Given that over the last half-century Ramblin’ Jack Elliott has carved out a singular niche as a disciple of Woody Guthrie and an iconic folk narrator in his own right, it’s a significant departure for the 77-year-old to tackle traditional country-blues songs on A Stranger Here. Working with producer Joe Henry and an all-star backing band that includes Van Dyke Parks and Los Lobos’s David Hidalgo, Elliott makes this collection of songs sound like a natural extension of his rakish everyman persona and a logical follow-up to 2006’s exceptional I Stand Alone. Elliott sounds perfectly at ease with this material, and what works about it is that his and Henry’s choices of Depression-era country-blues songs resonate with a contemporary resonance. Opener “Rising High Water Blues” works both as a reaction to literal floods in New Orleans and North Dakota and as a comment on the desperation of the current economic crisis. That latter perspective is reflected on cuts like “Rambler’s Blues” and the standout “Falling Down Blues,” as Elliott conveys a weathered, hard-earned weariness. His reading of Blind Willie Johnson’s “Soul of a Man” is simply extraordinary. It’s a testament to Elliott’s versatility as a song interpreter—he’s capable of imbuing his songs with real character in a way that few contemporary vocalists can match—and to Henry’s textured, low-fi production that a collection of variations on traditional blues structures never repeats itself. Instead, Stranger illustrates how slight the distinctions between country, blues, and folk genre labels are, and it adds to Elliott’s legacy as one of popular music’s finest storytellers.
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