Singin’ the blues

February 1, 2009

Jan Swoope - [email protected]


Folks in the prairie of western Lowndes County who have known him the longest called him Little Joe, in deference to his great-uncle, Joe Prowell. But somewhere along the way, young Joe Shelton grew into a brawny, hard-driving, harmonica-wielding bluesman, and the "Big Joe" mantle settled easily on his broad shoulders. 


For nearly four decades, Big Joe Shelton has been singing, writing and belting out his convictions. He''s long made his home in the clay-shot prairie, in his late great-uncle''s rustic home. In its isolated peace, he wrote or co-wrote every track on his "Black Prairie Blues" CD which was recently judged by International Blues Challenge panels as one of six finalists in the Best Self-Produced CD category for the 2009 IBC competition Feb. 4-7 in Memphis, Tenn. 


"Big Joe''s new CD honors some of the biggest names in blues history from Northeast Mississippi -- Bukka White, Big Joe Williams and countless others," said Richard Ramsey, program director of the Howlin'' Wolf Blues Society of West Point, Shelton''s sponsor in the 25th annual competition.  


The Black Prairie region of the CD''s title is the 30-mile wide alluvial flood plain of the Tombigbee River, a fertile source for America''s original roots music.  


The IBC, said to be the world''s largest gathering of blues acts, represents an international search by The Blues Foundation and its affiliated organizations for the best artists ready to take their music to the international stage. Through days of relentless competition,164 acts from 36 states and nine countries will vie for titles to be announced at the Orpheum Theatre Feb. 7. 




Street sounds 


In a few days, Big Joe will join the mass of blues fans from around the world converging on Memphis'' Beale Street, where most of the live competition takes place. 


"Going up there already being a finalist in one of the categories is cool," remarked the local artist who remembers, as a little boy, being captured by the sounds he heard on the streets of Columbus. He had plenty of opportunities; his parents operated the Cream Bowl eatery and later the Ritz Cafe downtown.  


"There was a fella named Blind Ben Covington. He used to be on some of the circuits and would sit on the corner up there at College Street and Fifth by the old five-and-dime and play (the harmonica). I remember thinking about what a haunting kind of sound it was. And there used to be some guys on Catfish Alley when I was a kid. One was named Kool-Aid. He and a cat called Pool Hall Red used to hang around near Jones'' Cafe and play." 




The old masters  


Shelton would be in his teens before picking up the mouth harp himself. 


"I''d always been intrigued by the sound. ... I''d realized by then who Big Joe Williams was and his importance to the blues," he recounted, referring to the Crawford native and former Bluebird Records artist. "And I''d gotten interested in the roots of popular music. It was like having a calling; it was really out of my hands." 


The late Williams, born in 1903, would be a big influence on Shelton. 


"In the early ''70s, we''d hang out. We''d get out on old 82 out there, and hit those joints starting at the Alabama state line and working our way west, stopping at every little place. I''d be kinda like his chauffeur and he''d play, and I''d get to play some, too. I realized at an early age that I was in the presence of the real thing."  


Chicago called Shelton in the mid-''70s. He absorbed the urban blues scene firsthand, soaking up Muddy Waters, Buddy Guy, Clay County native Howlin'' Wolf and many others before returning to the tall pines and clay soil he knew so well.  


In his career, he''s been honored to play with the likes of Son Thomas, Furry Lewis, Willie King, Blind Mississippi Morris, R.L. Burnside, Johnny Rawls and a host of other purveyors of authentic blues music. He''s also spread the Mississippi message abroad, performing in England, France, Belgium, Bulgaria and the Netherlands.  


His experiences have honed an impassioned, gritty delivery and taught him "the blues is a universal condition." 


"When I was in the 2005 IBC," he said, "blues acts came from such faraway places as Israel, Australia, Ireland, England, Poland and France. And although some spoke no English, they were all moved by the music born right here in the South. I sensed they felt they were making a sort of religious pilgrimage to the land where the blues began." 




IBC honor 


The six Best Self-Produced category finalists were whittled from a field of more than 50 entries. Aside from Shelton, the remaining five sponsors and finalists are Blues Lovers United of San Diego, with Nathan James'' and Ben Hernandez''s "Hollerin''"; Columbus (Ohio) Blues Alliance, with Teeny Tucker''s "Two Big M''s"; the Connecticut Blues Society, with D. Smith Blues Band''s "Life Is Good"; the Diamond State Blues Society (Delaware), with The Roger Girke Band''s "Shake It"; and the Orange Blossom Blues Society (Florida), with Joey Gilmore''s "Bluesman." 


"Black Prairie Blues" was recorded at Wood Shed Studio and Music Alley Studio, both in Columbus, and co-produced by Shelton and Lynyrd Skynyrd bassist Ean Evans, who lives in Columbus. In addition to Evans, the ring of high-caliber homegrown talent surrounding Shelton on the record includes Hoyt Allen, Jimmy Caine, Edwin Daniel, Drew Dieckmann, Lee Graham, Willie King, Bryan Owings, Bobby Shannon and John Simpson. 


Shelton competed in the solo-duo division of the 2005 IBC, finishing second in his venue. The winner was Jimmy Hocking, an Australian musician recently named Blues Artist of the Year in that country.  




Back at it 


The muse doesn''t rest for long. Big Joe, who is also an accomplished stained glass artist, has begun writing and recording songs for the next album, one he hopes to complete before the year is out. He''ll get back to work on it as soon as he returns from his own pilgrimage to Memphis this week. 


"(At the IBC) there''s a strong feeling of camaraderie among the artists and the fans that really makes the musicians feel appreciated," he shared. "The energy, excitement and expectations serve as strong motivators for ''keeping the faith.''" 


Editor''s note: To learn more about the 2009 International Blues Challenge, visit To learn more about Big Joe Shelton and "Black Prairie Blues," visit

Jan Swoope is the Lifestyles Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.