Artists are often defined in the context of their city, with much discussion on how the particulars of the area influence their sound. Then there's Ramblin' Jack Elliott, a true product of the open road.
Born from the cowboy songs he learned on the rodeo, the blues he learned in the South, and the folksy storytelling he learned while traveling with mentor Woody Guthrie, Elliott's music embodies American folk music as a whole. On July 29, Elliott headlines "This Train," a festival honoring Woody Guthrie's would-be 100th birthday. As Guthrie's personal student, Elliott is the perfect choice: Guthrie once quipped that Elliott "sounds more like me than I do."
I spoke with Elliott over the phone as he drank coffee in Shasta City. Though a seasoned traveler, Elliott's nickname "Ramblin' Jack" refers not to his adventures but to his storytelling. My "How ya doin'?" prompts a long yarn from Elliott about how he'd snuck out of his friends' house at 4 that morning, how Bend, Ore., is the exact midpoint between a friend's place in Washington and his house in Marin ("Four hundred and 90 miles from door to door!") and his evening plans; he tells it all so well that I don't want to interrupt him with another question.
I'd expected Elliott, 81, to have tired of talking about his mentor sometime in the 40 years after his death. But he's surprisingly open about Guthrie and his centennial, saying he's "been lookin' forward to it for a hundred years now." Though many refer to Elliott as Guthrie's most important protégé, Elliott describes himself simply as Guthrie's "sidekick," and says he knew what he was getting into when they began playing together.
"I knew that he was profoundly good at what he did," he says. "I figured I'd probably be hearing about him the rest of my life, and I have been."
But Elliott means more to music than keeping Guthrie's legacy alive. Elliott's won a Grammy, has been nominated for four more, and Johnny Cash once claimed he knew no one who had "covered more ground and made more friends and sung more songs" than Elliott. Elliott's own protégé Bob Dylan put it clearer, crowning him "king of the folksingers."
Despite his success, Elliott has survived the music industry without selling his soul to it—possibly at the expense of greater fame. Refusing set lists in concert, he only plays songs that matter to him—punctuated, always, by his ramblin' storytelling.
Ramblin' Jack Elliott headlines 'This Train,' a Woody Guthrie centennial celebration benefiting the Graton Day Labor Center, on Sunday, July 29, in Railroad Square. 135 Fourth St., Santa Rosa. Free. 11am. 707.326.5274.