Sunday, June 21, 2009

Jack's got the blues and that ain't bad

At age 77, Marin's own Ramblin' Jack Elliott has a hit on his hands.

"A Stranger Here," his new album of country blues, is a tour de force by a folksinging legend who was a prot g of Woody Guthrie and a mentor to the young Bob Dylan.

In a voice that sounds as weathered and worn as a West Marin fence post, one of folk music's most endearing characters expands his repertoire, interpreting an intelligently selected collection of Depression-era blues songs that, sad to say, resonate once again in today's downbeat economy.

This is Jack's second CD on ANTI-Records, the label that made a name for itself by signing Tom Waits. "A Stranger Here" came out of the chute running, making its debut at No. 5 on the Billboard blues charts and tying

Audio: Ramblin' Jack Elliott - Death Don't Have No Mercy

with Leonard Cohen's "Live In London" as the highest-ranking new release. gushed: "Elliott has made his masterpiece, an album at

once elegiac and defiant, that can stand beside great late career recordings by master singers like Billie Holiday and Frank Sinatra."

The Wall Street Journal pronounced it "a career record."

Oddly enough, Jack has never liked making records. He'd rather be working on the old dory he keeps at his home on Tomales Bay in Marshall. But I've long suspected he had a great album in him, and it took producer Joe Henry (Bettye LaVette, Elvis Costello, Allen Toussaint), to create the setting for that to happen, for him to do some of the best work of his life.

The seed for the CD was planted when Henry produced Jack's recording of "Just Like Tom Thumb's Blues" for the Bob Dylan-inspired movie "I'm Not There."

"I saw that as a beautiful template for something," he told me. "I thought it would be a great coup if we could make a fully realized album for Jack with a full band and a concept that drives it."

Henry says he became obsessed with the idea of Jack singing the Rev. Gary Davis song "Death Don't Have No Mercy," and the notion of an entire album of pre-World War II blues flowed from that.

"I don't know why that song entered my thinking, but it did and I couldn't get rid of it," he recalled. "So I developed a concept that would give me an excuse to have Jack sing it. I heard it as very dark and terse. I heard Jack singing with a band."

As it happened, "Death Don't Have No Mercy" became the haunting centerpiece of an album that frees Jack from the constraints of his folksinger persona.

"It thrills me to listen to it," Jack said, speaking from a friend's home in Austin, Texas. "I heard the Rev. Gary Davis sing that song, but I couldn't hope to imitate him, so I don't know if there's any discernible influence. But it's very powerful. It's so heavy I'm afraid of it."

Jack, who opens the Kate Wolf Memorial Music Festival with Rosalie Sorrels on June 26, has always been a lone wolf, singing cowpoke ballads and folk tunes, strumming or finger picking his acoustic guitar and cracking up audiences with his rambling anecdotes (hence his nickname).

For this album, he recorded over four days in Henry's basement studio in South Pasadena with a handpicked ensemble of crack musicians, including keyboardist Van Dyke Parks and David Hidalgo of Los Lobos.

"I didn't have the courage to tell anyone how frightened I was because some of the songs were nothing like anything I'd tried to sing before," Jack confessed. "I felt totally unprepared, but those guys must have done their homework because they played so damn well I was buoyed up. A lot of times I didn't even play my guitar. I just stood up to the microphone and sang."

Jack and the band recorded 10 songs by the likes of Son House ("Grinnin' in Your Face"), Blind Willie Johnson ("Soul of a Man") and Mississippi John Hurt ("Richland Women Blues").

Jack met Gary Davis and Mississippi John Hurt when the old blues masters were rediscovered during the '60s folk revival of which he was so much a part.

Now that he's an elder statesman, maybe this album will lead to the same thing happening for him - exposure to a whole new audience.

"I thought it was brilliant of the record company guys and Joe Henry to choose to have me do this record," Jack said. "That's one of the main reasons why it's going to be a success. I'm very excited about it. But I'm not really a music lover. I just play this stuff. That's what buys the cat food and diesel fuel."


- What: Ramblin' Jack Elliott opens the 2009 Kate Wolf Memorial Music Festival

- When: 5:30 p.m. June 26; through June 28

- Where: Black Oak Ranch, five miles north of Laytonville on Highway 101 in Mendocino County

- Tickets: $30 to $200

- Purchase: 558-4253 or 866-558-4253; also atCulture Shock, 7 Bolinas Road, Fairfax, 456-8138

- Information: 707-829-7067;