J.D. Shelburne has a dream and he believes “Farmboy,” his new single from I’ll Be Your Cowboy may make it happen. “My dream is for ‘Farmboy’ to take me to the Opry. I’m already making new fans with it,” Shelburne said. He would like to see that continue and have his fan base grow because of the song. “I want people who don’t know me to hear it and become fans.”
Shelburne is a native of Taylorsville, a town he says helped shape his career. Shelburne describes his hometown between Louisville and Lexington, both cities in which he played gigs when he was starting out. “It’s a small town with a couple of stoplights,” he said of Taylorsville. “Everybody knows everybody.”
Shelburne didn’t start out with an interest in music. He was athletic growing up, playing multiple sports in high school. Music wasn’t really that big in his family, but sports were. He grew up listening to country music, though, even if his family didn’t make music. “I always liked country. When I turned 16 and drove my truck, country music was all you heard in my town,” he said. His family raised tobacco on the farm and “the tractor radio was cranked to country,” Shelburne said. He hadn’t expected to become a country singer, but he knew a lot of songs once he got started because “we’d sing on the way to ball games,” he said.
While Shelburne was a student at the University of Kentucky, his grandmother died. As the family was clearing out her home, Shelburne found an old guitar of his uncle’s. He thinks that guitar was his destiny because, “I’d been all over that house, and I never saw that guitar,” he said. He picked it up after his grandmother’s death, started playing around and got hooked on music.
He followed friends’ and family members’ advice and played whenever and wherever he could. A cousin told him, “You won’t be discovered in a basement,” which encouraged the fledgling country rocker to get out of the house and get gigs. While studying at UK, he got a regular booking at the now-closed Kitty O’Shea’s in Lexington, near campus. Shelburne would play in exchange for chicken sandwiches. “I thought, ‘I’m getting free food. This is awesome!’ ” he said.
The stakes are higher now. After graduating from UK in 2007, Shelburne moved to Nashville. “People take you more seriously if you have a Nashville address on your promo,” he said. The irony is you can’t make much money as an up-and-coming musician in Nashville, according to Shelburne. “As an artist, you make more money living in town (Nashville) and working out of town,” he said, which means Shelburne is frequently on the road. He has a day job as an insurance adjuster but “nights and weekends, I’m on the road, trying to be a star,” he said.
Shelburne loves country music and is well-versed in Kentucky’s country musicians. He likes Ricky Skaggs and Dwight Yoakam. “I wasn’t much on Bluegrass” while growing up, Shelburne admitted, but as he got older, played more and grew as a musician, he came to appreciate Bill Monroe. The 10-year-old Shelburne loved Billy Ray Cyrus’ “Achy Breaky Heart” when it came out. He claims that at the time, he couldn’t decide which was cooler—the song or Cyrus’ mullet. Montgomery Gentry is his biggest current Kentucky musician influence.
Steve Wariner is a Hoosier, but he has family in Kentucky, so he can join the club by kinship. He has had a direct influence on Shelburne’s musical life. Shelburne opened for Joe Nichols and Wariner at a Waterfront concert in Louisville in 2008 or 2009, and after his show, he was selling merchandise when he heard Wariner mentioning him from the stage. “He gave me a shout-out on stage,” Shelburne said. Shelburne was impressed. “Most headliners don’t even know openers,” he said. Shelburne and Wariner started a friendship that continues to this day. Wariner even took Shelburne to visit the Grand Ole Opry when he performed there, so Shelburne got a behind-the-scenes look at the most revered show in country music. “I was backstage, not performing. But I was his guest, and I was onstage while he played,” Shelburne said.
That night made a big impression on Shelburne and has helped fuel his dream for “Farmboy.” “When I do get the chance to play the Opry, I don’t know what I’ll do. It’ll be emotional—I know that,” Shelburne said. Note he said “when,” not “if.” Shelburne is an ambitious, focused young man and when he finally does get to play the Grand Ole Opry, he’s sure to do his fellow Kentuckians proud.