INTERVIEW: HOBO JIM: ALASKA’S STATE BALLADEER

The night before the restart of the Iditarod this year, some of the Mushing Magazine staff and friends went to the Pioneer Lodge in Willow, AK to take in a bit of Iditarod excitement.

We knew Hobo Jim was slated to play there, and had heard bits of his Iditarod Trail song before. We were expecting a quiet night of folk/bluegrass/country music, but were really surprised by the show Hobo Jim put on.

Playing a beautiful acoustic Martin guitar with a minimal sound system, Hobo Jim really got the house rocking. The mushing themed songs went over exceptionally well. As with all of his songs, these are not contrived pieces designed to appeal gratuitously to a specific audience, ie: Alaskans.

When Hobo Jim performs you get the feeling he really believes in and is deeply connected to what he has written about. The melodies and poetry transcend mere storytelling and evoke Woody Guthrie and Hank Williams Sr., both of whom are major influences in his work. Sing-alongs, funny songs, sad songs, and good old Alaska porch storytelling are all part of a night out with Hobo Jim, Alaska’s Official State Balladeer. (Hear Hobo play on www.mushing.com)

GS: Let’s start with where you are from?

HJ: I hitchhiked up to Alaska from Kentucky in 1971. I was 19 years old at the time. I was chasing a couple of girls, the girls left, but I ended up staying here in Homer. I did some commercial fishing for a while, logging for a while, played cowboy for a while, then started writing songs about all that. People wanted to hear me sing more than they wanted to see me work.

Over the years I spent a couple of years on the road riding freight trains and hitchhiking and that’s where I got the name Hobo Jim. Now I’m based out of Soldotna, and have homes in Nashville, and Anchorage.

GS: At your show, your style of guitar playing really stood out. Are you self taught?

HJ: Yes, I’ve never had a lesson. I just started playing when I was 12. I got a cheap little guitar and started teaching myself. Big influences on me were Woody Guthrie, Hank Williams Sr.

The folk music scene was big then, I just wanted to be part of it.

GS: When we went down to your gig in Willow the night before the restart of the Iditarod we weren’t expecting what we saw. We had heard the Iditarod Trail song, but had never seen one of your shows. Man, you really got the place rocking. What a great show. Pretty much everyone in the place was dancing. We went there expecting more of a folk, singer songwriter style,

but it was all that and more. How do you describe the type of music you write and play?

HJ: I kind of developed my own style. A lot of people always ask me if I play country, blue grass or folk or something. You can’t really stereotype my music into those categories. When people think of folk they think of Cum Baya or something like that. I’ve always just called it back woods music. In the early 80’s I hooked up with the group the New Grass Revival and they played back up music for me.

They played a high fusion bluegrass that they called “New Grass.” Their music just blended with mine so well it made a perfect combination.

GS: Most, or all of your songs are about Alaska, or Alaskan subject matter. The reason why we are interviewing you for Mushing Magazine is that a few of your songs are about mushing. Tell me about your interest in sled dogs.

HJ: I wrote the Iditarod Trail song. Some one on the ITC asked me to write it because ABC network was going to be in Nome covering the event. Back then, in Nome, the party lasted 2 weeks. Now it seems like everyone just waits for the first few mushers to come in and then they leave.

The town was full with fans, families of mushers weeks before and after the first musher got there. That song really caught on like wildfire in Nome. ABC filmed and broadcast me playing it, and after that national TV exposure, my career really took off. I was hired as a staff songwriter by ABC and Warner Brothers and got a record contract. My first record was Thunderfoot in 1982.

GS: So mushing and the Iditarod really launched your record career?

HJ: The Iditarod Trail song really did it for me. After the record came out, I started playing Outside a lot, opening for other bands, and headlining. I took a second home in Nashville. I wrote Redington’s Run and Miner’s Dream, which are about mushing dogs in the Klondike.

I also wrote a song for the Mackinaw Mush. I used to go down every year and play it. I was there with Norman Vaughan, Libby Riddles, and others.

GS: Have you ever been a musher yourself?

HJ: No, not like you guys are. When I was young, I used to run my friend’s dogs on trails in Wasilla, but I’ve never owned dogs myself. I’ve ran in a couple of celebrity races. I actually won the Mackinaw Mush celebrity race. I have some good musher friends like Lance and Rick.

GS: Tell me a little bit about the theater show you are doing in Anchorage.

HJ: I play 5 days a week (Sunday – Thursday) at the Alaska Wildberry Theater. I do a show of all Alaska music at 6 and 8 p.m. I do the Iditarod Trail song there, with a multimedia display of the Iditarod playing behind me on a screen. It’s pretty cool. I also do 2 nights a week (Friday & Saturday) in Soldotna at BJ’s Bar.

GS: What are your plans for the future?HJ: I’ve got a new cd of Alaska themed music in the making right now. This year I’ll be playing at, and hosting, the Alaska Stage Fair for 10 days where I’ll be premiering my new Alaska State Song. It is Alaska’s 50th year anniversary as a state. That will be followed up in the spring with a new Alaska CD.

GS: Wow, you’re a busy guy. How did you get the honor of being named Alaska’s Official State Balladeer?

HJ: About 15 years ago the governor and the legislature made me the official state balladeer. It was a big honor.

GS: Well thanks for taking the time to talk with us, and hope to see you play soon.

HJ: Thank you, anytime.For more information see: www.HoboJim.com