Jo Shay was front and center as THE grandma in traditional country music band Grandma and the Boys. She often had an instrument in her hands or a fishing pole, both pursuits cultivated from a childhood immersed in picking tunes with her family and backwoods adventures.
Her voice, 12-string guitar and the mandolin she had since age 13 are silent now. The longtime Walla Walla resident died on April 4, 2021, at Providence St. Mary Medical Center leaving countless musicians, fans, friends and family members to mourn the loss of her distinctive vocals, talented playing, lengthy music catalog and upbeat, warm, friendly nature.
She graced many a stage through the years, happy to share the music she loved so well. As special guest, Shay and fellow performers drew a capacity audience at Fort Walla Walla Museum on Nov. 7, 2019, to explore the roots of traditional country music in America. That day, Jimmye Turner, Glenn Morrison and five of their band member friends played traditional country songs from the late 19th to mid-20th centuries.
“Jo was a positive force in the local music scene. She was an enthusiastic musician, always a joy to have her play with us,” said Turner. “Just listening to her play and sing brought a smile to everyone there. With her husband, Rod, we always looked forward to making music with her.”
The concert was uplifted by Appalachian mountain tunes, old gospel songs, cowboy western and honky-tonk hits played on banjo, dulcimer, autoharp, fiddle, guitar, mandolin, metal and wooden steel guitars, harmonica and standup bass. Shay, Turner and Morrison were joined by other local musicians Carrie Hendrix, Kate Hockersmith, Bruce DeLeonard and Trudy Ostby.
Shay, who led Grandma and the Boys, was a fixture on the Walla Walla Valley scene for years, often jamming with local musicians at regional sessions, Old Time Fiddlers’ shows, senior citizens centers, retirement homes and care facilities.
“We feel this is a forgotten segment of society,” Shay told the U-B in a 2017 interview. “They look forward to our visits, and we do our best to bring back their happiest memories, to remind them of happier times.”
Sadly, bandmate and son Shawn Wray, 71, died on March 12, 2021. Congenital heart failure claimed both their lives 2½ weeks apart, said Jo’s grandson and Shawn’s son Matt Wray of Walla Walla. “Its been a really rough month.”
Band support came from Jo’s husband, Rod Shay. “He was a loyal fan of Grandma and the Boys. He was the roadie. He hauled her gear, set it up and broke it down and always sat in on her performances,” Matt Wray said.
“Her music was from the ‘true vine’ of traditional country music, right up from the roots,” Morrison said. “She usually played mandolin and sang great old songs right from the heart. From the Carter Family to Gene Autry and Merle Haggard, Jo had a big repertoire of classic country tunes and could perform them all.”
In his recording studio Matt Wray recorded two CDs by Grandma and the Boys, “Old Time Gospel” and “Somewhere Between.”
Jo Shay’s band came into being because of her grandson. He graduated from college 15 years ago with a degree in audio engineering. At that time, he said his grandma and dad played individually, but never with one another.
“I asked, ‘Why not play together?’ And they instantly formed a band,” grandma on mandolin and vocals, Shawn on bass and Little Joe McCutcheon on lead guitar. “They started playing at area care facilities — the VA — you name it, and they played it,” Wray said. “Grandma was a rock star in her 80s and 90s, playing two-three shows a week, every week.”
They played up until the last couple of years, when their health interfered, and Wray filled in for his dad a few times.
“She was such a sweet, talented force. I remember her singing and playing from when I was very small,” said Dyani Turner, whose father Jimmye Turner jammed and performed with Jo.
“(Jo was) very unassuming and approachable and so funny, but so respected in the folk music circles here. Always made me feel comforted and secure just by her presence,” Dyani Turner said.
“Sometimes it’s tough to navigate in a crowd of highly skilled male musicians, but she always made it seem easy and matter of fact. And that gave and still gives me hope that being a woman in a male-dominated world means nothing as long as you have music in your heart,” Dyani Turner said.
Jo Shay was born in a log cabin in the Michigan woods on Sept. 8, 1929, the same month the Great Depression started.
“It was built by her father, with no running water, no electricity and a dirt floor. It had a huge bearing on why she loved the outdoors. She could go barefoot six months out of the year before she had to put shoes on. They hunted and fished to survive. They didn’t have it easy back then,” Matt said.
Part of her life was music. Her dad had a mandolin and violin, the latter that Matt inherited. A house fire took everything except for the musical instruments, clothes on their backs and hunting rifles they saved. Their tools for survival. All of it had a huge bearing on Grandma and the Boys,” Matt Wray said.
“Grandma was a wonderful, strong, intelligent, creative woman. She helped shape me into the person I am today. If I was gonna do something, I’d ask would grandma do this? How would she do this? I always try to do my best,” he said.
Jo Shay taught her grandson how to shoot a rifle and bow and arrow. She was a champion archer in the mid-60s, he said. He still goes archery shooting with his wife, Brianna Wray, to the Blue Mountain Archery Range east of Walla Walla. Fishing was another enjoyment the matriarch passed on to her family.
”It was a challenge at times to ‘keep up’ with Jo as she could pull up some really old tunes at the jams, but Jimmye and I could usually back her up,” Morrison said. “Such a wonderful musical friend and resource. We were so proud to feature her at the Fort Walla Walla Museum Roots of Country show and I know she loved it. Jo later switched almost exclusively to a big 12-string guitar and it was so wonderful to see her husband Rod faithfully bringing in the cases, setting her up and supporting her as she continued to play on into her 90s,” Glenn Morrison said.
“We’ve been friends for a long time, and I’ve missed playing music with her — and everyone — this past year,” Waitsburg’s Kate Hockersmith said. “We closed the jams down, as a safety precaution, a little over a year ago and are just thinking about restarting them this summer. The pandemic was tough on everyone, but musicians seemed particularly hard hit because singing spreads droplets further than talking and performing in public was no longer an option at all.”
“Jo was an inspiration to many of us, especially me,” Hockersmith said. “I adored that she never seemed to miss an opportunity to play music, and sometimes she’d arrive at the jams after playing all day at the local assisted living facilities, or fishing all day. I always used to joke that I wanted to be just like Jo when I grow up. It wasn’t really a joke. She loved life and lived life to the fullest. Something we could all look up to.”
Jo Shay was also featured in a 2017 story in Lifestyles magazine, which can be read at ubne.ws/joshay.