By Richie Unterberger

At the time Bull Durham Sacks & Railroad Tracks was released in 1970, Ramblin' Jack Elliott's commercial profile was probably at its all-time peak. Granted, that still meant that most of America had never heard of him. Still, more Americans than ever before got to see him when he performed live on Johnny Cash's popular television show in 1969. He was also on a major label, Reprise, that had already put out one album by the singer, Young Brigham (1968, also reissued on CD by Collectors' Choice Music). That album had combined his usual calm traditional folk and talking narratives with tentative ventures into folk-rock, and despite some critical praise, had made little commercial impact.

    For many if not most artists, a national TV appearance and another major label album was just business as usual; for Ramblin' Jack Elliott, it was a step into an alien world. True to his name, since his teenage years he had rambled around the United States, and spent much of the 1950s in Europe, where he was instrumental in popularizing American folk music. He was also an important link between Woody Guthrie's generation of folkies and singer-songwriters such as Bob Dylan, who counted Elliott as one of his early mentors. Elliott, however, had almost entirely bypassed the electric folk-rock revolution, and had written little of his own material, even when original compositions became the rule rather than the exception among folk and folk-rock singers. In fact, in 1970 he sounded about the same as he ever did (or would), which was both part of his enduring appeal, and a big strike against any prospects of pop success.

    That wasn't going to stop him and Reprise from taking another shot, this time using more full-band arrangements (including some drums) than had been employed on Young Brigham. A young Charlie Daniels co-produced Bull Durham Sacks & Railroad Tracks with Neil Wilburn, and the material leaned somewhat more toward contemporary compositions than the previous album had. Kris Kristofferson's "Me and Bobby McGee," then yet to became a mega-smash via Janis Joplin's cover, led off the set, followed by a pass at Johnny Cash's "Folsom Prison Blues." Cash was certainly doing his bit to help Elliott's career at this point, having Jack as a guest on his TV show more than once, and even writing the liner notes to Young Brigham.

    An easygoing, good-natured country-rock vibe permeated many of the cuts, in keeping with the time when so many folk-rockers were going country. The most visible figure to embrace country-rock was Bob Dylan, and it came as little surprise to find him among the composers interpreted on the set. Elliott, in fact, rather went to town in this regard, covering no less than five Dylan tunes: three from Bob's early days, one ("I'll Be Your Baby Tonight") from Dylan's first country-rock outing (John Wesley Harding), and "Lay, Lady, Lay," which had just been a huge pop hit for Dylan in 1969. Elliott did quite a good job on "Lay, Lady, Lay," which might rate as his best Dylan cover, and as one of the most likely Elliott songs to be a hit single, if ever such a thing could have existed. If there had been any thought of pushing that as a 45, though, the success of Dylan's own version would have made it a hopeless task.

    Much of the record, as was Elliott's wont, was low-key to the point of nonchalance, yet there were some downright odd passages that gave the whole project something of an I-don't-give-a-damn air. There were several "rapping and rambling" sections that proved Jack didn't come by his nickname solely by virtue of his traveling; integral parts of his stage show to this day, these weren't as easily translatable to record as they were to live audiences. "We Come Here Not Chicago Dutchland for the Alles Brink Hoop Geslaffen Mocker" was weird even by the standards of 1970 psychedelic self-indulgence, with not a musical note to be heard in this snippet of massively-reverbed, inebriated-sounding partying and shouting.

    Elliott was, quite simply, not an artist meant to be commercialized, as influential as he was. Bull Durham Sacks & Railroad Tracks was only his second album for Reprise, but it was his last for the label, and he did little recording again until the 1990s. His legend continued to grow via personal appearances and testaments to his influence by far more famous figures, including President Bill Clinton, who presented him with a National Medal of Arts award in 1998. And it continues to grow today, particularly via the fine 2000 documentary film on his life, The Ballad of Ramblin' Jack. -- Richie Unterberger

contents copyright Richie Unterberger, 2000-2010
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