Ramblin' Jack Elliott,
The Long Ride
(Hightone Records, 1999)

There ain't no doubt about it: Ramblin' Jack is back! Not that he ever left, but things have been kind of quiet since his last release, Friends of Mine, almost two years ago. His new collection of songs, titled The Long Ride, is a real pleasure for those of us who like American music in all its hybrid forms.

Elliott is aided and abetted by a cohort of cronies such as Dave Alvin, Tom Russell, Dave Van Ronk, Maria Muldaur, Roy Rodgers and Norton Buffalo. The rest of the musical crew includes Joe Craven on guitar, mandolin, fiddle and banjo, Andrew Hardin on guitar, Derek Jones on bass, Bruce Gordon on accordion and Jim Sanchez on drums.

These fellows have their chops down and the music is as pure and authentic feeling as Jack's voice and choice of material. Ramblin' Jack Elliott has the credentials to make anyone interested in American music sit and listen to him, even if he didn't sing a word. A contemporary and good friend of Woody Guthrie and Cisco Huston, Ramblin' Jack has paid his dues and put in his time. On countless stages, bar-room floors, around campfires and on street-corners all across this land, he has played us our music for nearly 50 years.

Ramblin' Jack is the embodiment of the folk musician. On this album he gives us a seamless cross-section of that music, and serves it up with all the authority that he commands. In a relaxed and straight-from-the-hip manner, Jack and his friends show us how this music should be played, could be played, and why anyone can do it -- but why a master can do it best.

The album opens with "Connection," that old Stone's tune, and with it, Ramblin' Jack reveals the country roots of the Stones as clear as day. A honky-tonkin' little number, it's a great start to the album and sets the mood for what is to come. Next is a little folk tale, an imaginary visit by Ramblin' Jack the truck-driver to his pal Tom Russell's house out in the country for a "Cup of Coffee."

Next up is "The Ranger's Command," an old Woody Guthrie song also covered by Joan Baez on her Farewell Angelina album. I like Jack's version better, it has more of a "campfire" feel to it. He makes you feel the plains and prairie-grass; you expect coyotes to start howling when Jack finishes the song. A Tom Waits tune, "Pony," is next.

A trio of traditional tunes, "St. James Infirmary," "Pictures From Life's Other Side" and "East Virginia Blues," bring us to a masterpiece: Tom Russell's "The Sky Above, The Mud Below." Tom Russell is a master storyteller, and this is one of his greatest songs. The story of two horse thieves who wander into the wrong bar, and what befalls them; every note serves to put you into that shadowy bar, every note, just makes you feel: "...The sky above / The mud below / The wind and rain / The sleet and snow..." The interplay between Jack's voice and Russell's (who duets with him on this song) just highlight the whole picture, making everything feel as authentic as a dusty old cow skull in the middle of a dry wash.

Now, we get Ernest Tubb, and it's a perfectly natural progression from the bar where we left the brothers Sandoval (the characters in the last song). "Yes, I know I've been untrue / I have hurt you through and through / But please have mercy on this heart of mine / Take me back and try me one more time." It would have to be a hard-hearted woman that could refuse this plea from her lover, and Joe Craven's mandolin and fiddle swing.

"Now He's Just Dust in the Wind," written by Ramblin' Jack and Roy Rodgers (no, not the king of cowboys, the king of slide guitar and general master of six strings), sounds like it's been played in every honkytonk and road house from Bakersfield to Oklahoma City. It is a cowboy's lament and you'll be weeping dusty tears before it's over.

"True Blue Jeans," a little ditty about man's basic need: a good pair of pants. Hey, they won't turn on you and run off with your best friend, and Jack has a few words for ya on how to get 'em so they fit right.

"Diamond Joe" is yet another cowboy story that creaks and chafes with western dust. What year is this anyway? That is what you will be asking yourself halfway through this song.

Finally, Jack takes a venerable old Bob Dylan song and reminds us just what all of that anti-war sentiment was all about. By the time he has finished this bitter but oh-so-well-written catalogue of injustices, you wonder how any one could ever be certain enough of the need to kill, that they would be able to pull a trigger. "With God on Our Side" is the final tune on this album, and at 7:30 minutes it is a great way to go out. The song brings the album to a close on just the right note.

Throughout this album, I found myself noticing Jack's voice over and over again. He sounds like he has been singing for a long time. But it hasn't worn him out; it has given him an easy familiarity with these songs that allows him to wrap his tongue around the words like a virtuoso concert pianist lays his fingers on the keys. There is a certainty, a solid confidence in the way Jack sings that is comforting and important. Jack's singing serves to connect the listener to his music in a way that many "performers" are unable to achieve. That is a quality that is so very, very valuable, and so rare. It is called authenticity, and Ramblin' Jack Elliott has it in spades. Do yourself a favor and pick up this album.

[ by Jan Marica ]

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