James Alan Shelton
Where I’m Bound
4.5 stars (out of 5)
By Donald Teplyske
Having played guitar with Ralph Stanley & the Clinch Mountain Boys for some 16 years, the name James Alan Shelton is well-known within bluegrass circles.
His cross-picking has enlivened many a Stanley recording. When appearing in concert, Shelton never fails to impress an audience with tasteful playing without overshadowing his boss or fellow band members. While he has made numerous solo albums, the albums Shelton recorded for Rebel in the early aughts are textbook examples of how a sideman can present his music without resorting to showboating.
Unlike previous albums, Shelton handles almost everything on this latest creation himself. Utilizing his home studio, Shelton has spent much of the past three years tracking guitar, bass, mandolin, and banjo parts for these songs. While his inspiration toward this method of recording appears to have been to achieve a personal challenge, Where I’m Bound is a fully listenable and overwhelmingly impressive album.
With only three vocal tracks, the album obviously has an instrumental focus. Shelton’s achievement with this album is much more remarkable as one would be hard pressed to claim an ability to discern that the album wasn’t created with a full band, live in the studio. There is nothing stilted in the arrangements or execution that betrays the recording to be anything but an extremely well-played Americana recording.
Overall, the tunes have a solid bluegrass feel. Shelton’s love of folk music is obvious in his selection of material which comes from the likes of Donovan (“Catch the Wind”) and Tom Paxton (“Where I’m Bound) as well the traditional tune “Home Sweet Home.” Seasonal standards “Do You Hear What I Hear” and “Auld Lang Syne” are also included, with the latter being played at an accelerated tempo that removes the maudlin qualities associated with it.
“Rose Conley,” “Pastures of Plenty” and “I’ll Follow the Sun” provide additional variety to the recording. A playful and bright reinvention of “Buckaroo” is a highlight; while maintaining the melody and tempo of the Buck Owens/Don Rich performance, Shelton’s picking is so clean that it almost sounds like an entirely different song.
With an abundance of well-chosen material from the songbooks of others, Shelton’s “Riding on the Clinchfield” may present as the strongest performance. A full-bodied banjo tune, this one has would fit within any contemporary bluegrass set. The banjo maintains the melody while Shelton’s bass establishes a solid bottom end. Dewey Brown adds fiddle throughout the album, contributing especially rich flavors to this one.
Also appearing on the album is mandolin player Audey Ratliff. Vocalist Dan Moneyhun adds a bit of tenor and youthful vocalist Savannah Vaughn gives “Catch the Wind” a notable rendering.
With bright sounds that positively leap out of the speakers, James Alan Shelton has managed to out-do himself with Where I’m Bound. Play it loud!