“Big” Joe Shelton was born in the Black Belt Prairie region of northeast Mississippi in 1951. The region is the birthplace of several legendary blues performers and Shelton was exposed to a wide range of African American music while growing up. He 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 years and began playing harmonica and guitar in his teens. While attending Mississippi State University in the early 1970s, he befriended the late blues guitarist and vocalist “Big” Joe Williams, a native of nearby Crawford, Mississippi. Shelton helped to book several gigs for Williams 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 other blues musicians in the Black Prairie region, including the late Alabama-based guitarist and vocalist Willie King. Shelton has completed numerous “Blues in the Schools” programs in Mississippi with King and drummer “Wild” Bill Williams. Shelton has been on the Mississippi Arts Commission’s Artist Roster, and he was also the recipient of MAC’s Folk Arts Fellowship award in 2018 and 2011.
He has released four albums, all of which were reviewed in blues music publications. His 2008 album, “Black Prairie Blues,” was a finalist in the Best Self-Produced Cd Category of the Blues Foundation of Memphis’s International Blues Challenge. The title track of “The Older I Get The Better I Was”’ was nominated for Song Of The Year at the 2012 Blues Music Awards. The title track of “I’d Never Let Her Down” was voted the 411 International Blues Network Song of The Year in 2013. ‘Ridin’ A Chicken” was released in 2017 and has been included in the top 10 of multiple national and international radio airplay charts.