Al Shade’s best performance wasn’t on stage.

The country music legend from Myerstown is 95 years old, and he’s still performing in front of crowds whenever he has the opportunity. In fact, he’ll be playing on July 25 at the Lebanon Area Fair, where he has the distinction of being the first entertainer hired to sing there some 50 years ago.

But ask him about his most memorable performance, and Shade chokes up a bit as he remembers the story.

It was maybe 70 years ago, he says, and he was doing a radio show for WLBR. He was in his early 20s, and Shade hadn’t been on the radio for very long. But he had a following, as he learned one day when a stranger knocked on his door.

The man told Shade that his 12-year-old son had been hospitalized after a serious car accident. They were bringing him home the next day, the man said, and he asked if Shade would send out a dedication to the boy to commemorate his homecoming.

“That would make him happy,” the man told Shade. “I said I’d be glad to,” he replied. So he sent out the dedication and thought that was probably the last he’d hear of the boy.

Fate had other plans.

Al Shade and one of many iterations of his band. (Provided photo)

“A couple of days later, there was a knock on my door again, and this same man said he wondered if I’d come up to the house and sing a song,” Shade says. “The young boy was in convulsions constantly. The doctors couldn’t do a thing about it. And the whole time he was calling my name. ‘Al Shade! Al Shade!'”

So he paid the boy a visit.

“I walked in and heard him calling my name. The boy was twisting and turning in his bed,” Shade says. “I got out my guitar, and I wondered, ‘What song am I going to sing?’ Then I thought, ‘What a Friend We Have in Jesus.'”

Shade pauses in his recollection, his voice crackling with emotion. “This always gets to me,” he says.

So he strummed his guitar and started singing the century-old hymn. “I only got a few lines in, and just like that the boy was cured,” Shade says. “No more convulsions. That’s the most amazing thing in my life.”

A lifetime of music

As far as anyone can tell, Shade – who will turn 96 on Oct. 21 – is the oldest active country music performer in the United States.

It’s a type of music he has always enjoyed.

“I just can’t explain it. It’s a sound that I like,” he says. “There’s no overpowering of drums in the background. You can understand all the words of country music when people sing. Of course, some of it has a swing to it, some has a beat, and some has a very good meaning to it.”

His discography includes more than a dozen full-length LPs, recorded over the past five decades or so, plus an assortment of single and EP releases. According to Shade’s website, he released his first 45-rpm single (“Every Day,” with “This Land is Your Land” on the flip side) in 1964, and his first full-length LP (“Pennsylvania Mountain People” with Jean Romaine) in 1965. More than a dozen LPs followed, with the last being “Jesus Cares” by Al & Jean Shade in 2001.

Over the course of his career, Shade figures he’s traveled more than a million miles, criss-crossing Pennsylvania, New York, Ohio, Maryland, and Connecticut to perform at parks, festivals, carnivals, and clubs. He has also produced 10,000 live and recorded shows on a number of central Pennsylvania radio stations.

He can’t imagine a life where he followed another calling or settled into any career that didn’t involve music.

“No, as long as I can remember, even when I was very little, I was always musically inclined,” Shade says.

Al Shade poses with a guitar. (Provided photo)

Through his radio show and live performances, Shade estimates he’s easily met thousands of people each year. It never gets old, he says – he still loves performing in front of an audience.

“This is something I’ve done for a long time,” he says. “When you’re performing in front of an audience, there’s a certain relationship between the people and yourself. You’re making a lot of people happy. I always sang because I liked to sing. But I’ve discovered in the last couple of years how many people I’ve made very, very happy.”

The feeling he gets on stage has never faded, Shade says.

“I feel just as good. In fact, I feel better than when I started,” he says. “Back then, I was so nervous, I figured people could hear my heart beating in the crowd. … But when I look out at the audience, you can see they’re paying attention. They’re soaking up every bit of music that we’re performing.”

