The older Ramblin' Jack Elliott gets, the more he sounds like he has always tried to sound. That is, weathered, world-weary, swaggering, and maybe just a little bit dangerous if you crossed him. Now a feisty 74, this folk icon has just made one of his best albums, which, in a career spanning more than 20 records and 50 years, is saying quite a bit.
Elliott releases ``I Stand Alone" Tuesday on Anti- Records, an indie label that in recent years has rejuvenated the careers of icons such as Solomon Burke and Bettye LaVette. By accident or design, this collection of songs, which Elliott deemed ``not for the tourists" at his Club Passim show here in April, should attract an all-ages audience that appreciates old-timey Americana and cowboy tales.
It's about time the public catches up with what musicians have long known. Elliott has been a towering influence on a generation of folk and rock musicians, most notably Bob Dylan, whose first show in New York City was billed as `` Son of Jack Elliott."
To his credit, Elliott has never really made a bad album. As a friend once pointed out, there are no discernible phases of Elliott's career. You can listen to his 1960s recordings on Vanguard and get the same essence from his latter-day albums.
But ``I Stand Alone" distills Elliott's artistry to its very core (and its very best). With production about as spare as you can get, usually led by Elliott on acoustic guitar, the album draws out an emotional intensity that can get lost in layers of studio sorcery. On ``Call Me a Dog," when Elliott growls, ``Call me a dog when I'm gone," you best heed his words; otherwise, this is a man who might track you down and drag you out of the tavern. Nels Cline's hiccuping dobro caroms off Elliott's vocals like a pinball.
Contemporary luminaries lend their support here, with Lucinda Williams putting her craggy warble to work on Ernest Tubb's ``Careless Darlin'. " Red Hot Chili Peppers bassist Flea contributes on a handful of tracks, the best being ``Driving Nails in My Coffin," featuring spirited guest vocals from Corin Tucker of the recently disbanded Sleater-Kinney.
Elliott has never been much of a songwriter (even by his own account), but with interpretive skills as masterful as his, he doesn't need to bother. You could, however, grouse about ``I Stand Alone" not exactly breaking any new ground. Most of these songs come from the traditional domain (``Willy Moore") or were written by long-departed folks such as Hoagy Carmichael (``Hong Kong Blues") and Leadbelly (``Jean Harlow").
Sticking to what he does best, Elliott sings about his usual subjects, from hound dogs (``Old Blue"), to trains (A.P. Carter's ``Engine 143"), to the bucolic pastures of the Wild West (``Leaving Cheyenne"), to old age (``Arthritis Blues"). The latter, with a stellar accordion solo by David Hidalgo of Los Lobos, is a good example of how a young Elliott could never have sung this song so convincingly.
``Woody's Last Ride," which Elliott wrote, closes this engaging album on a rather ho-hum note. It's a spoken-word remembrance of the man (that would be Guthrie) who first inspired Elliott, but it's too obviously aping how Jack White recorded Loretta Lynn's rambling childhood memories in ``Little Red Shoes" on 2004's ``Van Lear Rose." Elliott's variation here seems unnecessary, and curiously, it's not a particularly insightful story about the last time he saw Guthrie.
However, that's nitpicking with an album that masterfully dusts off the legend of one of America's musical treasures. Just like Johnny Cash, Elliott is finally getting the treatment he's deserved all along. Only in this case, Rick Rubin wasn't needed. This is what Elliott has been doing since day one, except now it's a perfect fit.
James Reed can be reached at email@example.com.