January 28, 2011
Ricky Van Shelton rose to superstardom in the late eighties, bringing his old traditionalist sound to the forefront of the new traditionalist movement.
Born and raised in Virginia, Shelton enjoyed the traditional country music of the sixties, but also had a taste for the pop of the same era and the gospel sounds that he heard in church every Sunday. He would draw from all three genres in his recording career, but his heart was always in traditional country music.
After playing in a band with his brother, he followed his girlfriend to Nashville in 1984. He played in nightclubs for a short time before being discovered by a local journalist. The media exposure led him to a deal with Columbia Records.
His debut album, Wild-Eyed Dream, was released in 1987. Featuring a handful of classic country covers and new material that was similar in sound, Shelton’s timing was ideal. The new traditionalist movement was in full swing, with Randy Travis and Dwight Yoakam breaking out in a big way the previous year. The title track was a minor hit, and Shelton broke through to the top ten with his second single, “Crime of Passion.”
But it was his third single, “Somebody Lied”, that made him a star. The forlorn ballad showcased his baritone vocals, and the classic country arrangement sounded like an early sixties hit recorded with modern technology. This kicked off a string of hits, and Shelton emerged as one of the brightest young stars of his time.
From 1987 to 1991, he released four consecutive platinum albums which featured ten #1 hits. The CMA gave him the Horizon Award in 1988, then upgraded him to Male Vocalist one year later. There was plenty of compelling new material that he spun into hits, like “Keep it Between the Lines” and his tender duet with Dolly Parton, “Rockin’ Years.” But he also resurrected country classics like “Life’s Little Ups and Downs”, “From a Jack to a King”, and “Statue of a Fool.”
Even as radio cooled on his singles starting in 1992, he remained widely popular with audiences. Despite not producing hits, his albums continued to go gold. Most impressively, his 1992 gospel collection, Don’t Overlook Salvation, was certified gold despite not having a single released from it at all.
Despite continued fan support, Shelton struggled with alcoholism, which further slowed his career. He released his swan song for Columbia, Love and Honor, in 1994, which was his first release not to sell well. A few years later, he would release projects on his own RVS Label, and then for Audium/Koch records. His most recent studio album is Fried Green Tomatoes from 2000.
Throughout the first half of the last decade, Shelton remained a presence on the road, but he retired in 2006 to spend more time with his family. No plans have been announced for him to return to the studio or to touring, but his classic albums remain widely available, and there are several good hits collections that capture the highlights of his country radio years.
- Somebody Lied, 1987
- Life Turned Her That Way, 1987
- I’ll Leave This World Loving You, 1988
- I Meant Every Word He Said, 1990
- Keep it Between the Lines, 1991
- Loving Proof, 1988
- Backroads, 1991
- Don’t Overlook Salvation, 1992
- Greatest Hits Plus, 1992
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