George Shuffler; primary instruments: bass and guitar
Born: April 11, 1925, Valdese, North Carolina
BMI’s database credits George Shuffler with 46 published compositions, co-compositions, and arrangements. A few of his original songs and collaborations are:
“Give the World a Sunny Smile”
“Just a Phone Call Will Do”
“When I Receive My Robe and Crown”
Sons of the Pioneers
Blue Sky Boys
Came to fame with:
The Stanley Brothers, 1952
Carolina Boys, c. 1941
Melody Mountain Boys, c. 1942, 1947-1949
Bailey Brothers, c. 1946
Mustard and Gravy, c. 1949-1950
Jim & Jesse & the Virginia Boys, c. 1951
The Stanley Brothers & the Clinch Mountain Boys, 1952-1966
Ralph Stanley & the Clinch Mountain Boys, 1967, 1969-1970
Don Reno & Bill Harrell & the Tennessee Cut-Ups, 1967-1969
Shuffler Family, 1974-c. 1988
Led the way:
• Stellar bass player, famous for his walking style which influenced others, notably Tom Gray.
• Developed a cross-picking guitar style which continues to be echoed by bluegrass lead players.
• Toured and recorded with a number of bluegrass legends including the Stanley Brothers, Bill Clifton and Reno & Harrell.
• Received an IBMA Distinguished Achievement Award in 1996.
• Received a North Carolina Heritage Award in 2007.
• Inducted into the International Bluegrass Hall of Fame in 2011.
By the Way:
• Known for his excellent acoustic playing, George’s first band – The Carolina Boys – found him playing electric guitar.
• George’s first recording session occurred on his 27th birthday, in 1952, when he helped out on a session with the Stanley Brothers.
• George’s brother, John, also played bass with the Stanley Brothers.
• While working a show date once with the Stanley Brothers, George filled in for the one of the Carter Sisters, who were also on the program. As a result, he acquired the nickname of “Aunt” George Shuffler.
• George was one of the first bluegrass sidemen to be featured prominently on an album cover. Two albums that were recorded by the Stanley Brothers in 1964 (Hymns of the Cross and The Remarkable Stanley Brothers Play and Sing Bluegrass Songs for You) both included him on the front cover along with the sub heading “with George Shuffler.”
George Shuffler is known for his excellent walking-style bass playing and distinctive cross-picking guitar, both popularized during his 16-year association with the Stanley Brothers. He was born in the Western North Carolina community of Valdese, situated not far from Hickory, Charlotte, and Asheville. George was the second oldest of nine children. Music abounded in his family: his mother sang, his father was an old-time banjo player, and most of George’s brothers and sisters played. George attended singing schools that were held at a church, where he enjoyed participating in quartet harmonizing.
At 10, he got his first guitar and learned the basic chords. Aside from home and church, the radio offered inspiration to the young Shuffler. Merle Travis, the Delmore Brothers and Grandpa Jones were particular favorites of the young man.
George’s first opportunity to play in a band came in about 1941, when he was 16. He played electric guitar in a group called The Carolina Boys. After a short period of time, he moved on to The Melody Mountain Boys. This outfit included his brother John as well as future Stanley Brothers’ fiddler Lester Woodie. In 1946, at age 21, he joined the brother duo of Charles and Danny Bailey; the Bailey Brothers were then featured on the Grand Ole Opry. When the Baileys left the Opry later that year, George came back to North Carolina and reassembled the Melody Mountain Boys. The group performed on several regional stations, including WKBC (North Wilkesboro), WMNC (Morganton), WIRC (Hickory), and WJRI (Lenoir).
George had occasion to work with several other professional bands in the 1949-1951 period. One was a duo known as Mustard and Gravy, described in Bruce Eder’s biography of the duo on allmusic.com’s website as “country-novelty with a hillbilly edge.” The team’s forte was blackface comedy and they worked from Florida to New York. Several of their shows were done in conjunction with one of the top country stars of the day, Eddy Arnold. He also worked with Jim & Jesse and the Virginia Boys, along with banjoist Hoke Jenkins. In the summer and fall of 1951, the group appeared on WWNC in Asheville. It was while working with Jim & Jesse that George began developing his unique cross-picking guitar style (Jesse McReynolds cross-picked the mandolin in a slightly different pattern; both echoed the roll of the newly popular Scruggs-style banjo.)
In the spring of 1951, George married Sue Benfield. Shortly after Christmas that year, George received a phone call at Sue’s parent’s house in Hickory. It was from Carter Stanley, who invited George to accompany the Stanley Brothers to Versailles, Kentucky, to appear on WVLK radio.
It was to be the first of many stints with the Stanleys. This first tour of duty lasted for most of 1952. From January to April, they worked out of the Versailles-Lexington area. Band mates included Curly Seckler, Pee Wee Lambert, Charlie Cline, and Art Wooten. At the end of their stay in Kentucky, the band journeyed to Nashville to record the Stanleys’ final session for Columbia Records. Recorded at the session was a song that George – although uncredited – helped to put together, “A Life of Sorrow.” Other radio shows included WLSI in Pikeville, Kentucky, for two weeks, and WOAY in Oak Hill, West Virginia. As often happened, George missed horse trading and returned home to North Carolina, only to be lured back to music and the road within a number of months.
