Artist: Ricky Van Shelton.
History: Shelton is the latest of country music's new traditionalists, but the 35-year-old's overnight success story has actually been years in the making. Shelton began singing as a 3-year-old in church and at revivals with his part-time gospel musician father around his family's Grit, Va., home. Shelton came under the sway of the Beatles and Rolling Stones in his early teens, writing his own rock 'n' roll songs. Though he hated country music at the time, his mandolin-playing older brother talked him into joining him on bluegrass and country gigs by allowing the 15-year-old to drive his 1964 Ford Fairlane. After spending nearly two decades balancing country bands with various day jobs, Shelton went to Nashville two years ago when his then-girlfriend (now wife), Bettye, got a job there, supporting him while he worked on his songwriting. A co-worker took a tape of Ricky's songs to her husband, Jerry Thompson, a news columnist for the Nashville Tennessean newspaper, who then took over as Shelton's manager. In June, 1986, Shelton signed to Columbia Records, which released his debut album, "Wild Eyed Dreams," in February.
Sound: On the new-traditionalist scale, Shelton fits between Western swing revivalist George Strait and L.A. neo-honky-tonker Dwight Yoakam, but with a wider repertoire than either. Though Shelton has been writing songs for more than two decades, his debut album serves primarily as a vehicle for his rich voice, as producer Steve Buckingham opted to rely on other writers. Sure-fire country selections range from the crying-in-my-beer "Somebody Lied" and the Harlan Howard ballad "Life Turned Her That Way," to Buck Owens' "I Don't Care" and Merle Haggard's "Working Man's Blues." The boldest choice, though, is the BoDeans' "Ultimately Fine," which allows Shelton to show off his rocker's roots. In concert these tendencies sneak out from beneath a wide-brimmed hat and y'all -filled patter to reveal an artist closer to the early Sun Records rockabilly style than to anything in contemporary country music.
Shows: Saturday at the Greek Theatre and next Sunday at the Pacific Amphitheatre (with George Jones and Rosie Flores).