The Road Less Traveled

by Marianne Horner (1996, Electric Village)

At 15, he left home to be a cowboy, and ended up on an odyssey of the American Experience that has taken him all over the world. Hitchhiking, riding the range, always on the road. This was how the legend of Ramblin' Jack Elliott was born.

I had the rare privilege of talking with this great American folk hero recently about his early troubadour years, his love for cowboy poetry, and how it happened that he went into the studio for the first time in 28 years to record his Grammy-winning album, South Coast.

CountrySpotlight: Tell us about your early troubadour years in Europe.

Ramblin' Jack Elliott: I used to sing with Woody Guthrie. I was the first American folk singer to tour Europe. I did it in a very informal fashion. I didn't have an agent, and there wasn't any kind of a music business going in Europe as far as folk music was concerned. But a tremendous interest was generated just prior to my going over to London in 1955. I was at this pub where they all used to gather every Thursday night and listen to Mississippi blues. They worshipped that kind of music, and didn't want to hear anything else. But when I showed up at their club, they welcomed me with open arms. It was my beginning as a professional troubadour, doing it for a living, starting about 1955. I'd been playing the guitar since about 1947, and I'd been playing with Woody Guthrie for years just bumming around playing music for fun as sort of a free way of getting a ride in a truck. And I toured around Europe for six years singing Woody's songs and some old cowboy songs and old folk songs. I still play and sing most of the same songs.

Ramblin' jack Elliott
Spotlight: Do you still travel?

Elliott: I've been traveling all my life. I was always wanting to go hitchhike or go drive a semi from here to Alaska and back-- just for the fun of it! I love driving, and I love truck stops. Now I have a motor home that I drive around in because I don't care for airports.

I'm a devoted cowboy; part-time, amateur cowboy. I ride horses and I rope, and I used to ride broncs in rodeos a little bit. And I go to Elko, Nevada for the Cowboy Poetry Gathering every year. I hang out with real cowboys -- there's very few artificial cowboys there, because it's 20 below zero and it sort of keeps the tourists away. It's mostly just ranchers and their wives that go to this thing. It's the original one-- I've been going for 11 years now.

Spotlight: Do you perform at these gatherings?

Elliott: Some years I've been there as a paid performer, and some years I go just like anyone else, paying for the tickets, and enjoy being free to roam around and listen to poetry and go to shows whenever I choose, which is better. if you can afford it. Some years I can't even afford to go there, and I go anyway, and somehow a miracle always happens and we make it through.

They have a late night jam that they always try to inveigle me into bringing my guitar and coming and jammin'. But I hate to jam with other musicians. I used to love it when I was learning. It's the best way you can learn to play. So they always try and buy me drinks and lead me up the stairs in the convention room where they hang out and play all night. And I learned the sad way -- the first three years I almost killed myself by jamming too much with the other cowboys. I was always the last one to quit, and one time I fell down the stairs! I just was wearing myself out, having fun playing with these younger musicians.

Spotlight: Whose music were you influenced by?

Elliott: I started listening to country music before they started calling it that. They called it hillbilly music. That was some of the first music that I started playing, songs like Ernest Tubb and Roy Acuff songs. And The Carter Family. They were my favorites. And The Blue Sky Boys and Johnny and Jack, and Homer and Jethro.

Spotlight: Talk about your Grammy-winning album, South Coast.

Elliott: That's the first album that I've recorded in a studio in 28 years. A couple of years ago, the owner of Red House Records buttonholed me when I was playing a gig in Minnesota on Woody Guthrie's birthday. He said, "Jack! When's the last time you did a STUDIO album, you know, as opposed to a live album?" And I said, "Gee Bob, it was about 28 years ago." He said, "Gee Jack, you might die before you do another studio album!" And I thought, "Yeah, that's right. So what?" And he said, "Yeah, you really oughta do one." And he kind of talked me into it; waved a bunch of money in my face and bribed me.

Ramblin' Jack Elliott
Spotlight: What was it like to be in the studio again after 28 years?

Elliott: Well, he rented this studio in Red Wing, Minnesota for three nights. Three four-hour sessions. So in a total of 12 hours, I recorded 25 songs. It was a bunch of songs that I did with not even a written list. I'd sing a song and then he'd say, "Hey, that sounds good Jack! What else you wanna do?" And I'd say, "Well, how 'bout this one?" And I'd just reach around in my memory and pull out songs that would come to mind, and we did it in that informal way. I had no idea that it was gonna be anything stupendous or remarkable. I just thought, "Well, there's a bunch of songs. We recorded them, good luck."

He played me a few of the tapes in his BMW on the freeways of Minneapolis, and I thought, "Gee, that sounds pretty good!" And we discussed the terms, which is of course bass-ackwards. You're supposed to have a contract prior to going into the studio. But I trusted him. I don't know why I trusted him, I don't have any reason to trust him. But I was tired of being paranoid about record companies. And he seemed like such a friendly guy. So he said, "OK, we're gonna do this, and we're gonna give you this, royalties, and blah-blah-blah," and it was all verbal over a beer with nothing in writing.

Spotlight: How different is the road you travel today as compared to yesterday?

Elliott: It's hard to find anyplace where there is any country anymore. It's like country is so interconnected with the city and the whole world. If somebody falls down and scrapes their knee in the subway in Moscow, everybody knows about it in Okemah, Okla. within an hour. Their awareness is totally global.

Now country people all have television, and brand new pickups; air-conditioned and CB radios. If you go out on a farm somewhere, how do you find the country? You leave the house and go out on an air-conditioned tractor that's got a tape deck and windshield wipers on 'em!

Spotlight: What do you think of today's country music?

Elliott: Well, the trouble with country western is that it ain't country and it isn't western! Some of those guys with the beautiful cowboy hats makes me want to get rid of my cowboy hat and I've been wearing a cowboy hat all my life. It's a little bit too slick for me.

Spotlight: Too Hollywood?

Elliott: Yes. That would be a good term for it. Too Hollywood.

Spotlight: Do any of today's country singers impress you?

Elliott: I like that guy with the funny hair. Lyle Lovett. He does some good work, and I kind of like the way he uses that scrappy ol' deep voice of his. I find that very listenable. Very easy going. I went to Nashville to record a song with Guy Clark awhile back. He's my favorite songwriter in Nashville. He's more like the old time folk thing. He writes original songs that have humor and ideas in them, but they sound like real people. That's what I care about, songs that have a real important story to tell.

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