George participated in the Stanley Brothers’ first session for Mercury records, in August of 1953. Heralded as one of the Stanleys’ best trips to the studio, it prominently showcased George’s driving 4/4 walking bass.
The summer of 1955 found him touring with the Stanleys, including a performance at Bill Monroe’s Brown County Jamboree in Bean Blossom, Indiana. A number of times, he appeared on recording sessions at Carter Stanley’s request, even though he wasn’t currently a member of the band.
In 1958, the Stanley Brothers relocated to Live Oak, Florida. George joined them there in the early part of 1961. He did radio and television work with the group, appearing on their Jim Walter Jamboree programs, and also toured. It was in 1961 that George switched over to lead guitar with the group. A recording engineer at King Records, Chuck Seitz, overheard George doodling around with his cross-picking and encouraged him to feature it on record with the Stanleys. They were opposed to the idea initially but warmed up to it after it caught on with their fans. The Shuffler style of guitar playing has remained a part of the Stanley style ever since.
Throughout the early and middle 1960s, George appeared on most of the Stanley Brothers’ recorded output… for King, as well as specialty labels such as Wango and Rimrock. He became so identified with the Stanleys that he received prominent billing on several albums that were recorded in 1964.
George’s tenure with the Stanley Brothers came to an end with the passing of Carter Stanley on December 1, 1966. He continued on with Ralph for several months, helping the younger Stanley to get back on his feet. With the addition of another singer and guitarist in the group, a young Larry Sparks, George felt it was time to move on.
After a brief rest, George signed on with the newly formed team of Don Reno & Bill Harrell. Over a roughly two year period (c. February 1967 – February 1969), he recorded three albums with them for King Records, and at least as many for other labels such as Jalyn and Rural Rhythm. A Bluegrass Unlimited magazine readers’ poll in 1967 named George the Best Bass Player of the Year.
While working for Reno & Harrell, George filled in on a recording session by Ralph Stanley, a 1968 gospel album on King called Over the Sunset Hill. It featured his trademark bass playing. By the middle of 1969, Ralph’s bass player of the last three years, Melvin Goins, departed the Clinch Mountain Boys, leaving an opening once again for George. He stayed for a about year and appeared on one recording session during this period, a fiddle album called Curly Ray Cline and His Lonesome Pine Fiddle.
George’s last professional work in a group setting started in 1974 when he put together the Shuffler Family, a traditional country gospel group comprised mainly of his daughters (Jennie and Debbie), son (Steve), brother (Dude) and nephew (Dude’s son, Joe Shuffler). Also included was masterful finger-style guitarist, Roger Hicks. The group stayed together for nearly 15 years and recorded four albums for the Rebel label.
Throughout the 1990s, 2000s, and into the 2010s, George has kept busy musically, often appearing as a solo, as a duet partner with Asheville-based Laura Boosinger, and at workshops. He has been a fixture in the traditional tent at MerleFest and usually holds down the vendor’s spot next to Ralph’s long-time guitarist James Alan Shelton at Stanley’s Memorial Day festival. He has also released a number of fine guitar-oriented projects, including a solo outing for Rex Nelon and three for Copper Creek, including a duet project with James Shelton and one with Laura Boosinger.
George was the recipient of an IBMA Distinguished Achievement Award in 1996, a North Carolina Heritage Award in 2007, and in 2011 he was inducted into the International Bluegrass Hall of Fame.
Gary Reid is a bluegrass music historian, journalist, and producer, based in Roanoke, Virginia.
“We were doing these old, slow, drawn-out mournful songs…. I tried Merle Travis-style guitar and Mother Maybelle Carter-style guitar, but single-string leads were just not getting it. So I tried that -- two notes down, one up, crossing over strings. At first Carter did not like it. ‘Is that all you do?’ he asked. ‘It’s all I want to do,’ I said. And after it started selling, I could not do it enough to satisfy him.”
George Shuffler, quoted by David Menconi in “The Picker Who Set the Beat,” Charlotte News-Observer, October 21, 2007.
“I think that Ralph would be the first to admit it just wasn’t the same without Carter. We were always the prank pullers, the jokesters. Ralph and I tried, but it wasn’t the same. We three were like brothers. I never worked for the Stanleys, I worked with them.”
George Shuffler, quote by Ron Gould, from “The Shuffler Family: Foothills Gospel,” Bluegrass Unlimited, November, 1977.
“I liked the tone of a Martin [guitar] for bluegrass. It’s louder and deeper.”
George Shuffler, quoted by Larry Mitchell, from “George Shuffler,” Pickin’, April, 1978.
“Right now we’re (the Shuffler Family) having to turn down more dates than we can book. We try to keep it to weekends, but it’s about got out of hand. Looks like we’re going to have to make a decision.”
George Shuffler, quoted by John Wright in Traveling the High Way Home, 1993.