Joan Shelley is a songwriter and singer who lives near Louisville, Ky., not far from where she grew up. She draws inspiration from traditional and traditionally-minded performers from her native Kentucky, as well as those from Ireland, Scotland, and England, but she’s not a folksinger. Her disposition aligns more closely with that of, say, Roger Miller, Dolly Parton, or her fellow Kentuckian Tom T. Hall, who once explained—simply, succinctly, in a song—“I Witness Life.”
She’s not so much a confessional songwriter, and she sings less of her life and more of her place: of landscapes and watercourses; of flora and fauna; of seasons changing and years departing and the ineluctable attempt of humans to make some small sense of all—or, at best, some—of it. Her perspective and performances both have been described, apparently positively, as “pure,” but there’s no trace of the Pollyanna and there’s little of the pastoral, either: her work instead wrestles with the possibility of reconciling, if only for a moment, the perceived “natural” world with its reflection—sometimes, relatively speaking, clear; other times hopelessly distorted—in the human heart, mind, and footprint.
Since the 2015 release of her album Over and Even, Shelley has crossed the country and toured Europe several times as a headlining artist, typically with guitarist Nathan Salsburg, and sharing shows with the likes of Jake Xerxes Fussell, Bonnie “Prince” Billy, Doug Paisley, Daniel Martin Moore, The Other Years, and Michael Hurley. She has opened for Wilco, Chris Smither, Patty Griffin, Andrew Bird and Richard Thompson. Jeff Tweedy produced her previous record at The Loft in Chicago. She’ll be familiar to readers of guitar-centric magazines for having appeared, in the same month, on the covers of Fretboard Journal and Acoustic Guitar.
Videos & Press
Heard on All Things Considered By Tom Moon There’s been no shortage of great music by soft-spoken women playing acoustic guitar in 2019. But if you pay attention to one song in that vein this year, let it be “The Fading” from Joan Shelley‘s breathtaking latest album, Like The River Loves the Sea. It’s an elegy tuned to the […]
[Stereogum] By Tom Breihan The new season of Succession, HBO’s great show about the backstabbing machinations of a family of vampiric right-wing media barons, opens with an image of a man’s face half-submerged in warm, glassy water. Behind him, fog-shrouded mountains sprawl out. Kendall Roy, once thought to be the heir of this bloodsucking clan, is […]
[Rolling Stone] The Kentucky singer-songwriter latest is a shimmering folk song recorded in Iceland, conjuring guardian angels and ecological disaster. By WILL HERMES Joan Shelley sees Kentucky as her nest. But looking for fresh perspective, she decided to work on new music in Reykjavik, Iceland, at Greenhaus Studios. “Coming Down For You” suggests it worked out quite […]
[Rolling Stone] Kentucky folk musician also covers songs by Nick Drake, JJ Cale on new EP ‘Rivers and Vessels’ By Jeff Gage Joan Shelley can say a great deal in very few words. On her new EP Rivers and Vessels, the Kentucky folk singer turns those gifts to interpreting the works of such artists as […]
[NPR] By David Dye Each August for the last 10 years, World Cafe has recorded bands playing the opening concert of the renowned Philadelphia Folk Festival, which celebrated its 56th edition this year. We captured some beautiful sets from the campground stage (you can hear the cicadas in the background). A particularly noteworthy set came […]
[Acoustic Guitar] By Jeffrey Pepper Rodgers There’s a kind of clarity and calm in Joan Shelley’s music that feels especially welcome in these fractious times. Her crystalline voice, with just a touch of vibrato, glides over soft fingerstyle guitar, with melodies and imagery that seem to spring from traditional folk yet are her own. “Rest […]