Al Shade, yodeling and country artist, still sings at 94

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MYERSTOWN, PA – In Al Shade’s basement, there’s a music studio stuffed with old vinyl records and a stuffed turkey. There are guitar strings and cashed checks and decades-old publicity photos of the country crooner and his late beloved wife, Jean – big hair and big hats – nailed to the paneled walls.

There’s also a yellowed local newspaper article, near the collar of her beloved hound, Princess, and the headline speculates whether Shade, 70, at the time, would finally retire. But on this October Blue Bird Day in Lebanon County, Shade was sitting at his broadcast desk sorting tapes, and the light from the lamp reflecting off the old condenser microphone was making his music twinkle. eyes. He was wearing a classic western shirt embroidered with blue roses, and the rattlesnake tails on his cowboy hat were shaking as he shook his head to the music. It was his 94th birthday.

“It’s because I’m a rattlesnake daddy,” he said of the hat.

Shade, who has performed with Dolly Parton, Willie Nelson and Loretta Lynn, has yet to tie his retired horse. He still has some noise to make on radio and in person in Pennsylvania, where he has sung and yoded and made a living from country music for over 75 years. His Martin guitar and his old wooden box of music equipment are in the back of his Ford pickup truck in the driveway. His face and phone number are on the side and every now and then a nursing home rings and Al Shade gets in the saddle for another show.

“Need some entertainment? Is engraved on the van.

Shade’s enduring popularity in rural Pennsylvania comes as no surprise to people between Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, in places where corn elevators, mountains, and church spiers are the tallest things and stations radio stations sweep from country to Christian and vice versa. There is no country music sound unique to Pennsylvania, per se, but the state’s endless farmlands and forests, its traditions and outdoor industries, even its ubiquitous county fairs, touch on some enduring themes of the genre.

“Music from Pennsylvania?” It’s a little hard to define, ”said Linda Littleton, folk musician and co-founder of the Pennsylvania Heritage Project. “But I think people in more rural areas generally like country music.”

Shade loved Pennsylvania so much that he wrote a song about one of its most rural and rugged areas – Potter County – and a follow-up to one of its biggest disasters, the Three Mile nuclear accident. Island.

Shade grew up in Gratz, a small town in Dauphin County 35 miles north of Harrisburg. His father, Marlin, was a smuggler of coal, digging his own mines under cover of darkness. Money was tight, Shade told The Inquirer, and it sometimes made his mother, Erma, cry.

“I used to go out and pick dandelions to eat. You made a dandelion salad and baked potatoes, ”he recalls.

Two uncles – Bud and Clevis Huntzinger – introduced him to music as a child, using guitars and nose harps.

“The Huntzingers were known for their really big noses,” Shade said.

Shade was captivated by the radio on Saturday night when a Cincinnati country music show reached his home. He paid $ 0.75 for weekly music lessons in the back of a furniture store and showed so much promise that his instructor gave him the Gene Autry practice guitar when he was drafted. Shade tried to get on local radio stations or find a spot in a local band, to no avail.

“Then Uncle Sam came to get me in 49,” he said.

After a year in the US military and a miserable few days working in a shirt factory in Pennsylvania, Shade landed a radio show – 10 minutes once a month – on WLBR in Lebanon. Shade said he wasn’t much of a soldier or a worker and didn’t have the constitution to deal in coal like his father did. “I just knew I liked singing,” he said, and he sang so much that his dad would take him out to sing in addiction.

“I used to play square dances and I thought to myself: I make more money in one night playing square dances than at the shirt factory in a month,” he said. he declares.

Shade got more airtime, more live concerts with full bands in carnivals, halls and parks. In the early 1950s, Shade met Jean Romaine Gesford, a farmer’s daughter from Hershey who sang a duet with her sister. He reserved them on his radio show. Shade said her voice harmonized well with Jean’s, and they made a lasting duet, getting married in 1955.

“I’m going to sing and play all my life,” he warns her.

“It’s just,” she said, “I love singing too. “

Al and Jean Shade had two children, Faron and Debbie Ann, both of whom appear on countless recordings. Jean died in 2017 and, according to her obituary, it is remembered that she always had a “song in her heart”. Shade said he rarely sang alone after meeting Jean. They’ve performed thousands of shows together under the Al & Jean Shade name, recording across the country including Nashville, yodeling in unison until their coda comes along. Over 800 people attended their 50th wedding anniversary in Leesport, Berks County, where they of course performed.

“We were both equally good,” he said.

Shade said their original scene was the old Williams Grove Park, near Mechanicsburg, where he brought country icons Loretta Lynn and Willie Nelson to star. His backing band had “four of the best banjo selectors you’ve ever heard”. Despite sharing stages with country stars, Shade said his best memory was playing tunes for a Gratz boy who had had seizures after being in a car accident. He played “What a friend we have in Jesus”.

“And that boy stopped squirming and squirming right away,” he said.

Once described by a local news station as “Mr. Rogers in a Cowboy Hat,” Shade had his rhinestone-embellished outfits custom made. In his spare time, he hunted elk and grizzly bears in the West.

Pat Garrett, another longtime country musician from Pennsylvania, owns WWSM-1510, an AM station in Lebanon County that still hosts Shade’s show. He said Shade has always been a “good old boy” and a consummate pro.

“He sells all of his own ads,” Garrett said.

And while most country musicians try to take their place in Nashville, Garrett said Shade never left Pennsylvania.

“I really admire him,” Garrett said. “All he did was country music, and he was able to survive.”

Faron and Debbie Ann never asked their father to retire because music is his life, they said, not a job. Faron, a watchmaker, even encouraged his father to continue playing the guitar. Faron said his father’s voice had deepened a bit over the decades but was not wavering. Debbie Ann often joins him to harmonize.

“His yodeling is still great today,” said Faron.

Shade said he descends the steep steps of his basement studio 30 to 40 times a week, listening to his favorite tunes, singing out loud and sorting through memories stacked and pinned to the walls. He chooses most of the music broadcast on his radio show.

“I don’t usually listen to what’s going on today, but I never listen to it because times change,” he said. “I’m the type of guy who realizes that everything changes, but I made my money on classic country.”

Upstairs, when someone calls for entertainment, Shade’s answering machine tells them “we are a country and we are proud of it”. He also asks them to speak clearly and if the price is right, he will hit the road and take the stage.

“Music is just something that is in my heart and in my soul,” he said. “It just makes me feel really good.”


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