100 Greatest Men: #94. Ricky Van Shelton

100 Greatest Men: The Complete List

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.

Essential Singles:

  • 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

Essential Albums:

  • Loving Proof, 1988
  • Backroads, 1991
  • Don’t Overlook Salvation, 1992
  • Greatest Hits Plus, 1992

Next: #93. Vernon Dalhart

Previous: #95. David Allan Coe

100 Greatest Men: The Complete List


  1. I really wish RVS would issue some new music. Nashville really doesn’t have any currently-charting male vocalists who can hold a candle to Shelton

  2. I always liked the sound of his voice, and he had some very strong material. I’d probably think more highly of his recordings if they didn’t have that echo-y 80s sound to them that I didn’t like then and don’t care for now. Still, easily one of the more talented vocalists of his era.

    I’m surprised your bio omits the infamous incident at the awards show when he got into it with the show producer over his song performance. The house band that was backing everyone was performing not just in a different key than he had performed the song, but in a key outside his vocal range! I’m told that cost him quite a lot amongst the label head pals of the show producer, as he was instantly branded a troublemaker.

  3. Ah, Travis, you share my instant distaste of reverb! Finally somebody else to comiserate with. It’s ruined many a good song for me.

    RVS has a great, rich voice. I love a few of his songs, but can’t say that they’ve all grabbed me, because most of them lack something for me’.

  4. Leeann, I was all a-tingle when Willie Nelson released his Naked Willie collection, stripping away the gaudy overdubs that had buried his original RCA recordings. I imagined a world where somehow, technology would allow the recordings of the 80s to be reintroduced to the world without that god-awful effect. It hasn’t happened yet, but if it ever does, RVS will be at the top of my wish list.

    I bought his Fried Green Tomatoes album (can it really have been a decade ago?!) and was struck by how strong his voice was when allowed to come through naturally. The material on that album was mostly average, so I can’t advise rushing out and buying it, but if you come across a copy at a price you’re willing to pay you might just find a new appreciation for the guy’s talent.

    Otherwise, as much as I despise recommending hits collections in lieu of actual albums, his Greatest Hits Plus is pretty much all the casual RVS fan needs. I’m not sure offhand what differences exist between that and his volume in the 16 Biggest Hits series, but that may be a better way to go, depending on the remastering of those old cuts.

  5. I like him, not love. He had a few really great songs but he never really clicked with me. He did accomplish a lot in the relativly short hitmaking career. In 4 years 10 #1’s pretty impressive.

  6. Jordan, 10 #1s in four years is impressive by today’s standards, but if you ever go back and look at the Billboard charts from his era you’ll see a new #1 almost weekly. I think that had a lot to do with the early 90s commercial boom of the industry and it’s not something that I think has been properly explored and understood.

    You could get away with tuning into today’s country radio once a month and be lucky to hear 20% new material, but in those days there was constantly someone else hitting the airwaves with new material. Radio’s job was to keep you listening, and the philosophy of the time was that with a wealth of artists turning in new songs there was no excuse for spinning the same songs over and over again from a handful of artists. My, how times have changed!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.