Shelby Stephenson, of McGee’s Crossroads, has become a Carolina treasure over a career that’s showcased his music and writing talents throughout the state but especially East Carolina. He and his family band, Stephenson Brothers and Linda, introduced bluegrass to R.A. Fountain during our grand opening in 2004, when he also brought along for the show the phenomenal fiddler Les Sandy.
Born in 1938, Shelby grew up country and with music all around him. He’s chronicled those experiences in a dozen books of poetry that, over the years, have constituted a portrait of a community and its people through time in the same way William Faulkner used his fictional Yoknapatawpha County. Two of his collections have been extended odes to the ‘possum as spirit animal, RAF joined the Order of the Possum to celebrate the first of those books, which Shelby read and then talked ‘possum more than poetry during a delightful swapping of ‘possum tales with our audience.
When he was installed as North Carolina’s Poet Laureate in 2014, he told David Menconi: “I grew up around possums and all that, and I’ve written about them a lot. There’s an old bluegrass song, too, ‘30 Pounds of Possum in My Headlights Tonight.’ My mom used to barbecue possum and we’d eat squirrel brains, too, and turtle. We hunted and fished and ate what we killed. That was life on the farm…”
My first encounter with him was through a poem he contributed to the 1984 collection Leaves of Greens:The Collard Poems, which I co-edited with Luke Whisnant. Then he came to read with our collard poets at the celebratory Collard Festival parade on our poets float and I saw that he was for real.
Shelby is one of a handful of contemporary poets (A.R. Ammons, James Applewhite, Joan Cockerell New and Marty Silverthorne especially) who have extensively used East Carolina farming as a setting sometimes suffused in conflict, and at others, in absolute joy. In the process, the farm poets of East Carolina also record an historical rendering of the old ways, but without the nostalgia that so often pervades such accounts. Economic deprivation and racism haunt much of this world, though music, family, and the beauty of a world limned in birdsong also celebrate what Faulkner called “the indomitable spirit of [humankind].”
For most every RAF performance and appearance–whether literary or musical or as someone else’s fan– Shelby was accompanied by his wife, Linda, and as Shelby and Linda Stephenson they released 4 CDs.
Menconi, David. “Poet laureate Shelby Stephenson turns North Carolina into poetry,” News & Observer 3 Mar. 2015. web. Read it. This excellent profile also includes video!
A partial Shelby Stephenson bibliography
Plankhouse, Rocky Mount, NC: NC Wesleyan College P, 1993. Out of print: 1 copy remains. Buy it.
Possum (Treadwell, New York: Bright Hill Press, 2004). [Winner of the 2002, 7th Annual Bright Hill Chapbook Contest. Winner, Brockman-Campbell Poetry Award for best book published by a North Carolinian in 2004, sponsored by N. C. Poetry Society. Buy it.
Family Matters: Homage to July, the Slave Girl, Bellday Books, Pittsburgh, Pa., & Durham, NC: 2008. [Winner of the 2008 Bellday Poetry Prize, Allen Grossman, judge]. Buy it.
Playing Dead, Finishing Line P, Georgetown, Ky: 2011.
Play My Music Anyhow, Finishing Line P, Georgetown, Kentucky: 2013.
The Hunger of Freedom, Red Dashboard, Princeton, NJ: 2014.
Steal Away, Durham, NC: Jacar P, 2014.
Shub’s Cooking, Red Dashboard, Princeton, NJ: 2014).
Eleven Poems, St. Andrews UP, Laurinburg, NC: 2015).
Elegies for Small Game, Press 53, Winston-Salem: 2016). Buy it.
Paul’s Hill: Homage to Whitman, Sir Walter P, Durham, NC, 2017. Buy it.
Our World, Press 53, Winston-Salem, 2018.
Nin’s Poem St. Andrews UP, Laurinburg, NC: 2018. Buy it.
Slavery and Freedom on Paul’s Hill, Press 53. 2019. Buy it.
Shelby’s Lady: The Hog Poems, Fernwood Press, 2020.
More, RedHawk Publications, 2020.
Praises, Main Street. forthcoming, 2021.
Greatest Hits 1978-2000. Buy it.
Poor People, 1998. Buy it.
Fiddledeedee, 2001. Buy it.
The Persimmon Tree Carol, 2002. Buy it.
Finch’s Mash, 1990. Buy it.
Date(s) performed at RAF
- - Shelby Stephenson Book Launch
- - Poets Laureate Celebration
- - Shelby Stephenson
- - Dead Poets Society of America
- - NC Poetry Society
- - Carolina Yellowhammers & Green Grass Cloggers
- - Bluegrass, Old-time, Country & Folk Music Showcase
- - Cricket Band
- - Lounge Abouts + Shelby & Linda Stephenson
- - Hank Williams Birthday
- - Stephenson Brothers & Linda
- - Marty Silverthorne & Shelby Stephenson
- - Stephenson Brothers & Linda
- - Shelby Stephenson’s Possum