By Randi Somers
Alaska legend Hobo Jim (Varsos) is back on stage, playing here in Homer, and elsewhere on the peninsula. He is playing two shows on Tuesday and Wednesday evenings at AJ’s Steak House on Bunnell Avenue (two doors west of the corner of Main).
Varsos was out of action for a while after his vehicle was hit by a truck in Fairbanks last November. The resulting injuries to his hands, as well as other injuries, forced him to rest and heal.
Now he’s back in action full time and as great as ever. Varsos sings and plays guitar, making old familiar and new songs sparkle as he relates aspects and events of his life that inspired some of his songs.
He said his popular “Backwoods Girl,” was sparked by his hard-working wife while they were living in an Anchor Point cabin that lacked basic amenities like heat, electricity and water.
Before singing “Dramamine Fisherman,” he related how it was inspired by his first fishing trip in Cook Inlet when he was frequently seasick. He also sang what he said was his most requested song, “An Educated Man.” The song is about a man who didn’t have advanced education, but could fix anything.
Varsos said he wrote, “I did, I did, I did the Iditarod Trail” for KNOM radio in Nome. The song gets a lot of plays there, since Nome is the terminus of the trail. Every one of his songs garnered enthusiastic applause.
Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays, Varsos performs at Hooligans in Soldotna. On Sundays, he entertains at the Yukon Bar in Seward. After his State Fair appearance at the end of summer, Varsos said he will return to world travels, performing in Germany, Japan, Australia and France, some of the countries where he has gained a sizable following.
He recently returned from performing for the troops in Afghanistan.
After many years of working in Alaska as a commercial fisherman, logger and cowboy, Varsos took to writing songs about his occupations and wilderness lifestyle. He played his first show in 1972 at the Waterfront Bar, (which is now AJ’s Steakhouse where he currently performs). He relates to five generations of the owners there and invited three of the youngest to join him on stage to sing two songs with him during his first Homer show of the summer.
In 1994, the state legislature and governor of Alaska named Varsos “Alaska’s state balladeer.” He will again headline this year’s Alaska State Fair in Palmer during the last week in August, his 33rd year. His other headline credits include the Telluride Bluegrass festival and the Kerrville Folk Festival.
According to Varsos’ website, he has performed with many well-known artists including Reba McEntire, Ricky Skaggs, Mark Chestnutt, Pat Flynn, Sam Bush, Bela Fleck, John Cowan, Vassar Clements, Jerry Jeff Walker, Guy Clark, Tim O’Brien, Hoyt Axton, Ricky Nelson, Janis Ian, Hal Ketchum, Ramblin’ Jack Elliot, Freddy Fender, Janie Frickie, Russell Smith, Ted Nugent, Paul Revere and the Raiders, Michael Johnson, Chubby Checkers, Bryan Bowers, Rodney Crowell and more.
He has been compared with other outstanding musicians, called the Woody Guthrie of Alaska, the Bob Dylan of Alaska, the Jimmy Buffett of Alaska. World-famous author James Michener wrote, “Hobo Jim is Alaska’s greatest troubadour.”
Ramblin’ Jack’s wife June Shelly wrote, “Hobo Jim is the Ramblin’ Jack Elliot of Alaska.” A stirring compliment coming from Elliot’s wife, he, however, says he is most proud of being Alaska’s Hobo Jim.
And I had to ask him, “Why ‘Hobo?’”
He said a lot of people ask him that question.
“When I was hitchhiking and catching rides on freight trains around the country, friends gave me that nickname and it stuck,” he explained.
Although some might consider “hobo” a negative nickname, it definitely has not deterred his success. Likely his “Great Alaskan Railroad” song was inspired by his train-riding days.
His star-studded history in the music industry includes writing 600 songs, some of which have been recorded by other stars including Randy Travis, Etta James, The Amazing Rhythm Aces and George Jones. A number of his songs have been included in the top 20s charts. He has recorded numerous adult albums and three for children. His music is played on radio stations everywhere and is especially popular with volunteer deejays at KBBI public radio in Homer.
Varsos’ next CD, to be released this fall, is called “My Wild Wolfen Ways,” and includes a duet with Janis Ian on “Guardian Angel.”
He dedicated one of his latest albums, “Time Bandit, Songs of the Alaskan Fisherman,” to the memory of Johnny Hillstrand, father of the two Hillstrand crab fishermen, Andy and Johnathan. The family has a television show, “Deadliest Catch” on the Discovery Channel.
Hobo Jim’s shows at AJ’s begin at 6:30 and 9 p.m. Tuesdays and Wednesdays. There is a $5 cover charge.
Reservations are recommended by the management and can be made by phone at 235-9949.
Varsos said he plans to play these engagements all summer.
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