Hobo Jim often said he never met a stranger. He valued everyone he met and considered everyone friends. His music influenced generations and brought attention to the wilderness, beauty, lifestyle, and hard working people of Alaska.
One of Alaska’s best-known and most-loved performers, James "Hobo Jim" Varsos (1952 - 2021) earned international fame as a musician, entertainer, songwriter, and humanitarian. His career spanned five decades and outlasted countless musical trends, garnering many awards and honors along the way, including being named "Alaska's State Balladeer" in 1994 by the State of Alaska.
James Varsos was born on December 21, 1952 in Lafayette, Indiana. Soon after, his family moved to Madison, Wisconsin where he would spend the majority of his youth. Around age 12 he picked up a guitar. He was self-taught and shy, but loved to play music. His earliest known gigs were at The Brathaus, coffee shops, churches, and other small venues in Madison.
After graduating from high school in 1971, Jim left home and hit the open road, hitchhiking and train hopping across most of North America. He spent a semester at Union College in Kentucky but didn't feel challenged, and often skipped class to explore. He was inspired to hit the open road by Woodie Guthrie's book Bound For Glory which he absolutely loved. Music was his go-to way of making money back then. He honed his craft as a street performer, singing and entertaining crowds, eventually earning the nickname "Hobo Jim". It stuck, and as a humble, hard-working traveler, he wore the nickname like a badge of honor.
Hobo's boots hit in Alaska in 1972 and he instantly knew it would be his forever home. However, it wasn't a straight path to the stage. He was still playing other people's music and passing the hat for tips. He held many jobs across the Last Frontier including deckhand, cannery worker, logger, ranch hand, and cowboy. He rodeoed, hunted, fished, and explored every corner of this great state.
In October 1979, Jim met the love of his life, Cyndi. They fell instantly in love and were married on May 1st, 1980 in Homer, Alaska. Jim would always say that marrying Cindi was the greatest accomplishment of his life.
She knew he played music but hadn't heard it. At the time, Hobo was a full-time ranch hand for Elton Anderson, and his guitar was stashed under the bed. Later on, when they were flat broke, he pulled out the guitar and said he was going to make some money... She remembers laughing, having no idea how talented he was, but she supported him every step of the way. By the early 80's, Hobo's music career began to take off. He was booking real shows, using his wit and talent to entertain raucous crowds in venues across Alaska. The money wasn't great but they sure had fun, and when their only son, Shaun, was born in January 1985, their lives were filled with the most incredible joy.
Summer is touring season in Alaska, so Hobo hit the road touring with many famous artists like Reba McIntyre, Russell Smith & The Dawn Patrol, and Hard Travelers. He played venues large and small: clubs, bars, fairs, festivals, schools, and even private homes. He was the closing act at the Alaska State Fair from the early 80's until 2021, with loyal fans waiting for his encore at the Sluice Box saloon when the regular set ended. In 1994 he was proclaimed "Alaska's State Balladeer" by the State of Alaska, which he would cherish forever.
To make extra money in the off-season, the family spent winters in Nashville where Hobo worked as a staff songwriter for several studios. His songs were cut by many famous artists including George Jones, Etta James, Leroy Parnell, Sammy Kershaw, T. Graham Brown, Joni Harms, Ken Peltier and more. He'd typically write 5-6 songs per day, offering the works as rough "work tapes". Sometimes one would be chosen as a potential "hit" but most were thrown out. Cyndi often rescued his discards from the trash because she thought they were beautiful, and still has many of them today.
Despite settling in Alaska, Hobo's passion for travel and exploration never faded. He played to his largest crowd (50,000+) at The World's Fair in Queensland, Australia in 1989. With strong followings in Germany, Japan and several other countries, he toured so often that he learned to speak Japanese and German fluently. He also played for the troops at forward bases in Afghanistan in 2003, which he considered a true honor and one of his proudest moments.
Hobo Jim never stopped learning. He was a voracious reader with a personal library containing well over 4,000 books on a wide variety of subjects including archaeology, anthropology, geology, genealogy, criminology, nature, history, religion, food, architecture, art, and anything to do with Alaska. These interests inspired a museum-quality collection of art and artifacts, many of which he gifted to friends over the years. He received an honorary doctorate degree in fine arts from the University of Alaska Fairbanks, and was lovingly called Dr. Hobo by those who knew how much it meant to a self-taught man. He was a talented musician that played many instruments besides guitar including autoharp, banjo, dulcimer, mandolin, harmonica, piano, and many more. He loved discovering new sounds with unusual instruments and had a knack for drawing the music out of them. His talent resonated with so many people, especially children, and he never missed the opportunity to share music with others, often recruiting them to join his performances on stage.
Hobo loved performing and, although his career spanned five decades, his style never wavered. He was authentic, always true to himself and to Alaska. His legacy lives on in his music, his dedication to hard working people, his wilderness lifestyle, and the countless people he entertained.
In September 2021, Hobo Jim announced he had been diagnosed with terminal cancer. He died in Nashville, TN on October 5, 2021.