Joan Shelley: Not Over By Half
The anthropological perspective of singer-songwriter Joan Shelley.
Joan Shelley is an admired singer and songwriter known for her intimate and thoughtful songs rooted in traditional folk music of Kentucky and the British Isles.
Born in 1985 in Louisville, Kentucky, Shelley studied at the University of Georgia in Athens. She worked cataloging records for the Alan Lomax Archive in Louisville before releasing her first album, By Dawnlight, in 2010. She came to national prominence with her fourth and fifth records, Electric Ursa (2014) and Over and Even (2015). Her most popular recording, the self-titled 2017 release Joan Shelley, was produced by Jeff Tweedy, frontman of renowned alt-country band Wilco. Her most recent full-length album, The Spur, came out in 2022.
Shelley has also recorded three albums of traditional songs with all-female trio Maiden Radio.
As a child growing up in Kentucky, Joan Shelley decided that music would be her destiny.
Joan Shelley: I remember being about, like, six years old, and I’m sitting outside, under this big ash tree. And it was a beautiful spring day, and I got so sad, sitting out there by myself. And I thought, “By the time I grow up, all the songs will be written.” And I had this urgency, like a panic. And I remember, I was, like, talking to the butterflies, “I promise, if I grow up, I’m gonna write really great songs, if you keep some out there for me.” And I thought, “I remember that one day, and I wonder if that worked.”
It certainly didn’t hurt. For the past five years, Shelley has been touring steadily, at home and abroad, charming audiences with her straightforward approach to songwriting and performance. And of all her tunes, there’s one song of love and loss that is a standard crowd favorite.
Shelley: “Not Over by Half” is one that, if we don’t play it, someone will come up and say, “Why didn’t you play that song?” I’ve had interactions with people, after the show, where they say, “Hey, I lost my father, and this song really helped me through it alright.” You know, something major had happened in their life, and that song really helped them through it. And, I mean, that’s—it’s heavy to hear that, and to know that some people are coming for that song. And you don’t wanna mess it up, while trying to play, trying to still find something in there that’s… Keep it alive.
2017 brought Joan Shelley’s eponymous fifth album, produced by Wilco frontman, Jeff Tweedy.
Shelley: It was like being at a friend’s house—building the studio, experiencing that. I mean, it just felt so relaxed, and I was shocked, ’cause I went in, thinking, “What have I done? This is the producer experience. I’m gonna get squashed under that weight.”
AJC: And the opposite happened?
Shelley: And the opposite happened. In a lot of ways, he was just—he’s a great listener. And he has a great…he just has a great instinct. And all of us that were in the room were all—I picked them because they were all people I trusted to have good instinct. And you don’t have to dial somebody back, or, you know, ask more than someone can do. It just…it was a perfect mix. So, Jeff kind of led the intuitive flow.
The result is an intimate and thoughtful record, that embraces Shelley’s bluegrass grassroots. The profound influence of her college years, studying anthropology, on her outlook on life, can also be heard in every Joan Shelley song.
Shelley: I am a people watcher. And what anthropology taught me was, your being a people watcher is also not a pure thing. And so I became, “watching the watcher.” It’s so easy to judge, and to tell a story, and, like, “Oh, this is how I see it, and that’s how it was,” saying, “I got it, and I’m gonna write a song about how Mary hurt Johnny, and duh-duh-duh.” My feeling is that another place to watch the love story is within.
And though Joan Shelley may never fully grasp every possible interpretation of a situation, she’ll continue to question her own worldview, and express it in some thoughtful songs.