Alaska is not exactly the ideal place from which to launch a recording career, but that’s exactly what singer/songwriter Hobo Jim has done. The far northern wilderness has been a valuable creative resource for him in much the same way it inspired some of the best work of novelist Jack London and poet Robert Service. Alaska is not exactly the ideal place from which to launch a recording career, but that’s exactly what singer/songwriter Hobo Jim has done. The far northern wilderness has been a valuable creative resource for him in much the same way it inspired some of the best work of novelist Jack London and poet Robert Service.
Known as Alaska’s troubadour, Hobo Jim has released three albums, the last of which, Where Legends Are Born, has been issued on Flying Fish Records.
Hobo Jim sings and writes about fishermen, ranchers, loggers, miners, and many other hearty individualists who live in what is America’s last frontier. His songs are not only interesting, but they also contain a historic significance that is not found in the bulk of commercial music.
Born in Indiana, Hobo Jim (whose last name is Varsos) grew up in Madison, WS. He started playing guitar when he was 12 years old, influenced by the music of Woody Guthrie and Bob Dylan.
If there is such a thing as destiny, Hobo Jim and Alaska seem to be meant for each other. “My dad had a job offer up there when I was a boy, and all of us kids wanted him to take it,” Jim recalls. “My folks always accused me of having a Davy Crockett fetish. I even wore a coonskin cap.”
There were many stops on Hobo Jim’s journey before he finally settled in Alaska. After a stint in college, Jim decided to pursue his musical calling. “Like just about every aspiring country musician, I hitchhiked to Nashville. I had dreams of becoming a big star and was very rapidly put in place.” He tried his luck in New York City and Los Angeles, with no positive results. So Hobo Jim drifted around the lower 48 states working a series of odd jobs before finally settling in Alaska, near Homer.
Ironically, that’s where all of the pieces of his musical puzzle started to fit together. From playing for tips in the local bars he became a popular entertainer across the state. “And it’s a big state, Jim notes. “Remember it’s over a third the size of the U.S. Some of my weekend gigs were 1500 mile apart. I’d play everywhere; the artic native villages, the logging camps, the fishing towns, college towns, you name it, I was there.”
He penned “The Iditarod Trail,” a song about the famed dog sled race from Anchorage to Nome held each year in Alaska. Jim is also a regular guest on the Tom Bodett Show, a weekly radio program aired from Homer over some 120 radio stations. Jim has also developed a deep friendship with Russell Smith, the former lead singer with the amazing Rhythm Aces. Smith produced Jim’s LPs Thunderfoot and Where Legends Are Born.
Jim spends several months each year in Nashville working with publisher Pat Higdon. In addition to Smith, he has co-written tunes with three-time ASCAP Songwriter of the Year Rory Bourke, Universal recording artist Tim Malchek and Highway 101’s Cactus Moser.
Although he has plugged into commercial, mainstream country music, Hobo Jim is first and foremost a writer of regional and occupational songs. In the following interview, he gives us a glimpse of his style of songwriting.
AS: So many of your songs seemed to be based on fact. Is that an accurate assumption?
Jim: Actually, about everything I’ve written is direct personal experience. I know people whose boats never returned to harbor or hunters and trappers who never came back out of the wilderness. I can think of only one song – “Miner’s Dream” – where I tell a story about a whaler turned gold miner. Indirectly it’s related to a book I read.
AS: Do you think writers need to experience the things they write about?
Jim: I don’t believe you have to do it a lot. In fact, maybe doing it a little is even better. When you do something a lot you tend to lose sight of the romance of it. But when you do it a little you can reflect on it.
AS: Give me an example of that philosophy in one of your songs.
Jim: Take “Maple Syrup On Flapjacks.” I write about red suspenders, falling trees, oil lamps in the cabin, and the breakfast – the romantic images of logging that stick out in your mind. What’s not mentioned is low pay, little social time, mosquitoes and frost-bitten feet.
