If you met Allen Shadd at a bluegrass jam or backstage at a festival, you might never guess that he’s breathing rarified air in an elite club of only four people in the world—he has won, three times, the National Flatpicking Guitar Championship in Winfield, Kansas. Shadd carries himself in a casual manner, often pointing out his own perceived weaknesses. His self-deprecating jokes and relaxed demeanor belie his innate intensity and musical passion, which for him have taken many forms throughout his childhood, teens, and adulthood.
Shadd’s guitar career began at age seven in his native Florida, where he started out by playing along with his dad’s favorite country radio station. “Merle Haggard, George Jones. Old country music is what I grew up listening to, and I love it to this day,” he says. “But I went to a bluegrass festival for the first time when I was ten, and it blew me away. Everywhere I looked, there were groups of musicians playing together, and I thought ‘I gotta do this!’ That’s what lit my fire to start learning.”
Shadd gravitated towards a guitar mentor, Billy Sandlin of Claire Lynch’s Front Porch String Band, who would often invite Shadd to be a guest onstage with the band. “Billy was my hero until he passed away last year of cancer,” Shadd says. “Growing up in Florida, this is the Southern rock capital of the world, so of course I also had an electric guitar as a teenager and went around playing country in the bars.”
In 1995, Shadd made his first go at winning the flatpicking guitar championship at Walnut Valley Festival in Winfield, Kansas. He was so thrilled to make the top five finals that he decided to give it another try in 1996, when he placed second. “Once I got second place, I realized I’ve got to keep going now, I’ve got to win this thing. I put pressure on myself that probably didn’t help me. In 1997 I had attitude, I was competitive.” Shadd won first place that year, but his memories of the experience are not entirely positive. He muses, “Everybody goes out there and gets nervous and uptight, and it made me into something I really didn’t like.” He decided that he probably would not compete again.
Never say never. Shadd did indeed compete again, with various levels of commitment and preparedness in 2003 and 2005. But in 2012, Shadd began noticing a personal transformation. “In 2012 I went out there with zero nerves. It was a hard year. My son was born, it was a 22 hour labor, we almost lost him in the delivery; he wasn’t breathing for about 20 minutes, and they finally got him going. Three weeks later my dad passed away from cancer, so when I went to Winfield that year, for me, it’s like—This isn’t life or death, this is a guitar contest. It’s just Winfield, it doesn’t matter, you know? That was my perspective in 2012. I just went out there for the first time and really had fun, I listened to all the great guitar players instead of not wanting to hear everybody else play. That was the year everything changed for me. I won in 2013 and didn’t go back until 2019, the first year I was eligible, and I won again. The first time it was a goal, the second time was a dream, and the third time was a surprise. I don’t know if there’ll be a fourth or not, it doesn’t really matter to me.”
In 2014, Shadd released Miles from the Hard Road, a solo album featuring his compelling original flatpicking compositions, signature contest arrangements, and unique renditions of covers. Shadd’s dexterity is showcased in a band setting on the album, but his live shows often find him solo, whence he creates a full band sound all by himself. He credits listening to other instruments, like piano, and other styles, like fingerpicking, for his lush arrangements that feature chordal harmonies, voice-leading, and strong melodic components.
When asked how he developed his talent throughout the years, Shadd explains, “I don’t read music, don’t read tablature, don’t do theory. I play by ear. I’m blessed in that sense; if I hear something, I can usually play it, especially with bluegrass flatpicking style guitar.” He admits that certain styles of music are “above his pay scale,” like modern free form jazz and jam band music. “There has to be a melody for me to follow in my mind,” he says.
It would appear that guitar expertise comes easily to Shadd, who can sit down and improvise on complicated acoustic tunes he’s never heard before. “At this point in time, I can do it because I’ve heard it all before. Or played it all before. If somebody hasn’t been playing 50 years like I have, it’s not going to be the same for them. But I have to sit down and learn songs too,” he says, using a recent arrangement of a Billy Joel cover as an example.
How does Shadd remain inspired to play the guitar, given those fifty years of experience? “It goes back to what I was saying earlier about evolving. When I was 19 years old, I’d been playing in the bars, playing country telecaster for a number of years, and I’d gotten burned out. I quit playing for six years, and when I got back into playing, I told myself, I’m never going to push myself again to the point where I hate what I’m doing. If it’s not fun, don’t do it. I just try to play things I actually enjoy, and I know as guitar players we’re self-critical and I’m no different—I’m very critical of my own playing, but I’ve gotten comfortable with a lot of the things that I do over time that I actually can enjoy. When I sit down to practice, I don’t do a bunch of eighth notes; most of the time I like to hear full chords, and I play rhythm a lot because I like the way the guitar feels vibrating against my chest—the fullness, the sound, the tone, the warmth of it, everything you don’t get when you’re doing deedle-deedle-deedle.”
Shadd advises guitarists to steer clear of discouragement and instead, create realistic goals and self-rewards for achieving them. Shadd celebrates those who’ve guided him on his path, such as his late mentor, Billy Sandlin, and muses about his personal evolution from heavy-handed competitor to where he is now. “Life’s short. This last year, I’ve lost so many people; it’s depressing, but in the same sense, it makes you realize how short life really is. The most any of us can hope for…is once I’m gone, somebody somewhere will say, ‘I remember him, he helped me, he showed me this, I learned this from him,’ or ‘He inspired me to do this.’ And to me, that means more than winning a contest.”
By Rebecca Frazier