GALLATIN (October 18, 2023): Country crooner JD Shelburne, who came to Nashville straight from a Kentucky tobacco patch, found his niche singing songs that reflect his small-town raising. His current hit, “Neon Hallelujah,” fits that groove like a glove.
The first verse of the tune, co-written by Maks Gabriel, Jayce Hein, Jimmy Thow and Jamie Floyd, goes like this:
This small town may not look like much.
Just corner stores and rusty trucks,
And everything else that I love.
It’s all right here.
Some people can’t wait to get out.
Me, I think I’ll just stick around.
’Cause Heaven looks like here to me,
Where I wanna be.
The song’s message?
“It’s just about the love of a small town and the meaning of what it’s like to be around your friends when there’s nothing else to do. It ties up my entire childhood and the nostalgia of growing up back home. It took me back home,” said Shelburne, two weeks ago when the music video of the song was nesting comfortably at No. 3 on CMT Countdown.
He added that when he first heard the tune, “It hit me like a ton of bricks. It was my life. I was lucky to get that song pitched to me and recorded it.”
Shelburne, 41, was born and raised in Taylorsville, Ky. (population 1,256), southeast of the Ohio River near Louisville in the middle of bourbon country. Today he hangs his hat in Wilson County. “Neon Hallelujah,” also the title of his latest album, which features the Oak Ridge Boys on “Amazing Grace,” was released in late July. The singer celebrated by performing on the Taylorsville square to a crowd of several thousand on July 29.
His other albums include “JD Shelburne” (2012), “Farmtown” (2014), “Between Here and the Stars” (20l6), “Two Lane Town” (2018) and “Straight From Kentucky” (2021).
The singer-songwriter is set to play in the round at 6 p.m., Nov. 8, at the Listening Room Café in Nashville at 618 4th Ave. S.
Shelburne says the inspiration for his song ideas spring from “a lot of real life. Nearly everything I’ve written, I lived. It comes from growing up in a small town and having a great family, grateful for the good Lord’s blessings, living the small-town dream and having both parents around my entire life, which tied into my songwriting.”
As for their tobacco patch, at one time it was a whopping 12 acres, which means a sweltering mess of work that includes setting the tobacco, topping, stripping, cutting and spiking the leaves before putting it in the barn to dry. Shelburne and his kin did it all.
“Not very many of my friends that I played with in school could handle work in the tobacco patch. We always had to hire older people,” he shared. “When I graduated college in 2007, I moved home to my parents’ house for four or five months, planning what to do. I didn’t have any money. I went outside and cut the whole tobacco patch all by myself. I probably cut 500 sticks. I’d had enough. I told Dad, ‘I think I’m going to Nashville.’”
Describing his growing-up years, he said “It was the all-American dream. My parents have been married over 40 years. We (he and younger brother, Tommy) were raised in church and worked hard. I’ve lived a very blessed life. The guitar just fell in my lap. It’s been a dream drive.”
Playing baseball and basketball for his high school, he shortened his name from John David to JD his senior year. His father was the high school principal and athletics director, which did have its perks.
“I got sent a couple of times to his office in middle school, and my senior year I snuck out of school to Dairy Queen for breakfast once and got caught. The teacher sent me to my dad s office, so Dad said, ‘Did you bring me breakfast?’ ”
His mother stayed at home with her sons until both had graduated high school, and then began teaching special-education children. Both parents retired recently.
Shelburne went to a community college for a few years and transferred to the University of Kentucky in 2005, where he earned a degree in telecommunications. It was his during his first semester in college that he providentially picked up a guitar after the death of his grandmother.
“I had never played music, just sang to the radio. I came home for the funeral and found the guitar in her house. I took the guitar back to college and had no idea what I was going to do with it. I ended up teaching myself to play and realized halfway I could sing. I got more advanced and picked it up so fast, learning songs I heard on the radio. One thing led to another, and the light bulb went off, and things starting happening.”
As a sophomore he began performing, singing cover songs while picking a small Epiphone guitar. He told his parents if they would buy him a full-sized guitar for Christmas that he would sing in church. Guess what he found beneath the Christmas tree?
“The next year I realized I had some sort of talent where I felt confident enough I could keep going. I practiced nonstop. My fingers were bleeding. Playing guitar was all I wanted to do. It just kept me grounded and kept me on the path and I kept going,” he said.
He made his Nashville debut while still in college, playing at a sports bar on Demonbreun Street. “I brought a band, and we thought we were great, but when I look back, we weren’t really that good,” he recollected.
“Louisville was a great steppingstone, but I knew I wasn’t going to get any further until I moved down here. Just being in Nashville helped change the trajectory in getting more gigs and making more money, but there were a lot of lonely nights and I didn’t know anybody,” said Shelburne, who said he was a big fan of 1990s’ country music and obsessed by Garth Brooks.
Hitting Music City in early 2008, he worked in healthcare for two different companies over the course of 12 years, which kept him afloat.
“I lived off my healthcare job income back then and banked every single cent of my music income for years and years. My music was rocking and rolling, and my career was rocket launched. We continued to invest my music income. It was the smartest thing I could have ever done. My Dad taught me to save.”
In 2010, he moved into a Brentwood apartment next to songwriter Mark Nesler, who had a No.1 hit in 1998 with “Just To See You Smile” by Tim McGraw, as well as George Strait’s chart topper, “Living and Living Well” in 2005.
“Mark really helped me become a better writer. He was really big in contributing to my career. He’s written some of my songs on my last three or four albums,” said Shelburne, who co-writes often with Nesler, Rob Simbeck, Marty Dodson, Phil O’Donnell and Tony Martin.
As for which of his songs are most personal, Shelburne listed “The Road I Grew Up On,” “Smalltown Star” and “Born for This.”
“I look back to my last couple of records, songs about my journey. I had no idea my life would be an artist that makes my living touring. I realized I was halfway decent at doing what I do. Just writing songs about my life has helped,” said the singer, who wrote or co-wrote four of the 14 tunes on his latest album.
About his snaring the Oak Ridge Boys, who are celebrating their 50th anniversary this month, to partner with him on “Amazing Grace,” Shelburne said, “I met them at a Michael W. Smith tribute concert and we became friends and later saw them at their Opryland Christmas show. Next thing you know, I sent Joe (Bonsall) a text, and they ended up on my record.”
He and Amy, his wife of five years, met in her hometown of Madison, Ind., when he performed at a festival there one year. She was on the committee that booked artists. “We kind of hit it off and kicked off a spark. We kept in touch and fell in love,” he said.
Several years ago, they were looking to buy a new house. “Wilson County kind of fell in our lap. I feel like it is growing like crazy. It’s a great place with great schools for our son (Jax, age 3). It does remind me of home,” said the entertainer, who said he makes every possible effort to be get home from Saturday night concerts so that he takes his family to West Haven Baptist Church on Sunday mornings. “We very rarely miss church. That’s just the way I was raised,” he said.
Shelburne said that he works out at Burn Boot Camp in Mt. Juliet, where he’s into weightlifting, high-intensity workouts and fit burn. “I’ve been to over 300 classes and leave sweating like crazy,” he said. “And I love to watch sports. College basketball is No. 1. I’m kind of a homebody.”
At the top of his bucket list is to entertain on “The Grand Ole Opry.” “It’s not happened yet. It’s my ultimate dream. I’ve been so close but never asked. That would be the icing on the cake.
He returns to Taylorsville every other year to entertain folks at JD Shelburne Day. Describing the last one, he said, “We had a hometown concert for several thousand people. Just seeing family and friends was overwhelming, a dream come true. I still go back home. That’s where I celebrate success.”
Written by: Ken Beck
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