AS: Tell me about the song “Mary Ann.”
Jim: I write all kinds of fishing songs but I wrote that one about a man who named his boat after his wife and then went down in the boat – a true story. That hits the heart of every fisherman because they’ve all had a friend that’s gone down. The fishermen’s wives sit at home and worry – those that don’t go out and actually fish with their husbands, and lots do.
AS: How do you write a song about commercial fishing so that the average person can understand it.
Jim: I try to stay away from technical terms that only a fisherman would understand. I write my songs for the people I’m writing about, but also for someone who may live in Indiana, so they’ll all know what I’m talking about. That’s a problem for occupational writers – getting too detailed.
AS: “Dramamine Fisher” is about a seasick sailor. Was that based on personal experience too?
Jim: I actually wrote that hanging over the stern of a fishing boat on our way back after a day of fishing. I was seasick to the hilt. The captain was also a songwriter and he was laughing all the way back. I was writing lines in between being sick; that’s how real that one was.
AS: What about “The Cannery Song”?
Jim: All over the coast of Alaska are canneries. Cannery work is about the most unromantic work you can ever imagine. But I decided to write a song about it anyway. The first night I performed that song it was for an audience of mostly fishermen and cannery workers. I got a standing ovation so I knew I touched on the right subject.
AS: In story songs is the melody or lyric more important?
Jim: I think they’re both equally important. I think a song is more likely to stay around if it has a real catchy melody. But not too complex – something you can whistle.
AS: Do you need a hook-oriented chorus?
Jim: Not really. I never really look at a song on a scientific basis. I just write it, take it down to the bar, play it and see if I can get away with it.
AS: What are some of the taboos in writing good story songs?
Jim: I think length for one. That three minute limit thing they have for radio is not just an industry decision; I think that’s about it for people’s attention. Also, too much technical terminology, things that no one else could understand except the people who do it. And then there’s the old kum-bi-ya syndrome where writers get into these melodies that all sound the same.
AS: So how do you avoid writing on and on?
Jim: One thing I do is put as much as possible into one line without making the line too crowded. “Where Legends Are Born” is an example of that, where you can get across so many images in one line – “In saloons and in dancehalls/they talked of the cold/stories of fortune, stories of gold.” To me, it’s almost like haiku. How many can you say in the least amount of space?
AS: Do you re-write much?
Jim: I honestly spend very little time rewriting. I’m pretty much first draft with maybe one or two words changed. That’s musically too. I don’t write a line until I can tie it in with another line. I don’t experiment on paper a lot.
AS: So you write quickly in that respect?
Jim: “Logger’s Lullaby” was written like that. I was called by ABC-TV for a song for 20-20. I asked them when they needed it and they said ‘Three days ago.’ I said ‘No problem.’ I sat down and wrote and recorded it in an hour. Three says later it was on national TV.
AS: Maybe you’re writing songs in your subconscious.
Jim: Songwriting comes really naturally for me. I almost take a semi-mystical view about the songs. I almost believe they’re already there and they come to you. They just come so easy and so complete for me.
AS: Has writing in Nashville affected your approach to music?
Jim: I’m not planning to change much. However, I plan on picking more universal subjects. I’m working with people to make my music more universal without changing too much. And I think I’m learning how to discipline myself to say, okay, I’m going to write today. Once I sit down and decide to do it the songs seem to be there.
AS: How do you feel about tailoring songs for specific artists?
Jim: I don’t think there is anything wrong with being a commercial songwriter. I just feel that to keep the songs coming out right they should get it out of their minds whether or not anyone is going to cut the song. I imagine a good deal of the good songwriters out there who are concentrating on who and if anyone is going to cut the song are losing some of their best material that they’re not writing because they’re worried that no one will cut it.
AS: What would you say about your approach to songwriting?
Jim: I don’t like to write songs that are only going to be there for six weeks. I like songs that are going to be around for 600 years.