With a Little Help From His Friends

Half Moon Bay (Rebel Records)
James Alan Shelton

By Bob Mitchell

I've played a guitar for nearly 50 years and have a few heroes. A short list includes Chet Atkins, Merle Travis, Tony Rice, Doc Watson, Barney Kessel, Johnny Smith and Tommy Emmanuel. However, when it comes to cross-picking, two names are always at the top: George Shuffler, the pioneer and James Alan Shelton, the current standard-bearer.

Shelton has played guitar with Ralph Stanley since 1994 and on this release he pulls out all of the stops, with some fine flat-picking and finger-picking. Additionally, he plays banjo on the Webb Pierce hit "Tupelo County Jail," and mandolin on "Married Life Blues," and the ever-popular "Eight More Miles To Louisville." The most unexpected pleasant surprise was "Wild Mountain Tyme," with its gorgeous old Scotch-Irish melody.

Shelton surrounds himself with some of the finest musicians in the business, including four other "Clinch Mountain Boys." Steve Sparkman, the next best thing to Ralph Stanley, contributes an impressive banjo. His work is remarkable on "Darlin' Nellie Gray" and "Handsome Molly." Ralph Stanley II plays rhythm guitar and provides the lead vocal on an excellent cover of "Little Bennie," and Dr Ralph jumps in with high-baritone vocal. It does not get much better than that. John Rigsby contributes his steady mandolin and vocals as Todd Meade provides fine fiddle playing.

Additional musical support for this project comes from Mountain Heart's Adam Steffy. His work on "Texas Gales" shows why he was selected as IBMA Mandolin Player of the Year. Two members of Blue Highway also join the fun: Tim Stafford plays guitar and sings harmony while Shawn Lane provides excellent tenor and high baritone vocals. Much of the fiddle work comes from Hunter Berry (on loan from Rhonda Vincent). His triple fiddle intro on "Tupelo County Jail" is top-notch. Barry Bales (on loan from Alison Krauss) and Bill Dunham alternate on bass. Dan Monehun takes several lead vocals while and Keith Williams contributes first-rate fiddle work. This mostly instrumental release contains several vocals including an outstanding cover for "Dark As A Dungeon." The penetrating vocal work from Shawn Lane, Dan Moneyhun and Tim Stafford is masterful.

Shelton has appeared on countless numbers of recordings with Ralph Stanley and others. Half Moon Bay is Shelton's second solo release for Rebel and it is sensational. Bluegrass fans will appreciate his outstanding tone, commanding technique and impeccable timing. On a five-point scale of excellence, this release is a five.