[13 July 2006]
Ramblin’ Jack’s an old man who has spent more than five decades of his 75 years on this earth as a performer, but he’s not as old as the lyrics to the songs on his new disc indicate. Elliott sings about coal-powered steam trains, the shooting of U.S. President James Garfield, Model-T Fords, and other things that pre-date even his existence on the planet. These references and Elliott’s gruff vocals give the impression that he’s been around forever and seen and done it all, but it’s all a bluff. The ramblin’ man’s just taking a page from Woody Guthrie, a man who sang about happenings that occurred before he was born, like the Ludlow Massacre and Haymarket Riots, in a raspy voice as if he were there to show a solidarity with the workers of the past and present. Elliott learned his lessons first-hand as a former running buddy and friend of Guthrie back in the ‘50s.
While Guthrie may have had a social or political purpose for grounding his material in an earlier era, Elliott’s just showing off his unique place as a survivor from an earlier era. After all, the album’s title, I Stand Alone, does not come from the name of a particular song or lyric. He’s proclaiming that he’s the only survivor. The rambler’s just telling you a tall tale, which is part of the charm of the American folk tradition to which he and Guthrie belonged and helped invigorate. Seventy-five ain’t that old anymore. Just ask the 87-year-old Pete Seeger, who roamed the nation with Guthrie when Elliott was a Brooklyn teenager. Elliott’s much more of a contemporary with singers like Willie Nelson. While Nelson makes old tunes seem new or even timeless, Elliott makes songs written by people Nelson has also covered (i.e., the Carter Family, Leadbelly, Hoagy Carmichael) sound like they were dug out of the ground like ancient ruins.
That’s no slam against Elliott. He’s a great interpreter of song—he’s just mining a different tradition that requires a certain amount of bullshit and bravado. The breadth and depth of talent on this new disc show why musicians like Bob Dylan, Jerry Garcia, and Lou Reed have loudly proclaimed their admiration for the man. Or why notable newer all-star talents like Lucinda Williams, Los Lobos’ David Hidalgo, Sleater-Kinney’s Corin Tucker, and the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ Flea have joined Elliott on this release.
Elliott sings with gusto, and despite his limited range—or maybe because of it—he’s not afraid to hit the high notes, growl a lyric, or even jump right on a fast lick. The amazing thing is that he nails ‘em every time. Of course, Elliott has enough sense to let the words to the songs do most of the work. He croons the honky-tonk standard “Drivin’ Nails in My Coffin” like he’s taking sips of whiskey between each phrase. He yodels the name of Cisco Houston’s good dog “Blue” as if he really mourned that old mutt. Elliott tells of the man who’s “Leaving Cheyenne” with a song on his lips as if he knows the hardships of a hardscrabble life on the Western plains with good ponies, wild women, and bar-room fights.
Some of the cuts here are mere wisps of songs. “Jean Harlow” clocks in at about half a minute, while “My Old Dog and Me” lasts a mere 19 seconds. The brevity of these tunes adds to the disc’s appeal, as one never knows how long Elliott will string the listener along. The longest track is Elliott’s four minute-plus cover of Butch Hawes’ pained “Arthritis Blues”, which shows the healing power of shared misery. There’s no doubt the narrator feels the pain in his joints, but that he also enjoys telling you about it—and his cures for it like “applejack”, “gin”, and “opium”.
The album’s 16 tracks clock in at a mere 32-and-a-half minutes, but there’s a fullness to the disc because Elliott gives it all on every song, no matter the length. There really isn’t a bad cut on the record. His duet with Lucinda Williams on the bluesy “Careless Darling” will probably garner the most attention because of her stature as an artist and the quality of their performance. Their voices blend together well because of a shared rawness of timbre. Also of especial note is one of Elliott’s rare self-penned compositions, the autobiographical “Woody’s Last Ride”, which closes the record. The track is really talked more than sung, but Elliott tells the story to a strange, atmospheric instrumental accompaniment. This song about a final journey provides a fitting metaphor to end the disc.