So there I was, watching folk legend Ramblin’ Jack Elliott perform in the intimate St. Lawrence Arts Center last week, when who should plop down beside me but Samuel James.

Even without his signature fedora and three-piece suit, he was unmistakable, with his tall frame and large hands that most great guitar players have.

But even if his looks hadn’t given him away, the way he focused intensely on Elliott’s fretwork would have. You can always tell who the professional musicians are in a crowd, because they’re just as focused on the musicianship as the performance itself.

If you don’t know who Samuel James is, here’s a quick primer: Maine resident, lived all over the state as a child, attended Gorham and Biddeford high schools. Son of a professional piano player. A (literally) one-man band who plays everything from guitar, dobro and banjo to piano, harmonica and hambone. (Yes, hambone.) One of the musicians to make GO’s first list of 10 Maine Artists to Watch back in January 2008.

Most importantly, James sounds like he was plucked straight from the Depression-era Mississippi Delta, a combined reincarnation of Sonny Boy Williamson I, Mississippi John Hurt and Blind Lemon Jefferson. He has a voice that can be as gravelly as Howlin’ Wolf one minute and as sweet as Ray Charles’ the next. The blues forms the skeleton of his musical style, but the muscles, sinews and nerves branch out into everything from folk and Appalachian country to Stax-era soul and modern hip-hop.

Convinced yet? If not, go online to YouTube and view his live version of Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean” from Portland’s One Longfellow Square. Go ahead, I’ll wait.

OK, now that you’re educated, here’s what’s going on in James’ world. We struck up a conversation during a 15-minute break in Elliott’s set (that is, after an hour consisting of four songs and lots of talking — they don’t call him “Ramblin’ Jack” because he likes to travel).

James told me he was gearing up for a tour of Turkey, so it will be a while before you’ll be able to see him perform locally. But he will be back, and ready to raise some more roofs. And while he’s not working on a new album at the moment, he said one could be coming soon.

In the meantime, run, don’t walk, to your nearest Bull Moose Music store and pick up one (or all) of his three existing CDs if you don’t have them already. I haven’t heard fretwork like this from an emerging artist since I first heard Jack White take ownership of Son House’s “Death Letter” on the White Stripes’ second album.

For more information on James, including upcoming tour dates, visit www.piedmonttalent.com or www.myspace.com/sugarsmallhouse.

Deputy Managing Editor Rod Harmon may be contacted at 791-6450 or at:

[email protected]