Recently, Matthew Shelton and I braved a treacherous, mountainous hike through wild, wolf-ridden woods, getting lost in the tangled trees.
Kidding. Actually, we walked on a well-tread path through Burnet Woods. But there was some difficulty: Shelton's pole-lean, long legs eat up ground with each sweeping stride, making my steps look like, well, picture a miniature poodle next to a thoroughbred.
Shelton seems at home in the quiet woods, at ease with the green, silent moments, smoking a hand-rolled cigarette. Planting our positions near the hilltop gazebo, we relax on separate park benches facing each other.
Here, Shelton announces, "It'd be nice if I had a bottle of wine up here waiting for us."
I smile at his charm, emphasized by his baritone voice and the slightly apparent drawl buried beneath the low tones. Shelton breathes a certain air, moving and talking gently, like a Southern gentleman. And his laid-back attitude hints of his music — poetic Folk driven by the feel of vast land, deep roots and spacious, curious love.
Originally from a small town in South Carolina, Shelton says, "I grew up in a swampy, rural area, a five-stoplight county."
Drawn to Simon and Garfunkel early on, Shelton dreamed of artistry, drawing comics and taking guitar lessons from Jim Ashley, "a withdrawn, misfit kind of guy. I've known a lot of amazingly talented people who are too hard on themselves." Ashley shaped Shelton's future by introducing him to legendary Blues songsters such as Mississippi John Hurt and Robert Johnson.
In college, Shelton poured himself into painting: "I was a young Picasso at that point, and my goal was to learn to play Bob Dylan songs."
Moving here in 1994 for the Art Academy of Cincinnati, he says, "Fate brought me here. Art school was some kind of cosmic bait. All through my 20s, music and art were on this see-saw."
Soon after, Shelton and Victor Strunk formed the popular duo Me or the Moon. Concentrating on music, Shelton home-recorded six albums in four years.
In 2005, interest in Zimbabwean music led him to another passion altogether. Shelton plays the shekere (African percussive instrument) and the mbira (African thumb piano) with the Image Afro-beat Band. Another side project involved collaboration with local duo The Sheds, as Shelton played kalimba (modern mbira) and sang on a couple of their releases.
In 2006, Shelton formed the group The Cat Lovers. Although they played 25 shows in six months, one member recently returned to Germany and two others will move soon. Shelton doesn't seem worried.
"It's amazing to have been blessed with such amazing musicians to work with," he says. "With folks leaving, I'm going to let it rest a while rather than replace people. I do have something else in the works."
Shelton and The Cat Lovers recently released Cold Water, Hot Blood, a lyrically intricate Folk album. A follow-up release, tentatively called The Vine, a more orchestral creation, will be polished and out soon. Shelton's wordsmith talent shines on Cold Water; he delivers well-crafted poems, mixing nature with sensuous humanity, creating classic lines such as "I had a tattoo of your face drawn inside my eyelid" and "Wrap your thighs around the lovely moonlit sky."
One of his greatest influences is Visionaries and Voices, a local non-profit art studio/gallery created for individuals with disabilities. He and other area musicians each selected a Visionaries artist's work, writing related songs for Sound and Visionnati, a compilation CD to be released in conjunction with the Visionnati Festival Aug. 25-26.
Choosing artist Barb Moran as inspiration, Shelton wrote "Gayla" for the project, a peaceful tune about assembly lines, planes and southern skies.
"We finished tracking it last night," he says. "It's as good as anything I've ever done."
Then, due to the skeeters, Shelton and I began our trek downhill, swimming through skyscraper-sized spider webs all the way to the Clifton Avenue sidewalk, his tall strides eating up ground and mine falling behind.
MATTHEW SHELTON (myspace.com/msheltonmusic) plays Skull Lab Friday, the Southgate House Saturday and the Visionnati Festival Aug. 25.