Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, who returns to McCabe’s this weekend, doesn’t stand in Dylan’s shadow — he casts his own
By Michael Aushenker
Like an outlaw on the lam or a pilgrim searching for some great truth, legendary American folksinger Ramblin’ Jack Elliott is barreling through America’s heartland, somewhere in East Texas.
With fellow guitar-picker Rick Robbins at the wheel of the rental, they pull over to the side of the road long enough for Elliott to have a conversation. In the rearview mirror is Crockett, Texas, population 2,000 — a town reportedly named after famed frontiersman Davy Crockett because he camped there en route to the Alamo.
En route to a concert this Saturday at McCabe’s Guitar Shop in Santa Monica by way of stops in Galveston, Texas, Baton Rouge, La. and Prescott, Ariz., count Elliot among the legends passing through there.
A traditional country and bluegrass fingerpicker whose strained vocal style was emulated by Bob Dylan, Elliott won a Grammy in 2010 for his blues-centric album “A Stranger Here,” so he’s invited an “old drinking buddy” to jam with him on some blues material: Van Dyke Parks, the composer/musician who helped Brian Wilson finish up the lost Beach Boys album, “Smile.”
But that’s on Saturday. At present in the Lone Star State, Elliott complains about a hastily canceled appearance in Arlington.
“We drove 200 miles north from Houston for nothing,” he says.
Maybe this is why they call Elliott, who may have also earned the nickname for his habit of spinning digressive yarns, Ramblin’ Jack.
While he loves to perform, Elliott — now 82 — finds his current 7,000-mile trek exhausting.
“I don’t like touring at all. I rarely get enough sleep, and I really need to get a bus,” he says.
It’s been a long, winding road for this old cowboy. While Elliott currently lives in bucolic Marin County, he remembers his East Coast days vividly. A Brooklynite born Elliot Charles Adnopoz, Elliott was a restless youth fascinated with cowboy culture, his imagination corn-fed by early cowboy singers Roy Acuff and Ernest Tubbs.
Elliott rebelled against urban life as soon as he could, running away from home at 15 to join a rodeo, only to have his parents catch up with him in Ithaca, N.Y.
“I never wanted to live in the city,” says Elliott, who yearned to live in the Rocky Mountains.
Elliott calls singer-songwriters Towne Van Zandt, Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, Bob Dylan and Merle Haggard “the Woody Guthries of their day.” And he should know, because when Elliott was just 19, Guthrie (then 39) became his mentor. Elliott describes the music legend as “all things to all fans. He was a very realistic guy. He had a wonderful sense of humor and a sunny outlook.”
Elliott’s known Guthrie’s son Arlo since the musician was 3 and confirms that both are cut from the same cloth: “He has his father’s great sense of humor, which was marvelous and a miracle.”
Elliott also speaks highly of the late Johnny Cash, with whom he had appeared in concert and on Cash’s TV variety show.
Then there’s his unorthodox connection to Dylan, who has often been accused of lifting Elliott’s adenoidal cadences. Over the course of a conversation, Elliott employs anecdotes to hit home how Dylan always came in second. Such as Dylan’s 1962 debut performance in New York City, a month after Elliott’s first gig.
“The first time [Dylan] ever played a gig for money,” says Elliott, “there was a sign handwritten in the window that read ‘Now Appearing: Son of Jack Elliott!’ I should’ve taken a photograph.”
There’s also the second song Elliott ever wrote (which Cash recorded), “Hey, Cup of Coffee.” “Not ‘Another Cup of Coffee’ — that’s Bob Dylan,” Elliott says.
“It’s never bugged me,” Elliott continues of the comparisons. “It’s only made me happy. He’s like my son.”
When Dylan went electric at Newport in 1965, that controversial sea change in the folk community didn’t bother Elliott, who was performing in England at the time.
Elliott knew but never got the chance to work with Dylan’s Newport and “Highway 61 Revisited” sideman, the late Mike Bloomfield. He recalls waving at Bloomfield when he would see the blues guitar prodigy tooling around Marin County in a Volkswagen van with the words “Mike Bloomfield” painted on its side.
Despite liking the Coen Brothers, Elliott is quick to torpedo the filmmakers’ “Inside Llewyn Davis,” last year’s paean to the East Village folk scene, as inauthentic and “kinda boring. To me, it wasn’t about Gerde’s Folk City.”
Elliott won his first Grammy in 1995 for the album “South Coast,” which ended a 14-year recording hiatus. He’s recorded four more albums since, most recently 2009’s “A Stranger Here.”
In 2000, estranged daughter Aiyana Elliott explored their strained relationship in the heralded documentary “The Ballad of Ramblin’ Jack.”
As if his cred needed cementing, in 2006 a then 75-year-old Elliott recorded “I Stand Alone,” an album featuring a Coachella Festival’s worth of guest artists: Flea, Nels Cline, Corin Tucker, D.J. Bonebrake, David Hildago, plus a duet with Lucinda Williams on “Carless Darling.”
Musician/actor Kris Kristofferson paid tribute to Elliott on his 2013 album “Feeling Mortal” with the song “Ramblin’ Jack,” placing a new creative burden on Elliott’s head.
“Now I’ve got to write a song for him,” Elliott says. “I’ve been tormented over this ever since. I started last April when I was in Alaska but still haven’t got anything going.”
Elliott has played McCabe’s often since the 1960s.
“That’s where I had to be a stand-up comic in order to prevent myself from falling asleep on stage. The audience is dead quiet, and I sometimes think they’re actually dead. I think they feel that if they make noise or clap too loud, they might start a guitar-valanche,” he says, referring to the ubiquitous axes that hang throughout McCabe’s.
His pet peeve about playing intimate spaces: cameras.
“I get totally bonkers if some nincompoop flashes me. It’s like being shot!”
When pressed on which tunes he’ll perform, Elliott is noncommittal.
“I have no idea what I’m doing five minutes from now,” he says. “I don’t usually do a set list. I go by the feel of it. We call it working the room.”
Maybe that’s why they call him Ramblin’ Jack.
Ramblin’ Jack Elliott takes the stage at 8 p.m. Saturday at McCabe’s Guitar Shop, 3101 Pico Blvd., Santa Monica. Tickets are $25. Call (310) 828-4497 or visit mccabes.com.