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Ramblin' Jack Elliott stands alone

By Brian T. Atkinson, July 2006

Talk about a steel-vault memory. Ramblin' Jack Elliott has been there, done that - probably a few dozen times over - and he remembers details from his journeys with shocking clarity. When recently contacted by phone at his northern California home, Elliott immediately proved that his legendary recall is as on the mark as ever.

"You're calling from Denver?" he asks right off the bat, recognizing the 303 area code on his caller ID. "I played a gig not too long ago there at Swallow Hill. Great crowd and a great auditorium. You know, I bought my Martin guitar there at the Denver Folklore Center. I stop by to see the owner, Harry Tuft, whenever I'm in town."

Count the number of details in that paragraph that would've slipped through most 75-year-old memories. Not to mention that this is a man who's spent the better part of the past half century traveling the globe constantly, exposing himself to an endless number of new faces and places.

It's a good thing for music fans that Elliott has such sharp recollection - his fine new offering "I Stand Alone" likely wouldn't have seen the light of day otherwise. The album is a collection of traditional songs and covers that Elliott has learned over the past 50 years, but they're ones that he rarely performs. Nonetheless, they've been permanently etched into his memory.

Elliott gives them some of their best readings yet on "I Stand Alone." His straightforward, unvarnished takes on chestnuts, such as the Carter Family's "Engine 143," Leadbelly's "Jean Harlow" and the traditional "Mr. Garfield," have never felt more alive - or enthralling.

Now, memories tend to be selective, and it seems that applies to even Elliott, who was born Elliot Adnopoz on Aug. 1, 1931. Ten of the 16 songs on "I Stand Alone" clock in at under two minutes long, short by the standard of any musical genre - even punk rock. "I hadn't really thought about that," Elliott says. Then he laughs. "Some of them I just remember one verse, like 'My Old Dog and Me,' that's only one verse I did because I couldn't remember the rest."

That particular song clocks in at just 19 seconds, but Elliott makes the best of the time, clearly enthused about its humorous lyrics as far as he can recall them. "My old dog likes his meat/Pork chops are a special treat," he sings. "My old dog and me/Two old bums, two jolly old bums/My old dog and me."

That's likely how Elliott has seen himself over the course of much of his life - a bum traveling with a dog equally happy to roam the land. (In the 1970s, Elliott traveled with Cesar, a part-husky, part-Australian Shepard mix. He used to joke that Cesar made a good road manager, but that "I never should've taught him to drive.")

Family has become more important to Elliott in his later years, though. His daughter Aiyana was as important as his memory in seeing that "I Stand Alone" came to fruition. After a 7-year lapse since his last album, 1999's "The Long Ride," Aiyana inspired him to sit still enough to commit to the studio to following it up with these lost gems.

"My daughter asked me if I had any songs that I don't usually play in my shows," Elliot explains. "I came up with a few and sang them to her. She said, 'Daddy why don't you play them any more? You should play them in your shows.' I told her that they're not for tourists. I play them every once in a while, but they're mostly songs that I'm tired of."

From Guy Clark to Tom Waits, Elliott is notorious for befriending countless musicians along his trip down life's long road. One of the more remarkable aspects of the album is the wide range of talented collaborators brought in to round out the effort. Lucinda Williams sings a beautifully wavering harmony on "Careless Darling," Corin Tucker of the indie rockers Sleater-Kinney provides vocals on the hillbilly rave-up "Driving Nails in My Coffin" and - maybe even more surprising than Tucker - Red Hot Chili Peppers bassist Flea drives the beat on no less than four songs.

Ironically, these are a few folks that Elliott didn't know before "I Stand Alone" came about. Turns out, he still isn't acquainted with them - the cameos were the work of recording technology. "I've never met Lucinda Williams," Elliot says with a chuckle. "I think it's funny when people talk about my friendship with Lucinda because we haven't met. I'm familiar with some of her music, but that's it. Don't know, what's his name, Flea? All that was done in studios, overdubs."

Elliott says that his new label Anti-, a subsidiary of Epitaph, didn't consult Aiyana, who co-produced the album, before adding some of the overdubs. He doesn't come out and say it, but the tone of his voice suggests that he would've at least liked to have been asked before other parts were layered on top of his groundwork.

Still, it's hard to categorize the album's sound as anything but sparse. It's all the better for the minimal production. While he's best known as an interpreter of others' songs, one of the best on "I Stand Alone" is Elliott's sole original composition. To hear Elliot tell it, "Woody's Last Ride," about the last time he saw Woody Guthrie, isn't in his mind even a song. "I just got back from doing some gigs in Europe, and three people have already asked me about that 'song,'" he says. "I don't know what they're talking about. I was just telling a story about Woody. That wasn't really a song."

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