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I had driven through the backroads to meet up with J.D. Shelburne.
He’d done the same to catch up with a writer he knew little about.
But that wasn’t really that unusual. I’m a sports writer who’s just as comfortable talking about cattle as baseball. Shelburne could fill the nets from 3-point land at Spencer County High School but is now working his way up the ladder in Nashville.
We’re talking Music City. And the base rung of that ladder has to be his biggest single to date, “Farmboy” which tells the story of how he grew up.
The signature line is all you need to know: I’m a farmboy ‘til the day that I die.
I had meandered down Highway 44 through Taylorsville, where the video for his hit was filmed on the family farm. He’d taken time out between shows to meet in the parking lot at Bullitt East High School, where Shelburne’s father, David, had at one time coached basketball.
J.D. Shelburne might be chasing his dream picking a guitar but it’s easy to see why opposing coaches, including Anderson County’s Glen Drury, worried about the 6-foot-5-inch shooting guard’s touch from 3-point land from 1998-2001.
“We made plenty of trips to Anderson County,” Shelburne chuckles. “Man, their fans were rough!
“Some of my greatest memories are growing up and playing sports around the Eighth Region. It was great growing up in a small town. Everybody knew me and everybody knew my dad.”
Opposing coaches knew him too. According to the KHSAA website, Shelburne – he’s listed as John D. – hit better than two 3-pointers a game. He was one of the state’s top shooters and at one point, sank 33 straight free throws.
He looks like he could still make some, ahem, string music.
“I will lace up the old basketball shoes and play at the Brentwood (Tenn.) YMCA from time to time,” Shelburne says. “It’s a great way to stay in shape these days.”
And it’s not surprising that a guy who grew up loving the Cincinnati Reds of Chris Sabo and Barry Larkin always remembers the day he and his younger brother, Tommy, went deep. “I think we were playing Shelby County and both of us hit home runs in the same game. That was the coolest thing ever.”
To music and basketball lovers, though, Shelburne’s ascent rivals that feat on the coolness scale.
It all started in the summer of 2002, between Shelburne’s freshman and sophomore years at the University of Kentucky.
“My grandmother passed away. She went to sleep one night and never woke up. It was kind of a shock for our family,” he says. “It really took its toll on the family. We would go to her house that summer and box up stuff and the antiques.
“In the back of a closet, I found an acoustic guitar that I never knew was there. … I just thought it would be something fun to do. I was retiring from sports and moving on to the next phase in my life.
“When I went back to Lexington for the fall semester in ‘02, I took the guitar with me. Over the course of the next six months, I would get on Google and just try to start figuring out where to put my fingers on the guitar. The case had a chord book in it that told where to put my fingers and I would just play to what was playing on the radio.”
Eventually, he literally sang for his supper.
“I got to where I was halfway decent and would go down the street to this place where I would sing for a chicken sandwich,” he laughs.
He started playing coffee shops, churches and retirement parties. He even played for tips near Freddy Farm Bureau at the Kentucky State Fair one year.
“I made about three bucks in two hours,” Shelburne laughs.
It was all part of the dream that had moved from Riverfront Stadium to the Grand Ole Opry.
“Anything I could do to get out and be seen. Anything with a P.A., I would go play it,” he says with a laugh.
And that is where his love of Kentucky basketball and country music came together.
It all came together on March 30 when the Wildcats earned a berth in the Final Four at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas. Freshman reserve Marcus Lee was the surprise scoring 10 points and grabbing eight rebounds.
“I was watching the game and we beat Michigan to go to the Final Four. Lee went crazy, and as the game ended, I was sitting in the recliner and my heart was pounding. I said, ‘I am gonna have to write a song about this.’”
He decided on re-wording the Alabama hit, “If You’re Gonna Play in Texas, You’ve Gotta Have a Fiddle in the Band.”
In 10 minutes, Shelburne had come up with, “If You’re Gonna Play in Texas, You’ve Gotta have Lee in the Game.” He loaded on his Facebook page, thinking little about it.
“I did it as a joke, hoping to get some tickets to the game,” he chuckles. “My dad called me and said that was a good song on Facebook and I had some comments on it. About three hours later, I had about 5,000 views and 3,000 shares. The next day, it was like 200,000 likes. It went viral.”
At last count, over the quickly-made “joke” has turned in serious numbers to the tune of over 450,000 views in various ways.
Even with his recent successes Shelburne never forgets his background.
“I worked on a farm all my life. We raised tobacco. I put in hay. A lot of people don’t realize I am a farm boy. I have my hair slicked back, wear tight blue jeans and cowboy boots, but I was born and raised on the farm. I was driving a truck on the back road when I was eight years old.”
“I’m a farmboy until the day that I die.”