KFML AM-FM  Colorado Free Form Radio

Text Box: By Bill Ashford  June 10, 2001

The first time I ever met Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, was on a Saturday afternoon, a long time gone at KFML-FM, in Denver. KFML was one of those great and now mostly defunct “underground” stations, which followed Tom Donahue down the road of “anything goes” music programming and presentation. During any given day, you’d hear Beatles, Dillards, Lenny Bruce, Otis Rush, Eric Anderson, Firesign Theater, Neil Young or MC5. 
Within that elegant cacophony, would come live interviews/conversations with whomever might be playing local clubs and concert venues. From the Rolling Stones to Erroll Garner, the players, singers, writers of our times would come in and out. Serious, outrageous, sometimes pompous or boring, they were always welcome to talk, play or just hangout. The weight bearing beam that held up the roof over the studio, was signed by nearly all. Some were smeared. Some were lewd, brilliant, or both. They stood as a silent monument to the best and the rest of the ‘60’s and ‘70’s.
So it was on this particular Saturday afternoon. Saturdays were often even more casual than weekdays. On the air, nursing whatever damage to the mind and body may have been inflicted the night before, “sets” were generally long and talk was short. So it was on this particular day, as I awaited the arrival of Jack Elliott, in town to play at Harry Tuft’s old Denver Folklore Center, on 17th Avenue. The usual form, was arrival, off and on air greeting, album and gig plugs, perhaps a couple of live tunes and another plug for the gig, and adios.
This was the day I discovered that there was nothing usual about Ramblin’ Jack. While listening to something or other on the studio monitors, the door opened quietly, but firmly. Enter Ramblin’ Jack, guitar strapped around his neck, he already deep into some talking blues that seemed appropriate for his entrance. Most meet, greet, talk, then play, but not Jack, not on this day. Rarely does a control freak such as I surrender control of a studio so peaceably to a visitor, but for the next hour, it was his place. We talked, he played, telling stories of exotic places and adventures, the likes of which I hadn’t heard since first reading Kerouac when I was in high school. Now it wasn’t the Dharma Bums, who called my name, but the dusty, booted trail hands and calico girls who could drink whiskey like men.
Not unlike Willie Nelson, Jack Elliott, recorded and live, are two different experiences. 
Limited by the time constraints of vinyl, and somewhat less by laser technology these days, discs are constricting. Turn either of these men loose on the stage and anything may happen, and happen for a long time.
So before I knew it, Jack gathered himself to leave. He didn’t say good-bye, but began singing and playing that day’s version of “912 Greens”, one of those classic, ever evolving Elliott epics. He stood, then wandered toward and eventually out the studio door the way he had entered, singing and playing. Perfect. I’ll never know what happened after. He might have waited for me to come out, or flopped down in a chair, or called Hawaii for all I know. I never left the room, afraid to jolt whatever had just happened in that special room. So all these years later, “see ya later Jack, thanks for stopping by”. 
All this gets me back to the trail I meant to walk when I started this thing. That being Jack Elliott’s living legacy and continuing contributions to the Troubadour Tradition Sliding a Ramblin’ Jack Elliott cd, new or old, into your player is just like letting him come in the front door. As with any good friend, it’s just “howdy, come on in”. Oh, but the gift he brings. Himself. Those great stories. His guitar. That his music feels like your favorite resoled, too comfortable to toss, shoes or boots, makes him all the more welcome. And then there are his friends. He will show up with the dangdest people lookin over his shoulder. Tom Waits, Rosalie Sorrels, Emmylou, Jerry Jeff, Bob Weir, all just there to be part of whatever it is. Jack is the guy you always invite to the party just to see what happens. You never know what you’ll get, but it always fits in. He has never been out of fashion, or very much part of it, for that matter, but there is likely no one who commands the respect or good humor or his peers and cronies more than Ramblin’ Jack Elliott. He remains a true American Original. Like those long gone legends, Townes Van Zandt, Woody Guthrie, Cisco Houston, he has chronicled a way of life that continues to disappear. As Steve Earle sings, “there are killers on the highway”. It’s gotten too dicey to just head out with a bag and a guitar. You might not get back. The dangers of life on the road as told by Kerouac were mostly about wounds self inflicted. These days there are a growing number of people out there who will hurt you. Permanently. 
Back in those romantically recalled, culturally underestimated early days of FM radio, the talk of which started this piece, there was never a time that “ 912 Greens” didn’t sound good along with whatever The Beatles or Little Feat or The Stones were doing. Of course Jack recorded “ Connection”. Why wouldn’t he?
Meanwhile, as we expected “better” and “different” from our electric heroes, we held no such demands on Jack. Now as then, whatever he chooses to bring to the party is exactly ample. Comfortable. Sometimes hilarious, and always interesting. So while I’m listening to “ The Long Ride”, and committing this little revelation to paper, I realize that Ramblin’ Jack Elliott has always been important, simply because he has never pretended to be. I always wonder why people “review” Jack’s albums, stacking them up against the other dozens he’s already done. Better? Worse? How about just “next”.
Lest you consider this a eulogy, let’s be perfectly clear that at last report, Ramblin’ Jack is alive and doing fine. Although others continue to leave. Townes broke our hearts. Hoyt Axton has left the building. Bob Dylan gave us a scare. Life without Ramblin’ Jack Elliott? Unimaginable. So, as the story tellers continue to go, I guess it is only natural to wonder who will carry the torch. No doubt, many wondered the same with each passing of those already mentioned, yet new storytellers emerged then and will now.
Won’t they?

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