Even though 91-year-old troubadour Ramblin’ Jack Elliott didn’t feel like getting out of bed this morning, there was a gig to play. Another chance to dust off his cowboy hat, grab the guitar case, and make it to the show on time.
“I didn’t know if I could play at all this morning. I spent the whole day in bed,” Elliott tells Rolling Stone backstage after at a sold-out gig at the Grey Eagle in Asheville, North Carolina, earlier this month. “But it’s the enthusiasm, all these kids smiling and clapping [in the audience], that wakes me up.”
The folk singer is among the last representatives of a bygone era of mid-20th century American musical heroes, the likes of which included Pete Seeger, Odetta, Dave Van Ronk, and the architype of folk music, Woody Guthrie. At a young age, Elliott befriended Guthrie, soaking in all the wisdom and lore he could from the songwriter before Guthrie’s death in 1967 at age 55.
“I’d been hearing his records, and I got to playing guitar with a friend of Woody’s, who introduced me [to him],” Elliott says. “I especially liked the way he told his stories in a down-home, unassuming delivery. It was like a newspaper telling what happened.”
Elliott was similarly in awe of the talents of John Prine, and the two became fast friends and tourmates. Onstage at the Grey Eagle, he paid tribute to both Guthrie and Prine, ending his set with a cover of the latter’s “Sam Stone.” It was a warm-up, he said, for this week’s series of shows dedicated to Prine at venues around Nashville, “You Got Gold: Celebrating the Life and Songs of John Prine.” (The lineups for the Prine concerts are being kept secret to make each show its own surprise, but Elliott will be in Nashville on Saturday.)
By the time the American folk revival hit New York’s Greenwich Village in the late 1950s and early 1960s, Elliott was already a pillar of the scene. As many young faces, including Bob Dylan, started to roll into town, Elliott found himself sharing tales of traveling America with Guthrie, ricocheting coast-to-coast on backroads, in pursuit of a gig or simply just to take in the scenery of a changing landscape, both culturally and geographically.
Elliott has spent decades rambling around America by truck, train, and bus. He’s not too keen on flying, preferring to hit the road in a big pickup truck with enough room for his guitar and so that he can stretch out his legs in the passenger’s seat while his buddy Pat Sullivan presses down on the gas pedal. The only stops along the way are to fuel up, grab a bite to eat, and perhaps pet the head of any friendly dog nearby.
“[If Woody were alive today], I’d like to think he’d be proud [of me], I hope,” Elliott says. “I’m still having adventures. I’ve never sailed around Cape Horn, but there’s always time [to do it].”
Elliott still calls the San Francisco Bay Area home, performing there often when he isn’t zigzagging around the United States. Now in his tenth decade on the planet, there’s a wild adventure to tell for every day he has walked this earth. As his pal Johnny Cash once said about Elliott, “He’s got a song and a friend for every mile behind him.”
“I’ve got periods where I’m not that interested in performing or entertaining people. Just as soon, I’d rather be driving a truck, maybe visit friends and sightsee,” Elliott says. “But something like tonight? When the [audience] is in tune [with you]? It’s incredible and delightful.”
The Grey Eagle performance is standing room only. Elliott is behind the microphone, guitar in hand, as hundreds of faces stare straight at him, hanging on every word, story, and anecdote. In an era that’s defined by uncertainty and confusion, he remains a voice of reason.
“There’s a lot of ‘no hope’ going around nowadays, with Covid, all of the wars, political [stuff],” Elliott says. “The role of the troubadour is not only to tickle the people’s funny bone with pretty notes and fancy guitar pickin’, but tell ’em something important that improves their life and gives them some hope.”
After singing the last line of “Sam Stone,” Elliott says good night and slowly makes his way to the merch table in the lobby. Dozens of eager fans are already in line, handing over various items, from leather belts to guitar straps, for Elliott to autograph.
Elliott obliges every single request. When a young guitarist asks if he can play a song he wrote about the icon himself, he offers an ear-to-ear smile. The twenty-something picker is rightfully nervous, but makes it through the melody, an ode to Ramblin’ Jack, with Elliott nodding in approval.
“He did a great job singing me that song, full of romantic things and whatever he thinks I represent to him — what I’ve done or what I’ve allegedly done,” Elliott says before jumping into his truck. “The people I meet have unrealistic ideas about who I am or who I was or what I did. I’m still trying to find out [who I am] — it’s an endless search, man.”