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“Big” Joe Shelton was born in the Black Belt Prairie region of northeast Mississippi in 1951. The region is the birthplace of a number of legendary blues performers and Shelton was exposed to a wide range African-American music while growing up. He saw traveling minstrel shows (he remembers attending the “Silas Green from New Orleans” show as a small child), went to barbecue picnics that featured local music, and listened to blues musicians perform on the streets of downtown Columbus.
Shelton sang in church and school choirs during his elementary school year and began playing harmonica and guitar in his teens. While attending Mississippi State University in the early 1970s, he befriended blues guitarist and vocalist “Big” Joe Williams, a native of nearby Crawford, Mississippi. Shelton helped to book Williams for a number of gigs in Starkville and the surrounding region. As part of this work, the younger musician often drove Williams to the shows and often sat in with him.
Shelton left Mississippi in the mid-1970s to attend graduate school at Northern Illinois University. During his time in Illinois he made frequent trips to Chicago, visiting many of the legendary South Side blues clubs and seeing blues legends like Buddy Guy, Carey Bell, and Willie Dixon perform in their home environment. Through these trips Shelton became acquainted with blues guitarist and singer Fenton Robinson (best known for his hit song “Somebody Loan Me a Dime”). He was eventually able to get the Greenwood, Mississippi native booked for some concerts at his university.
The aspiring musician moved back to Mississippi in late 1979 and opened a stained glass studio, which he continues to operate today. Shelton also began to perform locally, primarily as a solo performer. By the mid 1990s he decided to push himself more as a musician and began putting together electric blues bands and writing his own material. Shelton currently performs with his four piece band as well as in solo and duo format. In addition to regular club gigs, he performs at festivals throughout the region, including the Howlin’ Wolf Memorial Blues Festival, Willie King’s Freedom Creek Blues Festival, and the Beale Street Mess Around.
Shelton is also a musical collaborator with a number of other blues musicians in the Black Prairie region, including Alabama-based guitarist and vocalist Willie King. The harmonica player has done a number of “Blues in the Schools” programs in Mississippi with King and drummer “Wild” Bill Williams. Shelton was added to the Mississippi Arts Commission’s Artist Roster in July 2007 and hopes to promote his blues education presentation to schools throughout the state.