Hall of Famers Ricky Skaggs and Randy Travis get their just due as great traditionalists from the ’80s and ’90s, but what about Ricky Van Shelton? The Danville, Va. native kept the song topics and storytelling devices of George Jones, Conway Twitty and others relevant within mainstream country music between his debut single in 1986 and his 2006 retirement.
It’s not like Sheldon’s a hidden treasure. He rubbed shoulders with big stars, recording “Rockin’ Years” with Dolly Parton and touring with the likes of Garth Brooks. Yet he seems lost in the shuffle when folks wax nostalgically about his peers. For a reminder of why he still stands as an American treasure, check out these 10 Ricky Van Shelton songs culled from a nine-album career.
10. “Living Proof”
This title track from Shelton’s classic sophomore album tells a vivid story about the ups and downs of a long-term relationship.
9. “Statue of a Fool”
The Nashville Sound, created in part to pair smooth-voiced storytellers with the finest pianists and steel guitarists in town, has its fingerprints all over this showcase of Shelton’s vocal talents. The song was originally recorded by Jack Greene.
8. “Wild Man”
Shelton’s tastes and talents sometimes found him playing rocking country music in line with Travis Tritt and other modern-day honky tonkers. For other examples of upbeat dance floor favorites, see rockabilly throwback “(I Got) A Hole in My Pocket” and “Wear My Ring Around Your Neck”
7. “Don’t We All Have the Right”
Few from the time period honored by Shelton wrote better songs than Roger Miller, the brilliant mind behind more than just humorous material. Shelton covered one of Miller’s finest songs about heartbreak on debut album Wild-Eyed Dream.
6. “From a Jack to a King”
Shelton’s back catalog doubles as a country music history lesson. Ned Miller turned this song into an unlikely crossover hit in 1957. Shelton took it back to the top of the charts in 1988.
5. “Somebody Lied”
Going back to those Jones and Twitty comparisons, this hit includes the type of chorus that’s spoken instead of sung, as if it represents the narrator’s internal dialogue. For more examples of tradition-grounded sensitivity, check out “I Meant Every Word He Said.”
4. “I’ve Cried My Last Tear For You”
3. “Life Turned Her That Way”
Shelton explains how life’s little ups and downs made a woman seem standoffish to strangers in a gorgeous, well-written example of a country song as a character sketch. The Harlan Howard original was first recorded by Little Jimmy Dickens.
2. “Keep It Between the Lines”
In the spirit of George Strait, Shelton wrapped up his run of number one hits with a song that likened the love between a father and son to a personal relationship with God.
1. “I’ll Leave This World Loving You”
Shelton’s career peak included this cover of an obscure Wayne Kemp and Mack Vickery co-write. It’s arranged like a Jones hit, making it as old-school as just about anything by today’s best Americana artists. Its music video is equally moving.