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Ramblin' Jack Elliott, who rolls into the Houston exurbs for two shows this week, is truly a dying breed, one of the last mastodons looking down at a herd of cattle and thinking, "Look at those frail, wimpy things."
Staccato stories from a free-wheeling life roll out of the man, now 79, as he bounces from tangent to tangent: Lost guitars, actress girlfriends, Taos, the Alps, Utah Phillips, rodeos, Woody Guthrie, bluegrass and banjo players, hitchhiking trips to New Orleans, Kris Kristofferson, dancing around a banana tree with a naked ballerina. All are told with wit, verve, and a faint sense of lost youth.
Elliott's stories, and his life, bridge virtually the entire span of folk music and what has come to be called Americana. He rode trains with Woody Guthrie, was a role model for Bob Dylan and Arlo Guthrie, shared stages with everyone from Odetta to Fred Neil – and is ready to do it some more.
With Guy Clark, 8 p.m. Saturday, June 18, at the Crighton Theatre, 234 Main, Conroe, 936-441-7469 or www.crightontheatre.org. 8 p.m. Tuesday, June 21, at the Old Quarter Acoustic Cafe, 413 20th St., Galveston, 409-795-7777 or www.oldquarteracousticcafe.com.
"I can't go at it like I used to, of course," says the Brooklyn native, who ran away at 15 to join a traveling rodeo. "But I'm still doing about 50 shows a year."
Born Elliot Charles Adnopoz in August 1931, the unruly teenager encountered his first cowboy singer on that brief stint with the rodeo and, upon returning home, quickly learned the rudiments of guitar and began busking. Elliott would eventually work his way into Woody Guthrie's circle, where he says his real musical education began.
"Woody loved doing it," he recalls, "but what impressed me most was that Woody did it for the right reasons. That's one of the main lessons I got from Woody."
Elliott eventually followed Guthrie to New York City, where he ran in a circle that included such icons as Pete Seeger and Dave von Ronk. When Guthrie fell ill with Huntington's disease, Elliott became a musical mentor to Guthrie's son Arlo, of "Alice's Restaurant" fame – you know, "the mother rapers and the father rapers sittin' there on the bench." Elliott's classic 1968 album Young Brigham includes a gentle Guthrie-esque lullaby titled "Good Night Little Arlo."
"Woody got to where he couldn't play anymore, and Arlo was so inquisitive about his dad's music," Elliott recalls. "And my way of playing and singing was very much in Woody's style, so Arlo and I spent a lot of time together picking and singing and talking."
Another youngster deeply affected by Elliott was Robert Zimmerman of Hibbing, Minnesota, better known as Bob Dylan. When the young musician first came to New York, people often referred to him as Elliott's son because he so patterned his early vocal style after Elliott's.
"Yeah, I even used to say things like 'This song is by my son, Bob,'" chuckles Elliott. "I saw Bob a few years ago and I'd just come from playing at the Bob Dylan Day thing they have at the high school there in Hibbing. They invite me every year. And Bob says [imitates Dylan's voice] 'Bob Dylan Day. What's that?'"
Elliott has nothing but high praise for Guy Clark, with whom he'll share the stage in Conroe, and among his favorite of the class of songwriters Elliott estimates to include Townes van Zandt, Richard Dobson, and a select few others.
"Ironically, I just cut a song for a Guy Clark tribute album that's in the works," he says. "The song's called 'The Guitar,' and it's about a guy going in a pawn shop and pulling down a guitar and suddenly he's just brilliant, playing better than he even knows how. And in the end he sees the case and it has his name on it.
"The really ironic thing is that I had a guitar that got stolen and I got it back 23 years later, just like in that song. It was a Gretsch Rancher," recalls Elliott. "I actually once had that guitar strapped to the back of a Vespa motor scooter and went over the Alps in a snow storm with it, so it was already a little road-weary. It wasn't the greatest guitar ever, but we had a history."
A troubadour's troubadour, Elliott goes on to detail his respect for Clark.
"He is one of the finest word crafters. Not a single word out of place or wasted in his songs," he marvels like a true fan.
"I went to see Guy play at the Newport Folk Festival years ago, and he had hurt his foot real bad, but he insisted on standing for his show. So the doctor flared out the top of his cowboy boot and filled it with ice, and Guy went out there with a boot full of ice and played the gig. Talk about tough."
Elliott also has a deep fondness for Clark's running buddy, Townes van Zandt.
"One of the last times I saw Townes I ran into him in Nashville," says Elliott, "and I told him how much I loved his song 'Pancho and Lefty.' I'd tried to learn that song and work it into my show four or five times and just never could get it right, and I told Townes that. And Townes – he was pretty drunk at the time – said 'Hell, Jack, I wrote that damn song and I can't play it either.'"
I got a Ramblin Jack story: About ten years ago (OK, 17 years ago) I was hired to do a national tour with a stage show called "Woody Guthrie's American Song". I was walking down the street in Mendocino and ran into Jack walking with Gene Parsons and a blonde woman I didn't recognize. I had told Gene earlier about landing the gig, and he stopped me and introduced me to Jack. "Jack," he said,"This is Lawrence. He's gonna be playing Woody in a show." Jack kinda squinted his eyes at me and said, "You sorta look like Woody..." Then he turned to the blonde and said, "You kinda look like Woody, too..." And that's my story.