JD Shelburne was on top of the world two days after the Fourth of July, or at least the top of Versailles.
“I’m finally playing the Castle, the rooftop of the Castle,” he said, taking the stage of the Kentucky Castle for a sunset concert before a couple hundred folks. “How about this place?”
Positioned in front of one the iconic building’s turrets, he played through some of the highlights of his new album, “Two Lane Town,” which comes out Saturday, as well as some favorite covers such as David Lee Murphy’s “Dust on the Bottle.” Along the way, the University of Kentucky graduate talked about the 10-year journey of his career and the background of a number of the songs on the album, which will be launched with a Main Street concert in his hometown of Taylorsville, Saturday night.
By Shelburne standards, the Castle show was a fairly modest affair. After all, this is the guy who proposed to his wife on the red carpet at the Kentucky Derby.
“We’ve been dating seven years and she always asked me, ‘Are we ever going to get married?’” Shelburne says of his now-wife, Amy Whitham, prior to his Castle show. “Finally, I was like, if I’m going to do this, in my profession, I’ve got to do it big. And I was going to do it at Thunder Over Louisville and have them write her name in fireworks, because she loves fireworks.
“It was just too much work — they couldn’t approve it, and I let them know too last minute. So I was like, you know where would be the best place to do this: the red carpet.”
He coordinated with producers at Louisville’s WAVE-TV to have the proposal take place in front of their cameras, though in the everyone-has-a-camera world we live in, plenty of other folks caught the moment that went viral.
“I had no idea it was going to get that much coverage,” said Shelburne, who already had a reputation for hitting the red carpet in flashy outfits. “I just wanted to do it live on TV.
“Somebody asked, ‘When she gets pregnant, how are you going announce that?’”
Viral proposals are nice, but what Shelburne has been after is a successful country music career that started fairly late by most standards, particularly if you consider his album-launch opener will be Layla Spring, the Marion County teen sensation that enjoyed a high-profile run on “American Idol” earlier this year.
He picked up his grandmother’s old guitar, which came with a Garth Brooks chord book, between freshman and sophomore years in college and found he had a knack for it.
“It was something to do,” Shelburne says. “I just became addicted to playing music. It was something I picked up every morning when I got up.
“I started playing pizza joints and nursing homes — anyone that would have any entertainment. Political parties. I played for the jailer, the judge, the person running against the judge, anything I could do to get my name out. I never made a dollar, but I’d get a free fish sandwich every once in a while. I thought that was pretty cool.”
There was no real music precedent in his family, save for distant cousin Guy Shannon, who enjoyed some success in the 1970s.
A lot of Shelburne’s early playing was in the Louisville area, where he says he had more country bars available to play and a stronger fan base. But between classes in graphic design and telecommunications at UK and things such as an internship at WBUL-FM 98.1 (The Bull), Shelburne says the foundation for his career was formed in Lexington.
“Everything I did kind of tied around the guitar, my classes, and my internship was at 98.1 The Bull, so I was kind of getting the inside story about how these artists were coming in, playing their hits and kissing up to the program director,” Shelburne says. “I got to meet artists along the way, and that was good, getting tips from them.
“Everything I did at UK kind of helped prepare me for moving to Nashville.”
Moving to Music City
It was a move that Shelburne says his parents had to give him a nudge to make, but he’s glad he made it.
“I was kind of scared to death,” Shelburne says of moving to Nashville. “I knew one person in Nashville, and that one person didn’t help me at all ... so I said, ‘I guess I have to steer this ship myself.’”
Good thing Shelburne is a self-starter. He did sell insurance for a while to make ends meet. But the focus was always on music and making connections.
“Two Lane Town” is his fourth album, the last one being 2016’s “Between Here and the Stars.” But this album is different, Shelburne says.
“I’ve really grown from this record. I think it’s my best collection of songs yet,” Shelburne says. “I feel like I’m really starting to find my voice.”
There’s a real get-to-know-me quality to the concise, nine-song collection, bookended by “Born For This,” something of a statement of artistic intent — “I was born to do this, born to play, born to pour my heart out on this stage, singing songs about my life, and where I’m from” — and “Make It That Far,” a hopeful statement that he’ll be successful enough to “buy dad a new truck and mom a new car, and go on and pay off the family farm, if me and this old guitar ever make it that far.”
“Those are songs that came from the heart,” Shelburne says. “When something is spoken in true words, it’s a little bit easier to sing it and believe in it.”
Both are among the five songs Shelburne co-wrote for the album, the latter with Mark Nesler, writer of hits such as Tim McGraw’s “Just to See You Smile.” Nesler is the co-writer of several other songs on the album including “One Less Girl” and “She Keeps Me Up Nights,” songs Shelburne says have potential to be big hits. Shelburne cites Nesler is one of the important connections he has made in Nashville.
“I’m so glad I stuck it out. I can’t believe I’ve been here 10 years. There’ve been a lot of connections I made living in Nashville that I never would have made living in Taylorsville.”
But he keeps coming back. In 2012, Shelburne says he decided to put on free concert in Country Mart grocery store parking lot, paying for the stage and sound, and hoping someone would show up. According to him 1,200 people came out on a crisp October evening. After a few subsequent parking lot shows, it became time to move it to a bigger venue, Downtown Taylorsville, with Spring opening and Food Network Star and Grayson native Jason Smith as emcee.
“What better place to play my music than in my hometown where I grew up,” Shelburne says.
To him, it’s the culmination of a 10-year journey.
“I’ve worked for it,” Shelburne says. “I’ve been here 10 years, driving my own truck, running my own website, booking most of my shows, hiring my own band, firing my own band, picking most of my songs, and all that stuff I did myself.
“It ain’t just singing in a microphone.”
IF YOU GO
What: Album release show for “Two Lane Town” with opener Layla Spring and emcee Jason Smith of the Food Network.
When: 7 p.m. July 28
Where: Main Street, Downtown Taylorsville