True Grit

updated 09/14/1994 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 09/14/1994 01:00AM

Somebody asked me the other day how Ricky's doing," says Jenks Shelton, 74, a wisp of a smile playing across his craggy face. "I said, 'He don't write home for money, so I guess he's doing all right.' "

Ricky Van Shelton (Van is his middle name) may be a star everywhere else, but in the white, two-story frame house in Grit, Va., where he was raised by Eloise, 73, and Jenks Shelton, he is a target for affectionate teasing. The youngest of the five Shelton children, he was the only one born in a hospital—something the others don't let him forget. "We used to say that the rest of us kids were homemade, but Ricky was store-bought," says his sister Judy Underwood, 52.

Nowadays, the only thing store-bought about Shelton, 42, is his music: More than a million fans snatched up Wild-Eyed Dream, his 1987 debut album; since then, 13 No. 1 singles have sprung from five of the singer's eight albums.

Shelton doesn't mind the teasing, but then, he did much to earn it. "I reckon about the happiest day of our life was when we found out he was gonna get a high school diploma," says Jenks, ever deadpan. Explains Eloise: "He took no interest in school." Ricky did love music and drawing—painting is still his avocation—but mischief was his metier. "One night he put salt in Mama and Daddy's bed-sheets," recalls Judy. "Another time he ransacked the house, just to scare us. All the drawers were pulled open, a chair was hanging on the wall." Then there was the time he put peanut butter in Jenks's shoes. "He waited all day long for his Daddy to come home and put those shoes on," says Eloise.

"He was the baby," says Jenks. "Fact is, he got by with murder. His mama wouldn't let me spank him."

Shelton, who has occasionally chafed under the restrictions of fame, now cherishes his rural upbringing. "We were free," he says. "We played hard in the creeks and the woods. We worked hard too. I didn't know a soul that ever got an allowance until I got older. We'd do anything for a dollar—cut grass, chop wood. We hunted and trapped and fished. We taught ourselves to swim from the encyclopedia, just studying the different strokes. We weren't afraid of anything."

Unafraid but God-fearing. Jenks, a boiler mechanic and part-time gospel musician, and Eloise raised their children as Pentecostal Christians. The family often went with Jenks when he played guitar at out-of-town revivals, and it was in church that Shelton got his first taste of performing at 4 or 5.

When his musically inclined son turned 13, Jenks bought him his first guitar, a Christmas present from J.C. Penney. "I don't know if it was a smart thing to do or not," says Jenks wryly. "He left home. Hardly ever comes back. Mighta been the wrong thing to do."

Shelton broke in the new guitar playing the rock and roll he had been listening to at night on a transistor radio secreted under his pillow. (His parents wouldn't allow anything but gospel music on the premises.) Then his older brother Ronnie made him an offer he couldn't refuse: Take up country music, and he could drive Ronnie's decidedly cool 1964 black Ford Fairlane. "I'd been bragging on Ricky to my friends," says Ronnie, 51. "I wanted them to hear Ricky play, but the kind of music we liked."

Once he started playing country, Shelton says, he was sold. "Hank Williams's 'Your Cheatin' Heart' was probably the first country song I learned to sing. It was so raw, almost like the Stones when they first came out."

Soon Shelton joined Ronnie and his pals in jams at an old shack called the little Red Barn, a onetime general store where the moonshine and music flowed so freely that folks came from miles around. "We have to live behind gates now," Shelton says. "I guess it's the price of success. I don't miss the drinking from the old days, but I do miss the fun."

The drinking did not stop until around Christmas in 1991, when Shelton realized that the bottle was winning most of their bouts. His wife of eight years, Bettye Shelton, says their marriage was on "shaky ground" during the early '90s, a period when she says Shelton was troubled to the point of contemplating suicide.

"It was remembering what he learned growing up in church that saved his life," says Bettye, 41, who was raised in Altavista, near Grit, and now runs RVS Books, which publishes a series of children's books written by Shelton.

Though they don't attend church regularly, Shelton and Bettye now study the Bible daily. He has even adopted an Old Testament habit of addressing his spouse as "wife" instead of by name. She doesn't mind. "It's special to me," Bettye says. "I like that he calls me that. I guess it's because I can remember a time when he didn't even call me."

Shelton and Bettye return home two or three times a year to visit with people who knew them before celebrity enveloped their lives. People, like Jenks, who remember the days when Shelton's skill at guitar was at best minimal. "He and his sister Cacky were cuttin' up one Saturday night when I was trying to watch Gunsmoke," Jenks recalls. "To quiet 'em down, I told 'em I'd give a quarter to whoever learned to play the guitar first."

Jenks was a tough critic. It took a while to convince him that his youngest son had mastered the guitar—until, oh, about the time most kids quit writing home for money. "After Ricky got his first hit," Jenks says, "I sent him the quarter."

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