|Some artists find their groove, develop an audience, and, once that’s done, never stray from the comfort zone they’ve created for themselves and their fans—and for them, that’s fine. But that’s not Tim Shelton’s way. And so, after sharing in the creation of NewFound Road and spending a dozen years guiding the quartet’s transformation from a purely Gospel group into one of Bluegrass music’s most distinctive and admired ensembles, the acclaimed singer is trading the safety of familiar ground and an established career to head for new musical territory.
“I’ve actually been thinking about this for years,” Shelton says. “I’ve always loved and appreciated all kinds of music, and it was almost nagging at me that I wanted to do something else. But NewFound Road was busy in Bluegrass, and we’d finally gotten to the point where we were comfortable, so it seemed a little silly to change. But then [mandolinist] Joe Booher came in and said, ‘I think I’m ready for a break from traveling.’ Well, he’d been with me for seven years, so it caught me off guard. But I thought about it, and literally the next day, I decided, I’m done. I didn’t want to deal with reinventing NewFound Road, I’d been wanting to do other things musically, to go other places, and so I thought, now is the time.”
That might make the choice sound easy, but given NewFound Road’s stature, the move is unmistakably a bold one—though it’s not the first time Shelton’s undertaken his own project. For that, one has to go back to the beginning of the new century, when he drew on a decade’s worth of experience singing bluegrass gospel in his southwestern Ohio home base—and on friends like The Isaacs—to put together I Stand Amazed, an album that Bluegrass Unlimited called “a Bluegrass Gospel masterpiece.”
Almost immediately after that, though, Tim’s energies and talents were invested in NewFound Road, and from its first, self-titled album, the group’s reputation—and personal appearance calendar—grew steadily. Their third album, 2005’s Somewhere Between, marked the emergence of secular Bluegrass material in NFR’s set lists, and generated their first major bluegrass hit, “Raining The Blues,” as well as their first take on what would become a signature song, Tom T. Hall’s “That’s How I Got To Memphis.”
Moving to roots music heavyweight label Rounder in 2006, the group released Life In A Song in 2006 and Same Old Place in 2009, each album marking a change in personnel and a further step in the process of creating a unique sound that looked beyond bluegrass even as it remained firmly rooted in the genre. By the time Live At The Down Home was released in 2011, Shelton was the sole founding member left in the group, presiding over a widely-acclaimed quartet that could knock out a hard-driving bluegrass original like “We Ain’t Goin’ Down Without A Fight” (co-written by the band’s Josh Miller) or a fresh take on a classic like the Stanley Brothers’ “Lonesome River,” but also deliver a compelling reading of Jackson Browne’s “These Days” or an eight minute, instrumental and vocal tour de force on the R&B staple, “Ain’t No Sunshine.”
So while there’s no doubt that Tim Shelton has the breadth of vision and talent to take a new direction, it’s equally certain that it’s the kind of move that only an artist, driven more by conviction and curiosity than by a desire for security, would make.
“I’m nervous in a way,” Shelton confesses, “but honestly, I’ve thought about it long and hard for a long time, now. I expect that there’ll be people that just will not follow me into this phase, and that’s okay. But i hope there are enough fans that the band has met and cultivated who appreciate the fact that we are different, that I don’t sound like every other Bluegrass singer, so I’m not worried about those people.
“I just want to make music that isn’t necessarily traditional Bluegrass. I love it, but I also love James Taylor, Jackson Browne, Rock, hard Rock, traditional Country—all of those. Just music. I think that people listen to the way I sing, and they assume I must be ‘going Country,’ but that’s not the direction I’m going. The vocals sound country because it’s me, but I’m not setting out to try to make some huge-sounding, very produced record. I want it to sound good, I want the music to be played right, but I don’t want a wall of sound—I’m not trying to make a Rascal Flatts or Jason Aldean record.”
It’s a tough road, Tim Shelton says, but it’s a rewarding one. “I’m not trying to make a statement,” he says, “and I’m not trying to say goodbye to bluegrass. I just don’t want to be pigeonholed. I don’t know why I want to do other kinds of music, but it’s just what I feel—and at the end of the day, that’s what I have to do.”