Born c. 1952 in Grit, Va.; son of Jenks (a factory worker) and Eloise Van Shelton; married Bettye Witt, 1986. Addresses: Record company-- Columbia/CBS Records, 51 W. 52nd St., New York, NY 10019.
Fans of traditional country music have found a new hero in Ricky Van Shelton, a singer who took Nashville by storm in 1987. Since his debut album, Wild-Eyed Dream, went gold, Van Shelton has ranked among the most popular--and most visible--entertainers in the country field. His soothing voice and down-home good looks have won him numerous female admirers, helping to assure a wide audience for his repertoire of conventional country and honky tonk songs. Detroit Free Press columnist Gary Graff called Van Shelton "the hottest new male singer in country music," a performer who was "a success from the get-go."
It might surprise Ricky Van Shelton to hear himself described as an overnight success. In fact he struggled for years to establish himself in Nashville, although he never lost faith in his talent. Van Shelton is in his late 30s, and he has been a country singer since his teens--his stardom has been a matter of a lucky break after years of anonymity. Having found a record label for his work and a producer he respects, Van Shelton is reluctant to tamper with the formula that has brought him almost a dozen Number 1 country hits. "I'm not one to gamble on success," he told the Detroit Free Press. "I am singing traditional country music, and I've had phenomenal success, which I'm not about to mess with."
Van Shelton was born in tiny Grit, Virginia, in the early 1950s. His parents were deeply religious people who forbade any music in their home. Van Shelton learned to sing at the area Pentecostal Holiness Church, where he and his two brothers and two sisters were on the church choir. His parents' demands notwithstanding, Van Shelton found ways to listen to secular music. Friends at school introduced him to rock and roll and rhythm and blues, and he became a big fan of the Beatles and the Rolling Stones. Like many teens in the 1960s, Van Shelton held country music in contempt--that is, until he heard it performed live.
One night Van Shelton was asked to sing with his brother's bluegrass band for the evening. The experience energized the young man, and he began to listen to country, honky tonk, and rockabilly with a new respect. While he worked as a pipe fitter and a tobacco picker in rural Virginia, he began to dream of a career as a country musician. Weekends would find him on any stage that he could find, playing guitar and singing for the sheer joy of it.
Van Shelton found constant encouragement from his then-fiancee, Bettye. In 1984 (the couple was married in 1986) she urged him to move to Nashville, where she supported him while he peddled his talents. In fact, it was Bettye who assured Van Shelton's fame when she persuaded a co-worker to give one of Van Shelton's tapes to her husband, an influential Nashville newspaper columnist. Within two weeks Van Shelton had a contract with Columbia Records and was in the studio cutting his first album. Released in 1987, Wild-Eyed Dream sold a phenomenal one million copies and produced three Number 1 singles.
Wild-Eyed Dream is composed primarily of classic numbers by Harlan Howard, Merle Haggard, and Buck Owens. Van Shelton is very comfortable mining the vein of classic country, although when he writes songs himself he produces everything from rock to bluegrass numbers. Success has come with the traditional music, however, and Van Shelton is only one of several new stars who recall country's roots with almost every note. As the singer put it in People, "I think the audience was really hungry for pure country music."
"Pure country music" is the essence of Ricky Van Shelton's style. His backup band includes wailing fiddles and steel guitars, although the up-tempo numbers may have a rockabilly beat. Ed Morris, Billboard' s representative in Nashville, told the Detroit Free Press that Van Shelton "sounds like a latter-day Conway Twitty. So many of his songs are just simple, unadorned laments of some sort or another. They're not sophisticated. They just have an emotional tug that the big country audience really goes for." Van Shelton himself put it another way in People. Whenever he's around a microphone, he said, "I just start cryin' out loud."
Van Shelton has a fine voice with an exceptional range, but it is his stage presence--his good looks and easy but sincere charm--that have made him a star. Female fans have been known to riot around his tour bus, and he is regularly pelted with lingerie at his live shows. Still, the singer credits his success to the depth of emotion he can bring to his material, rather than the way he looks when he sings. "I'm happy and alive when I walk up on that stage," he told People.
By 1990 Ricky Van Shelton had earned a shelf full of awards from the country music industry and had watched three albums sell over a million copies. Asked to reflect on his stardom, he told the Detroit Free Press: "I'm not surprised. If I was surprised, it would mean I didn't have faith in myself, wouldn't it? I've always had faith in myself.... With these three albums, it's been wonderful. If it ends tomorrow, I would just walk away with a smile on my face."
by Anne Janette Johnson
Ricky Van Shelton's Career
Country singer and songwriter, 1984--. Also worked as a pipe fitter and tobacco puller in Virginia. Signed with Columbia Records, 1986; released debut album, Wild-Eyed Dream, 1987; had numerous Number 1 country singles, including "Wild-Eyed Dream," "Crime of Passion," "Somebody Lied," and "Hole in My Pocket." Live performer at concerts in the United States and Canada, and on the Grand Ole Opry, in Nashville; subject of documentary, Ricky Van Shelton: From Grit to Gold, on the Nashville Network, 1990.
- Selective Works
- Wild-Eyed Dream Columbia, 1987.
- Living Proof Columbia, 1988.
- Ricky Van Shelton Sings Christmas Columbia, 1989.
- RVS III Columbia, 1990.
- Vaughan, Andrew, Who's Who in New Country Music, St.
- Martin's, 1989.
- Detroit Free Press, May 11, 1990.
- People, June 26, 1989.