Inspiration came from radio

Born in 1927 in the Lykens Valley region of Gratz – a small town in Dauphin County, about 35 miles north of Harrisburg – Shade was the son of a coal-mining bootlegger.

He got his first exposure to country music listening to the family’s radio on Saturday evenings, he recalls, listening to the likes of Crazy Elmer, Dusty Owens, the Osborne Brothers and Jimmy Martin with the volume cranked to the max. He started taking guitar lessons when he was 12. Eventually, Shade put together a little band with Buddy Schoffstall, a fiddler and mandolin player, Orlando Willier, who played banjo, and they got their first gig – earning $1 each – playing a birthday party at an automobile repair shop in Eck.

The band started playing square dances at their local fire hall, as well as fairs and carnivals, school gyms and roller rinks, and any place that would have them. As the band changed members and expanded its following, Shade worked to polish his skills. He also performed on Lebanon’s WLBR radio station, beginning in 1952, eventually turning a 10-minute, once-monthly slot into a 3-hour show.

The show featured “a lot of other bands,” Shade explains. But over time the other musicians quit, one by one, and each time he took over their portion of the slot. “Eventually, I had the whole 3 hours,” he says with satisfaction.

Some 25 years later, he left WLBR for a new local station, WADV, and later switched to WCTX in Palmyra, WHVR in Hanover and WGET in Gettysburg before going back to WADV and, eventually, returning to his first station, WLBR.

Al Shade on the radio.

It wasn’t all music, though.

“When I got out of high school, I worked in a shoe factory for a while,” Shade says. “I asked for a raise and the guy didn’t give me one, so I quit. Then I started to work in a shirt factory. I was the only boy working on a single needle sewing machine. All the rest of them were women. They’re were always after me, I was always turning red and embarrassed. But I was always the best at my job.”

He left the factory for a year when Uncle Sam called him up for selective service in 1949. After a year in the U.S. Army, Shade went back work at the shirt factory.

“Of course, at the time I also had a band. And I thought, I’m stupid. Here I am, working as fast as I can eight hours a day, 40 hours a week, and I could earn more doing one square dance or fire hall carnival. So I quit. They came after me to work again at the shirt factory, but I said no. I was making money playing music.”

He left the factory behind for good in 1963, devoting his efforts ever since to music on stage, on the air and in the studio.

Yodeling for the cows

Meanwhile, a farm girl from Hershey was building her own career in music. Also inspired by country singers on the radio, Jean Romaine Gesford taught herself to yodel in her parents’ cow pasture and honed her singing in church. She and her sister Joann met Shade at a talent show in Reading in 1951 and, impressed by their singing, he invited them to join his band.

Jean Romaine Shade. (Provided photo)

“I never bothered with other girls,” Shade says. In fact, he adds, “I never paid any attention to Jean, the one I married, for three or four years. I always had country music on my mind. I was always busy, writing songs and doing radio shows.” But once he noticed her, he couldn’t get her out of his mind.

Al and Jean were married on Sept. 18, 1955.

Al and Jean Shade on their wedding day in 1955. (Provided photo)

And they kept singing together, sometimes performing as Al Shade & the Short Mountain Boys (or Al Shade & the Short Mountain Boys and Girls), as well as Al Shade Hootenanny, Nashville Sounds with Jean Romaine, Al Shade & the Potter County Boys, and Yodeling Al & Jean Shade. With Jean, he even played the Grand Ole Opry.

Shade soon turned his hand to songwriting. Early efforts include “I’m a Star on WLBR,” an autobiographical song, and “Potter County was Made By the Hand of God,” which was inspired by the fertile hunting grounds he found there. In fact, the region also inspired him to write songs such as “My Potter County Mountain Home” and “Germania, Potter County.” In 1979, while shaving, he came up with the idea for a song about the Three Mile Island disaster.

Other popular songs by Shade include “The Little Dogwood Tree,” “The Pennsylvania Waltz,” “The House of God is Never Locked,” “Life without Love” and “Spring Fever Hilly Billy Style.”

