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Ramblin’ Jack Elliott
Friends of Mine,  Hightone Records CD 8089, 1998

 Folk master does the duet thing

Anybody fortunate enough to have caught Ramblin’ Jack Elliott on the recent Monsters of Folk tour knows what a national treasure he is, and why so many of his friends have gathered for this duet album.

Unlike the recent Sinatra duet album, where some of Old Blue Eyes’ partners’ vocals were flown in, Elliott’s pals were obviously in the studio with him.

Right off the bat, with Gene Autry’s "Ridin’ Down The Canyon," you can hear Arlo Guthrie talking Elliott through the start of the song. It’s more than appropriate to have a Guthrie along for this ride, since Elliott traveled many a mile with Arlo’s father, Woody Guthrie.

It also makes sense to have Elliott singing a cowboy song, since he is as much cowboy as he is singing troubadour. Elliott’s voice is a ragged and worn thing, but it’s an instrument that expresses the thoughts and feelings of a man who has seen a lot of life: from the simple country lifestyle of his home on the range, to his first hand account of the American folk music movement’s evolution.

On "Last Letter," Elliott sings (along with Rosalie Sorrels) "When I write you this letter/I think of the past." It’s just this sort of reminiscing that has brought together many of the friends Elliott has made over the years. These include Emmylou Harris and Nanci Griffith, who sing soft and sweetly on "Reason To Believe," to Tom Waits, who lends his low and rumbling trademark vocals to "Louise."

These old compadres have also chosen high quality songs to reunite on. The album includes two Dylan tunes ("Walls of Red Wing" and "He Was a Friend of Mine"), a Grateful Dead tune ("Friend of the Devil") and a Townes Van Zant song ("Rex’s Blues"). (The album is dedicated to the late Townes.)

The only downside is that an album like this one cannot include any of Elliott’s ramblin’ spoken stories. Nonetheless, these lovingly rendered songs are fascinating stories unto themselves, and should hold you over long enough until Ramblin’ Jack rambles his way to your town once again.– Dan MacIntosh

Copyright © 1998 Peppercorn Press. All rights reserved.