At a McDonald’s in Canton, S.R. “Sha” Shahan sits quietly in one of the corner booths, casually sipping his coffee and reflecting on where it all began for him.
Hailing from the coal-mining hills of West Virginia, the 86-year-old was raised in Bristol, a town “about as small as you can get,” he chuckled. His father was a self-taught fiddler who would perform at regional line dances and other special functions with his handmade instrument that was constructed from a wooden cheese box.
Eventually, he taught Sha how to play percussion and keep a rhythm by having him tap the neck of the fiddle to the beat as he played. Sha began to take an interest in music, finding himself playing bass in the high school band. Though he enjoyed it, the passion didn’t click inside of him, not yet at least, especially with World War II breaking out. The action was across the globe, and music seemed to take a backseat to adventure. He was drafted in 1944 and found himself on a military train heading west to destinations unknown.
“No one knew where we were going on the train,” he said. “We were about halfway there when the guy came out and said we were in the Air Force and heading to Texas for training. We all applauded to that because you didn’t want to be an infantryman at that time.”
Assigned as a tail gunner for a B-24 bomber in the Pacific Theater, Shahan was in combat a handful of times. As a gunner, a particularly dangerous and often fatal assignment, he manned two .50 caliber machine guns.
“When you shot them, your whole body shook, your head rattled,” he said.
A troop carrier soon scooped him up, and they headed for the Okinawa Island shortly after the infamous battleground had been liberated and was being prepped as a launching paid for air raids over Japan. Shahan was gearing up for flight when a captain approached him on the carrier.
“The day we pulled into the harbor, the sirens went off,” he said. “The captain came in and said, ‘Son, the war is over. They just dropped the A-bomb.’”
Coming back to the mainland, Shahan immersed himself into post-war America. He got married, had children and moved along in a worthwhile career. Working for an independent insurance adjusting system, he was then recruited by Allstate and found himself in Florida, managing home offices in Orlando, Tampa and St. Petersburg.
Life was going pretty well, but after retirement, something seemed to be missing. That something was music — the music of his past. He soon found himself at local music jam sessions in Clearwater and decided to participate.
“It was like something new, something you got back into that you’ve been missing and didn’t know you were missing it,” he said.
After getting inspired by a washboard player at one of the sessions, Shahan tracked down his wife’s washboard in the garage and made his own, ultimately bringing it to the next event. The organizer threw him into the mix with a skilled banjo player and professional drummer. Unbeknownst to Shahan, the drummer was Eddie Graham, who backed jazz legend Earl Hines.
“I had no idea who Eddie was,” Shahan chuckled. “The two of them would start up and sound like they’ve been playing together all their lives. We each had to do a solo, and I thought I would die.”
But, Shahan pushed through and found himself on the other side. He now had plunged back into music, a deep itch he was finally scratching. By 1994, he bought a seasonal home in Maggie Valley and began jumping into the local music scene, which included playing with innumerable talented musicians like renowned banjoist Raymond Fairchild.
“I got asked to go up and play with Raymond,” Shahan said. “We did a tune, and it went fairly well. Raymond turned around and gave me ‘the look’ [of approval], so I knew I was safe.”
Now bouncing around the Western North Carolina mountain music circuit, Shahan and his friends were shuffled around to several spots where they could play. The location and people in attendance seemed to change like the seasons, but those playing remained the same. The passion and pursuit never seemed to wane. As time passed, Shahan found himself putting together the sessions, wrangling his friends and those curious to come out and pluck.
“It’s unbelievable how many good pickers are in Haywood County, not to mention the surrounding counties,” he said. “It’s back to the roots of what Appalachian music is all about, and it’s just enough people to try and keep that going.”