Operating under the motto, “We’re country and proud of it,” the Shades started a recording company called Aljean Records and a music company called Goose Pimple Music. The couple was inducted into the Lebanon County Musicians Hall of Fame in 2015.

Sometimes, he said, they’d go out on a stage without a playlist. “We’d go out by ourselves, just with our guitars,” Shade says. “I never even told her what I was going to sing.”

But she always knew, he says, and she always joined in the harmony.

Together Al and Jean had two children, Faron and Debbie Ann, both of whom sing sometimes with their father. Jean died in 2017 at age 87.

A quiet moment at home. (Provided photo)

Giving & getting back

Shade has devoted his life to country music. He doesn’t hesitate when asked what the music has given back to him

“A brand new house!” he said, with a hearty laugh.

Then he turns serious.

“It gave everything back to me,” he says. “It makes me feel happy. It gave me my wife. I could have married a million other people and it couldn’t have turned out the way it did with Jean. We just clicked … and we had two wonderful children.”

Al and Jean Shade. (Provided photo)

Still, after all these years, Shade says he can’t name a favorite song.

“I have no special song, no,” he says with a chuckle. “I just about like them all.”

But he has an endless list of favorite singers, many of whom he performed with at one time or another. Among them: Webb Pierce, Carl Smith, Loretta Lynn, Dolly Parton, Porter Wagoner, Johnny Cash, June Carter Cash, Dottie West, Bill Anderson, Connie Smith, Jack Greene, Willie Nelson, and Kenny Rogers.

Asked to name a favorite singer, Shade doesn’t hesitate.

“Loretta Lynn is one of my favorite people,” he says.

When Shade managed Williams Grove Park, near Mechanicsburg, from 1966 to 1971, he booked the Country Music Hall of Famer before she rose to stardom, and his band backed Lynn up on stage.

“She talked to everybody,” he recalls.

Ad from a Aug. 28, 1967, edition of the Lebanon Daily News for Williams Grove Park that dates to Al Shade’s time managing the former amusement park in Mechanicsburg. Note the Sept. 4 performance by then-relatively unknown country singer Loretta Lynn.

He acknowledges that country music today is nothing like it was back in his heyday – but he’s not complaining.

“It doesn’t matter what it is, it’s going to change. But I’m not changing with it,” Shade asserts. Even so, he adds, “I’m not going to run it down. The people who listen to it change also. Most of the people who like my music, they’re up in their 80s. That’s the way it is.”

Still giving 100%

Shade still puts out three one-hour internet radio shows each week, although he admits he’d love to return to radio.

“The people who come to hear me, they’re not interested in listening on the internet. Some don’t even have a computer,” he says.

He’s still doing “as many jobs as I can get,” he says. Many of his shows are at senior centers and retirement homes, where the residents remember his music well.

“The older generations are sticking with me, and that makes me feel good,” Shade says. “It gets into their blood.”

Al Shade. (Provided photo)

He’s performing with his daughter Debbie Ann at the Lebanon Area Fair at 3:30 p.m. Tuesday, July 25, in the pavilion.

“This is going to be my 50th year at the Lebanon Area Fair,” he says. “Last year, a couple of families came up to me and said their mom always used to listen to my radio program. And now their children are coming to my show. And their children have children.”

He loves performing at the fair, Shade says.

“That’s where all my people come out to see me. We usually get a big turnout there,” he says.

“Most of them are senior citizens, but their children are coming along with their children. It’s amazing, I tell you,” he adds. “It makes you wonder – what is it about a person that the people like? I don’t know. Maybe they know my heart is in it – 100%.”

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Tom has been a professional journalist for nearly four decades. In his spare time, he plays fiddle with the Irish band Fire in the Glen, and he reviews music, books and movies for Rambles.NET. He lives with his wife, Michelle, and has four children: Vinnie, Molly, Annabelle and Wolf.


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