‘Come back Friday and play with us again.’ Before our last set Friday he said, ‘You’ve got the job.’”
Shelton signed on with Webb’s band on Friday, Sept. 2, and Monday, Sept. 5 marked his first official day on the job. He has already been performing with the group. Shelton will replace Noah Brown, who left the Darrell Webb Band to play for Ralph Stanley II.
News of Shelton joining the Darrell Webb Band even made its way onto bluegrasstoday.com, a website dedicated to covering all of the happenings in the bluegrass community.
“I can’t believe I get to pick with these guys,” Shelton told the website. “It’s honestly a dream come true. I never would’ve thought two years ago sitting at Darrell’s concert at Ole Smoky that I would get to be in his band.”
Performing is nothing new for Shelton. He learned how to play the guitar at the age of 9, around the same time he began performing publicly in area churches with his grandfather, Worley Shelton, and brother Craig T. Shelton.
Shelton has also been a member of the UCHS Bluegrass Band, which gave him the opportunity to not only perform at numerous local and regional events, but as far away as Nashville and New Orleans.
Shelton said he has always had an affinity for gospel, country and bluegrass music. He also plays mandolin and took up bass only around two-and-a-half years ago.
Much of Shelton’s time in the Darrell Webb Band will be spent playing for visitors to the Ole Smoky Distillery, but there will also be plenty of time spent on the road en route to shows and festivals outside of the state and even out of the country. Later this month, the band will head to Indiana for the Bean Blossom Festival, to North Carolina for the Outer Banks Bluegrass Festival, and on to Maryland for the Bluegrass By The Bay event. Next month, the group is set to perform at the Rockahock Bluegrass Festival in Lanexa, Va., and the RiverHawk Festival in Brooksville, Fla., in November.
Shelton said he’s looking forward to traveling and playing at some of these larger shows.
“That’s going to be neat,” Shelton said. “Playing bluegrass is one thing, but when you get your real music it’s at these bluegrass festivals like those, and that’s what I’ve always wanted to go to, but I never really got the chance before this. So it’s going to be interesting, to say the least.”
And Shelton said he is not nervous about playing in front of larger crowds, as performing to crowds made up of unfamiliar faces comes with less pressure.
“The larger venues are easier to play for me,” Shelton said. “I’d rather play in front of thousands of people than a hundred people I know.”
Jacob’s father and Unicoi County Circuit Court Clerk Darren Shelton said he and Jacob’s mother supported their son in joining the Darrell Webb Band, but with this support came a caveat – that Jacob agree to finish high school and college.
Jacob said Unicoi County Schools officials are allowing him to complete his high school education through the UC Advance Program, a blended program that combines online classwork and classroom instruction. Jacob said when he is in town, he will attend classes in person. He said he intends to complete his college coursework through online classes and is considering moving to Sevierville upon his graduation from high school.
Darren said members of the family concur that Jacob was presented with the opportunity of a lifetime, one far too good to pass up. But, like his son, Darren said the realization of Jacob’s dream came even sooner than expected.
“We always knew that’s all he thought about and he wasn’t going to stop until something happened,” Darren said. “But we didn’t expect it to happen this soon.”