Hobo Jim, Alaska's official balladeer, performs at BJ's in Soldotna.
Photo by M. Scott Moon
How can you tell it’s summer on the Kenai Peninsula? 1) The sun returns to full-time duty; 2) You start to see waders instead of snowmachine pants; and 3) Hobo Jim comes back to BJ’s.
Friday was the first night for Hobo Jim, in his 21st year at BJ’s in Soldotna, and his 35th year playing in Alaska. Ardie Crawford, owner of the neighborhood bar said Hobo is always welcome there.
“This is kind of his home bar. This is his base,” Crawford said of Alaska’s Balladeer.
Friday and Saturday nights were classic Hobo Jim shows. The crowd was a mix of locals and out-of-towners, age 21 to 70. The first weekend for the singer had its own bit of magic, too.
Nearly five years ago, in Soldotna, Hobo Jim lost what he refers to as his “dream guitar.” It was a Martin D42, and it was stolen in the night.
“When it was originally stolen, it was a real rare guitar, and it was my only guitar. When I went out to my car, I was getting ready to do a job at the Kenai visitors center, I opened my car and I was just ‘Oh my gosh!’ It was a real big shocker,” he said.
“You find yourself looking at every pawn shop thinking it’ll show up, and I just got to thinking I’d never see it again, and all of a sudden it just kind of appeared. It’s a big deal to me.”
Every time someone would ask him if he had gotten the guitar back, he would hang his head, and say he hadn’t. Friday night, the story changed.
A woman called him because she thought she might have his guitar she had just purchased it at a garage sale. The woman drove up from Anchor Point that evening, and there it was. The guitar had been sitting in a shed for almost five years, never played, with the same strings, and in its case. The woman who sold the guitar at her garage sale had no idea that it was Hobo Jim’s, as it had been left behind by a relative no longer in Alaska. She called to apologize, and Hobo understood. He was just happy to have the guitar returned.
“My wife was in as much shock as I was, it was a big moment of joy,” Jim said.
So much shock that he hasn’t been able to play it on stage, just yet.
“You know, oddly enough, I haven’t been able to bring myself to. I’ve strummed it a couple times, but I just look at it in awe. It came back in mint condition. I’ll play it again, I’m just still trying to get over the shock. Hardly a week has gone by in the past (five) years that someone hasn’t come up to ask me if I got my guitar back. It’s just amazing how people on the peninsula, and around the state, but particularly on the peninsula, it’s amazing how much they care. I just appreciate everyone’s concern about it.”
Crawford and the staff at BJ’s are glad to see him return. It’s a bit like watching the migration of birds, Crawford said.
“We have our regulars all winter long, they kind of go poof in the summer, and everybody here loves the tourists. ‘Where are you from? What are you doing while you’re here? How big was your fish?’ and then they go away and our regulars come back, and we’re anxious to see them. It’s fun,” Crawford said.
“Some nights are a little rowdier than others. And when I say rowdy, I mean, some audiences are a little younger and they want to whoop and holler, and get up on stage and sing with him. But he loves every audience. The noisier they are, the harder he plays,” she said.
Hobo Jim plays with an athletic energy. He tells stories, some old, some new. He jumps on and off stage with a characteristic glass of chardonnay nearby. How does he keep going, seven days a week, June through August?
“I fish in the daytime. It’s all about attitude, I think. I like what I do,” he said.
The legend of Alaska music is looking forward to a big summer of music and fish. It already has been a big year for him.
“Biggest thing this year the guitar was right up there but the biggest thing this year was that about three weeks ago, we had a baby granddaughter,” Jim said. “That’s really exciting, it’s the biggest thing in the world.”
His song, “Fishin’ for Chickens” is coming out on the Billboard charts this summer by a band called Big Country. Hobo will play the State Fair this summer, and after that he plans to head Outside to spend a little family time. In the fall, he’s hoping to go to Iraq for the Alaska 501st. He’s been out to Afghanistan, already. He looks forward to doing the same in Iraq.
“They got extended on their tour, so I want to go over and give them a little morale,” Jim said. “The only reason I do it is to try to give them a little taste of home. It’s a bigger deal than most people think, ’cause that’s all they get.”
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