Ramblin’ Jack Elliott at Center
Special to The Union
Know & Go
WHO: Center for the Arts presents
WHAT: Ramblin’ Jack Elliott with Nell Robinson & Jim Nunally
WHEN: 8 p.m. Saturday, June 1
WHERE: The Center for the Arts, 314 W Main Street, Grass Valley
TICKETS: $22 members, $25 non-members
The Center Box Office – 530-274-8384, ext 14; BriarPatch Co-op – 530-272-5333; online at http://www.thecenterforthearts.org
Many superstars — including Bob Dylan, Tom Waits, Bonnie Raitt, Bruce Springsteen, the Grateful Dead and The Rolling Stones, to name just a very few — credit Ramblin’ Jack Elliott with mentoring and/or inspiring them in their early careers.
This Saturday, the Center for the Arts in Grass Valley will present living legend Ramblin’ Jack in concert. Opening the show will be his newest protégés, the duo of Nell Robinson and Jim Nunally.
Anybody who’s been anybody in Americana music has known or heard of Elliott ever since he began touring with the late, great Woody Guthrie in the 1950s. However, it took the music industry almost four decades to recognize his talent. He won his first Grammy in 1995 for his album “South Coast. In 2009, his album, “A Stranger Here,” garnered him another Grammy.
In 1998, President Bill Clinton awarded Elliott the National Medal of the Arts, calling him “an American treasure.”
“Things take a while in the music business,” Elliott, 81, observed philosophically in a phone interview Sunday. Although he has more than 40 albums to his credit, he said he has little love or interest in the music industry.
A story behind every song
There is some debate whether Elliott earned his “Ramblin’” moniker because of his itinerant troubadour lifestyle or his penchant for ramble-on storytelling. Either way, the nickname is well deserved.
“We drove 6,000 miles on my last tour,” Elliott said. Earlier this month, he played gigs ranging from Kansas City to Austin.
Saturday’s concert, however, is only a one-night stand before he returns to his Bay Area home.
As for storytelling, he is just as famous for that. You never know what he’s going to say during a show, but it’s almost always an amusing or touching anecdote about somebody he’s known, ranging from Mississippi John Hurt to Jerry Jeff Walker.
For any given show, “I can’t predict what I’m going to do,” he said. “I don’t use set lists. I just work the room.”
Paying and playing it forward
Elliott is quick to credit Woody Guthrie as his mentor — and all the other greats he learned from, including Leadbelly, the Rev. Gary Davis, Cisco Houston, Lightin’ Hopkins, Brownie McGhee and Sonny Terry, to name just a very few.
And what those musical greats did for him, he has done for several generations of world-famous artists. Most famously, he mentored Bob Dylan after they met in Guthrie’s last days.
Most recently, Elliott has blessed the Nell Robinson and Jim Nunally Duo.
Singer-songwriter Robinson was visiting musician Roy Rogers and his wife, Gaynell, in Nevada City when Elliott and Jim Bonnet stopped by on their way home from a cowboy poetry fest. Gaynell manages both Elliott and Robinson, not to mention Roy Rogers and the Delta Rhythm Kings.
“I loved hearing their stories over a meal of Gaynell’s wonderful Southern cooking,” Robinson recalled in a Monday interview. She said Gaynell gave Elliott a copy of her “On the Brooklyn Road” CD (with Nunally on backup vocals and guitar) to listen to on the way home.
Various reviewers have compared Robinson’s voice to Emmylou Harris, Iris Dement and Patsy Cline, depending on the song. A Country Chart reviewer wrote she has “a cool Dolly Parton meets Loretta Lynn vibe. “
“I spent 25 years alone singing in my car,” Robinson revealed. A self-described “late bloomer,” she didn’t turn to music as a career until she was in her 40s. Before that, Robinson, 52, was a community organizer and fundraiser for organizations ranging from the United Farm Workers to Mother Jones magazine.
Many of her song lyrics reflect her continuing commitment to environmental and educational issues, including “Life in the Garden,” a song from the duo’s newest album “House & Garden.”
Elliott and Nunally first met a show at the Uptown Theatre in Napa. Nunally was playing with David Grisman at the time. After the show, Nunally listened to Elliott and Grisman swap stories about working with Jerry Garcia.
Nunally also listened to Elliott’s guitar picking.
“It’s a very interesting style, real clean,” he said in an interview Monday.
Elliot was equally complimentary of Nunally: “He’s an incredible guitar player.”
Saturday will be the first time Robinson and Nunally open for Elliott, but they have more shows booked in the coming months.
Furthermore, Elliott is scheduled to sit in on the duo’s next album, “A Rose in No-Man’s Land,” which is part of a PBS television project to be shot at the Freight & Salvage in Berkeley.
Tom Durkin is a freelance writer and photographer in Nevada City. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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