Reece Shipley was born April 19, 1921 in Whitesburg, Tennessee. His parents were string musicians, and Reece grew up in a household filled with music.Radio, movies, and 78 rpm records were spreading the sounds of Bob Wills and Gene Autry far beyond the plains of Texas.
As a youngster, Reece learned to sing and play guitar in a Western style. During the late 1930s, he joined the Carolina Pals, who were actively performing in the Kingsport, Tennessee area. With the advent of World War II, Reece joined the renowned Navy Seabees, seeing action in the Pacific. While stationed on the island of Saipan, Reece found the time to entertain the troops via a wartime radio show there. When he eventually transferred stateside to a base in California, Reece had the opportunity to meet Gene Autry, a major influence on Reece’s music.
After the war was over, Reece returned home to Tennessee. He worked at WOPI in Bristol and also WKPT in Kingsport, where his daily radio shows delighted thousands of fans. Reece became well-known throughout the region for his fine singing and rhythm guitar playing.
Reece branched out musically during the early 1950’s, making a number of recordings in the Rockabilly style popular at the time. “Milk Bucket Boogie,” written and recorded by Reece, became a big hit for Red Foley. Other recordings from this period include “Catfish Boogie” and “Hillbilly Jive with a Boogie Beat.” The rediscovery of these recordings has made Reece Shipley something of a hero among “deep-catalog” rockabilly fans. See also “Middle Age Spread” (Valley label, 1953) on the NL Collector CD 2880 “Mason Dixon Boogie” .
It is Western swing music, however, for which Reece Shipley is most often remembered by his friends and musical associates. During the last decades of his life, Reece was a mainstay at music festivals from Galax (Virginia), Fiddler’s Grove (North Carolina), and Renfro Valley (Kentucky), to the Smithsonian Folk Festival of American Folklife in
Always a warm and friendly presence, Reece was well-liked, highly respected, and quite sought-after as a teacher and mentor by a generation of regional old-time and Western swing musicians. One such musician, Helen White, recalls first meeting Reece at the Union Grove Fiddler’s Convention. “I was just struck by how smooth he was on the guitar – his chords and moving-bass runs – and then he opened his mouth to sing!” Helen became a devoted guitar student of Reece’s, and produced the original recording from which this CD project grew. She remembers Reece as “one of the fine old gentlemen in the family of old-time music. He came to all the festivals and was always happy to play music with any of us. He really loved this music.”
Reece performed at a variety of venues in the Johnson City/ Kingsport/Knoxville area during the 1980’s and 1990’s. He performed regularly at Dollywood with guitarist Red Peterson, with whom Reece had played rockabilly music years earlier in Baltimore. Reece played music before and after the broadcasts of old western movies on a Knoxville TV station; he played Moose Lodges, Elks Lodges, dances, parties, public radio and television, and at East Tennessee State University. For a time he even had a steady Thursday night gig at the Chinese restaurant in Johnson City. Reece was inducted into the Birthplace of Country Music in Bristol, Virginia/Tennessee.
Reece Shipley passed away on May 8, 1998, survived by his wife Mary, daughters Sandy and Anne (and their husbands), five grandchildren, and six great-grandchildren, one of whom is his namesake. In addition, he is surely missed by the many musicians to whom Reece was a friend, a mentor, and an inspiration.
From the notes of Patuxent CD 077 “Reece Shipley – Tennessee Swing”