Artists from across the state gathered at the Matanuska Brewing Company in Eagle River to pay tribute to the Alaskan icon, Jim Varsos, better known as Hobo Jim during an outdoor memorial concert Sunday, Oct. 31.
Varsos died after a battle with cancer Oct. 5 at the age of 68. Varsos announced his diagnosis in September.
Participating acts such as The Ken Peltier Band, H3, The Stack, and Lisa Ballard performed covers of Varsos’ songs and tributes in his name.
Ken Peltier said that he was grateful for all the different Alaskan musicians that gathered together to pay homage to Alaska’s balladeer.
“One of the things that we said when we were putting it together was, ‘if you want to come and sing at this event, that you had to learn Hobo Jim’s music,’ and that was the only rule we made. One of the reasons I asked them to do that was so that Jim’s music got spread even broader than it was,” Peltier said. “Everybody did a fantastic job with Jim’s music. I hope these acts that are fantastic carry on that legacy.”
Each song carried a different meaning for participating performers. Peltier chose "Educated Man," a song that Varsos wrote and ultimately helped gain The Ken Peltier Band national recognition through a radio contest hosted by Blair Garner.
"This song just really struck me," Peltier said. “Jim was so proud of that. He wrote that song. It’s still my favorite song that I've ever recorded.”
Varsos is one of the most recognizable figures in Alaskan entertainment with a long and industrious career spanning several decades. His work can be found in just about every corner of Alaskan culture, including numerous public schools that taught “The Iditarod Trail Song” as a part of their curriculum for many years.
“Nobody fills his shoes, period. He’s still the best. He will remain the best,” Peltier said.
Peltier said that he wasn’t planning on talking during the event, but he felt the need to share how much Varsos meant to him and so many others. He said that he was his mentor and father figure for years.
When Peltier developed throat cancer, Varsos immediately sprung into action and helped raise over 40,000 with the public. He said that he helped him countless times in his life through every high and low.
"He was the reason I didn’t give up on guitar,” Peltier said.
Bob Lester of the KWHL radio station was the event emcee. He said that he was dearly close to Varsos and his family, and Varsose even officiated his wedding.
“We’re all still in shock together,” Lester said. “He was just a wonderful human being and I know we all love him.”
Varsos was an entertainment pillar for many years at the Alaska State Fair. The annual lumberjack show was one of the staple events he participated in. Tina Scheer, better known by her stage name, “Timber Tina,” carried an ax to the podium, yelling out the signature lumberjack chant, “yo-ho!”
“Every lumberjack knows Jim and his songs,"
One of the most prominent themes of the evening was the fact that Varsos touched many lives on and off the stage, leaving a legacy of kindness and love for his family, friends, and countless others across the state.
Cyndi said that it meant a lot to see so many Alaskans gathered to show their support. She said that affection was always reciprocated throughout the years.
“Jim, he loved Alaska. He loved talking and singing about the history of Alaska and the people who live here, all of you,” Cyndi said. “Jim painted pictures of Alaska like nobody could with his words, and his heart belonged to you… I want you all to keep him close to your heart, and every time you miss him, just howl.”
The crowd enthusiastically obliged with a loud howl.
Prior to the final performance of the evening, Varsos’ family, friends, and members of the audience took shots from a special reserve whiskey in his memory, howled, laughed, and enjoyed the rest of the evening sharing stories over warm fires, drinks, and music.
One of Varsos’ many longtime friends, Suzy Crosby performed a song she wrote in Varsos’ memory called “Wild and Free.”
“Jim just wrote songs for all of us," Crosby said.
One of Varsos' signature guitars and a hat was on display during the concert. A hand-painted picture with his likeness was also in the background. That painting is going up for sale at an upcoming auction. There will be another memorial event on Varsos' 69th birthday, Dec. 21 at the Dena’ina Civic and Convention Center.
All the auction and event proceeds are going Cyndi. For more information about how to contribute, visit facebook.com/groups/54439917273.
Contact Mat-Su Valley Frontiersman reporter Jacob Mann at firstname.lastname@example.org