Jack Elliott reflects and rambles about his 50-plus-year career
by Steve Aust (11 November 2020, City
His words conjure up images of backwoods roadhouses and honky-tonks now going the way of Burma Shave roadside signs. His music is a travelogue through the history of 20th century American Folk music, a road traveled with Guthrie, Dylan, Prine and other giants.
He is Ramblin' Jack Elliott, and his career has spanned more than 50 years.
A 67-year-old Brooklyn native, young Elliott's environs did not make him home on the range. As a teen-ager, though, he latched onto the music of Roy Acuff and Gene Autry, and took to strumming a guitar, "a requisite part of cowboy life," he says.
At the tender age of 15, Elliott left home to join "show business." Much like the old joke, his "showbiz" gig entailed cleaning the cages of the animals in a traveling rodeo.
"It's just one of those crazy things you do when you're young," Elliott recalls. "If I had thought about it twice, I probably wouldn't have done it. So I'm glad I didn't think twice."
While on the road, Elliott learned a few tunes from the rodeo cowboys. Though he cut his musical teeth on "a cheap guitar that I played until my fingers bled because I didn't know any better," he showed promise at any early age. He played several gigs in backwater bars, and during his travels met Woody Guthrie.
"Meeting Woody was probably the most meaningful thing to happen to me in my career," he says. "Not only did I learn so much about music from Woody, but through him I met Pete Seeger, Merle Travis, more great musicians than I could possibly name."
He not only had friends in the musical world in his younger days. Elliott has vivid memories of a few days in 1953 spent in a Greenwich Village loft with some red wine, cigarettes, and a young Beat writer with an unheard of manuscript called On the Road. His name was Jack Kerouac.
"All he did for three days was read to me out of that manuscript," Elliott recalls, with a touch of laughter in his voice. "life on the road was all I had known, and all of (On the Road's central character) Dean Moriarty's exploits weren't too far removed from things I or people I had known had done."
For the 40-plus years that followed, Elliott has continued to be a well-respected artist in the Folk Rock music scene. He has recorded a prolific 50-plus albums in his career, even though he recorded none between 1967 and 1990.
"I just decided that I wanted to focus on playing live music," he says. "Going from town and town and playing music has always been what I preferred."
But when he returned to the studio in 1990, his resulting album, Due South, received much critical acclaim and won a Grammy for Best Folk Album of the Year.
"That was one of the most thrilling moments of my career," he says, but adds with characteristic cowboy modesty, "I just had so many wonderful people helping me out on that album - Maria Muldaur, Tom Waits, Dave Alvin - lots of people. I couldn't have done it without them."
His latest release, The Long Ride, on Hightone Records, is a wild romp through Elliott's musical past. The record opens with Elliott doing a twangy rendition of the Rolling Stones' "Connection." The next track, "Cup of Coffee," reveals another of Elliott's true joys, trucking.
He sings, "Just came by to get a cup of coffee now, don't give me no whiskey, got no time for wine, gotta get my semi down the line ...," driving "my old Hendrikson, two million miles and just getting broke in ... got a nice sleeper in it."
He pays tribute to his old friends, singing Guthrie's "Rangers Command" and Tom Waits' "Pony," concluding with Bob Dylan's antiwar anthem, "With God on Our Side." The album features several duets, pairing with Dave Von Rook in the classic "St. James' Infirmary," and teaming with the sweet-voiced Maria Muldaur in "Pictures from Life's Other Side."
The Long Ride, which was produced by Roy Rogers (no relation to Cincinnati's most famous cowpoke), features a number of talented players: Joe Craven on mandolin and banjo, Derek Jones on bass, Jim Sanchez on drums, Andrew Hardin on guitar and Rogers on slide guitar.
"Everybody else loves the album," Elliott says. "I guess I am starting to like it a little bit."
In recent weeks, Elliott has been crisscrossing the country, playing shows in California, South Carolina and all points in between. Touring has become more of a strain in his later years, Elliott says.
"It's still fun, but each show takes its toll, and I don't know how much longer I can take the wear and tear," he said. "This old boy can still run with the young ones for a while, but I need more time to recover now."
His Sunday gig at the Southgate House is the third and final date of his Ohio swing, following shows in Athens and Columbus.
"I should be in rare form by that time," he says. "After several gigs in a row, the creativity really begins to flow onstage."
Elliott will soon be immortalized in celluloid. His daughter Cindy is compiling a documentary of Elliott and has spent parts of the last three years with him on tour, "sticking a camera in my face."
"She says it is a labor of love," he says with a smile in his voice. "But I think she is simply trying to gain revenge on me for all of those years on the road when she was stuck at home."
Unlike an old cowboy content just ride off into the sunset, Elliott offers a tongue-in-cheek rumination on his own mortality.
"Sometimes I feel like I just may stick around forever," he says. "The world could be engulfed in a flood, but I'll just be sitting on the highest mountain, looking at the water and strumming my guitar."
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