LOUISVILLE (December 15th, 2023): Beneath the glow of stage lights, JD Shelburne can’t usually see the details in a cheering crowd.

But each holiday season, amid the twinkling lights of his Christmas tree, very specific moments and memories with fans glimmer so vividly.

In the 15 or so years since the Taylorsville, Kentucky native packed his bags for Nashville, his fan base and career as a country music artist have grown dramatically.

And along with it, oddly enough, his collection of Christmas ornaments.

In late October, I spotted a post on Shelburne’s Instagram page of a lit, ornament-less Christmas tree in his in-home music lounge. Fans had been giving him personalized ornaments for more than a decade, and he was excited to play Dean Martin and Frank Sinatra holiday classics, just as he did every year, to decorate his fan tree.

Photos from JD Shelburne’s Christmas tree.

I saw him perform at Light Up Louisville in 2022, and with his growing portfolio of Christmas tunes — this year he’s added “Let It Snow” and “Please Come Home for Christmas” — I knew Shelburne was no stranger to spreading holiday cheer.

It never occurred to me that his fans would dutifully send glad tidings to him, as well, let alone more than 400 Christmas ornaments.

Christmas decorations begin going up before November in the Shelburne house, and they stay up for nearly two and a half months after that. By the time I got Shelburne on the phone the week before Thanksgiving, he’d already carefully unpacked each ornament and hung it on his fan tree, and with them, he uncovered some equally precious memories.

Over the years he’s developed “fanships and friendships” with the people who frequent his shows. He’s spent many hours in the past decade and a half sitting on Nashville bar stools before and after performances, getting to know the people who come to see him perform.

Photos from JD Shelburne’s Christmas tree.

“In the business of being an artist, it’s wild, because fans have this link to you,” Shelburne told me. “They follow your music, and you touch them in some way with your music. The next thing you know, it’s like you’re their friend, or their son or their daughter.”

Many of the ornaments have been created from selfies and snapshots taken at his concerts with dates and names on the back to mark each show. A variety of guitars and music symbols hang from the branches.

“It’s very special every year, it takes me back to a lot of great gigs and a lot of really good people that have helped me get to the next level,” Shelburne told me.

But other ornaments have stories so personal they could almost be lyrics to a country song.

For example, a small figurine of NFL football quarterback Patrick Mahomes dangles from one of the branches each Christmas. Shelburne doesn’t follow the Kansas City Chiefs, but two of his fans were huge Chiefs fans. When the team won the Super Bowl in 2020, the couple brought him that ornament.

That fanship evolved and led them to buy Shelburne’s old Ford Ranger with 300,000 miles so their daughter had a car to take to college. Shelburne drove that truck to shows all over the country at the beginning of his career. The country music artist has a vivid memory of connecting with them in a Kroger parking lot and handing the keys over to the father.

The year after these fans brought him the Mahomes ornament, the father was killed in an ATV accident.

Every time Shelburne sees that ornament, he remembers that family.

Photos from JD Shelburne’s Christmas tree.

Another time, he met a couple from Shelburne, Nova Scotia, who were dazzled by the fact an American country music artist had the same name as their hometown. The tiny Canadian town only has about 1,600 residents, and the new fans insisted the whole town would be enamored with him if he ever performed there.

To prove it, they returned to Nashville the next year with five friends. The couple corresponded with Shelburne leading up to the trip, so they could be sure to catch one of his shows. During that trip, the group brought him a box with two ornaments in it, and all seven fans signed the top of it. One ornament was a gold orb. The other was a crab because that part of Novia Scotia is known for its crab and fishing industry.

They’ve been to see him a few times since then, he told me, but he hasn’t had a chance to reconnect with them since the pandemic.

“I put that ornament on my tree this year, and I wondered how they’re doing,” he told me.

Photos from JD Shelburne’s Christmas tree.

One fan, named Shirley, is responsible for about 15 of the ornaments on his fan tree. She lives in Louisville and over the years, she’s come to at least 200 of his shows. She never forgets to get him an ornament for Christmas.

The detail and thought his fans put into these small meaningful gifts amaze him every time. Shelburne was a huge fan of Ken Griffey Jr. growing up, and a few years back, he got to meet his idol at a Kentucky Derby event in Louisville. If you scroll through his social media, you’ll see a few photos of Shelburne in a Griffey jersey. One of his fans pieced that together and bought him a small Griffey figurine for his Christmas tree.

Photos from JD Shelburne’s Christmas tree.

If Shelburne had to pick a favorite, he says, it’s likely an ornament with a hand-painted portrait of his family on it. His 3-year-old son doesn’t usually attend his shows, but the portrait was created from a photo taken at a performance that was a rare exception. That moment was extremely special, Shelburne told me, and one of his fans commissioned an artist friend to paint it on a delicate orb.

“I’m going to have to go buy a special box for it,” he said. “I’m afraid I’m going to pull it out one Christmas in crumbles.”

That hand-painted ornament is extremely fragile, and really, many of them are. Unwrapping and placing 400 ornaments is a time-consuming tradition, but it’s one Shelburne looks forward to each year.

Photos from JD Shelburne’s Christmas tree.

The collection keeps growing, too. In the time since he’d first posted the photo, fans had already given him at least 15 more ornaments.

“What are you going to do when you run out of room,” I asked him.

Shelburne laughed. He already had run out of room.  

This year he had to borrow a tree typically on display in his family’s dining room for an auxiliary fan tree. Now there are two fan Christmas trees in his in-house studio.

“That’s actually a good problem to have because I tell my son and my wife, you can never have too many lit Christmas trees,” Shelburne told me. “I love the vibe they give off in the house. Maybe one of these days, I’ll have a house full of trees and ornaments, and I’m okay with that.”

His holiday enthusiasm, certainly, reaches well beyond the songs he performs on the stage. He wished me a Merry Christmas before we got off the phone.

With that attitude, I believe someday he will have a house full of trees filled with branches of beautiful, personal stories.

And at the same time, I couldn’t help but wonder if Nova Scotia, his old Ford Ranger, and Shirley might ever end up in a holiday country song.

Features columnist Maggie Menderski writes about what makes Louisville, Southern Indiana and Kentucky unique, wonderful, and occasionally, a little weird. If you’ve got something in your family, your town or even your closet that fits that description — she wants to hear from you. Say hello at mmenderski@courier-journal.com or 502-582-4053. Follow along on Instagram and Twitter @MaggieMenderski.

JD Shelburne’s upcoming Louisville-area shows

Dec. 31: Mercury Ballroom in downtown Louisville

Jan. 13: Bourbon Barrel Tavern in Elizabethtown