Review: James Alan Shelton – Walking Down The Line

Our UK correspondent, Richard F Thompson, shares this review of a project he found especially worthy.

James Alan Shelton - Walking Down The LineWhen cross-pick guitar expert and Clinch Mountain Boy James Alan Shelton was selecting the songs and tunes for this, his ninth solo CD, Walking Down The Line, he was in a nostalgic mood, reflecting on particular moments in his musical life.

The opening track, Soldier’s Joy, pays tribute to the late Clarence White, tragically killed in an automobile accident, and sets a driving tempo with plenty of hot licks from fellow Clinch Mountain Boy Dewey Brown (fiddle) and Adam Steffey (mandolin) as well as Shelton himself. Audey Ratcliff (rhythm guitar) and Barry Bales (bass) provide a solid rhythm section here and throughout.

Shelton had worked up a finger-picked rendition of My Grandfather’s Clock some years ago, but it isn’t until now that he has gone ahead and recorded the tune. Young straight-ahead banjo picker, Daniel Grindstaff provides the essential harmonic chimes here. Also played finger style is Old Toy Trains; it’s one tune that I am going to have to listen to again and again. It’s a lovely sedate melody, written by country singer Roger Miller.

I love Tony Ellis’s original tunes and Shelton’s version of Stephen twins lead guitar and his own banjo playing beautifully. Both of these last two performances are captivating. Salt Creek, or Stoney Creek as it is known in Stanley Brothers’ circles, features Stanley-style banjo from Steve Sparkman, a long-standing Clinch Mountain Boy with Shelton. These four tunes alone admirably demonstrate the varied shadings in style that can be found on this CD.

Nashville Blues comes from the version on the original Will The Circle Be Unbroken LP, a set that is a musical landmark in so many people’s lives. Shelton recalls Randy Scruggs’ guitar break while Grindstaff echoes Earl’s break, at the same time being innovative with an overdubbed second banjo part to one of the breaks. Another slower-paced tune is Fair And Tender Ladies; it is much enhanced by some triple fiddle parts from Brown.

This CD presents the first occasion in which Shelton himself sings on record. Shelton’s deep voice makes these versions of Motherless Children and Hard Times – not done a cappella style – different from the normal treatment that is associated with each song. Both benefit from the harmony of the pure-voiced Judy Marshall. However, it is very difficult to disassociate Shelton’s reading of Walking Down The Line from Charlie Waller’s performance of the song.

Many of the tunes are tried and well tested and one could be critical of the fact that they have been chosen yet again, but I think that that misses the point. They all mean a lot to Shelton and I have not heard arrangements quite like these. The first track grabbed my interest and what followed kept that interest and developed an intrigue about what nuance was coming next. For example, Shelton adapted the great old fiddle tune Methodist Preacher to guitar, tuning the A string down to G to give a drone effect. Neat!

An oddity here, although not in a derogatory sense, is a laid-back instrumental version of the Simon & Garfunkel mega-hit Sound Of Silence. Once again, Shelton and Steffey excel on their chosen ‘axes’, while the bowed bass is an inspired feature of this closing piece.

I had to play the CD again straight away to make sure that I hadn’t missed anything. After several plays I am still enjoying hearing new aspects to Walking Down The Line and enjoying the opportunity to listen to some of Shelton’s chosen highlights from his own catalogue of favourite tunes and songs.

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About the Author

Richard Thompson

Richard F. Thompson is a long-standing free-lance writer specialising in bluegrass music topics. A two-time Editor of British Bluegrass News, he has been seriously interested in bluegrass music since about 1970. As well as contributing to that magazine, he has, in the past 30 plus years, had articles published by Country Music World, International Country Music News, Country Music People, Bluegrass Unlimited, MoonShiner (the Japanese bluegrass music journal) and Bluegrass Europe. He wrote the annotated series I'm On My Way Back To Old Kentucky, a daily memorial to Bill Monroe that culminated with an acknowledgement of what would have been his 100th birthday, on September 13, 2011.