By Matt Tunseth
For the Redoubt Reporter
For 25 years, BJ’s Lounge in Soldotna has been both the spiritual and professional home of Alaska’s most well-known troubadour, legendary singer/songwriter “Hobo” Jim Varsos.
But no more. On Saturday night, in front of a crowd that included an eclectic mix of graying old-timers and rowdy youngsters — but no tourists — Hobo Jim bid farewell to the bar with a sentimental farewell performance that left both the singer and his fans with tears welling in their eyes.
“It was sad. I don’t want to quit,” Varsos said. “I’ve been hanging my hat here for 25 years.”
BJ’s owner Ardie Crawford recently sold the liquor license to Don Jose’s, and the bar is closing down. Hobo Jim said he has no plans to stop performing in his adopted hometown of Soldotna (“I’m not done yet”), but will be taking his show across the street to the Riverside House, where he’ll play Friday and Saturday nights all summer long.
Leaving BJ’s won’t be easy. Varsos said he first performed at the bar when he was 18 years old — nearly 40 years ago, when the place was still called the Bear Den — after hitchhiking to Alaska from his native Tennessee.
“I just came in and passed the hat,” he said.
He’s had a regular gig at the place for a quarter century, during which he’s had the opportunity to not only win over new fans with his eclectic mix of tunes, but also see new generations of them grow up.
“That’s what’s keeping me alive is the kids I used to play for in elementary school coming into the bar now as adults,” he said.
Among those in attendance for his BJ’s swan song Saturday were some of Hobo’s most ardent and longtime fans, including one, John Iverson, who hand-built Jim’s one-of-a-kind guitar out of Susitna Valley spruce, mastadon ivory and abalone shell.
“The people that showed up here was heartbreaking to me,” Varsos said.
On Saturday night, Hobo led one last family sing-a-long. Mixing familiar hits like “Iditarod Trail,” “Backwoods Girl” and “Redington’s Run,” with songs by James Taylor and Woodie Guthrie, the man once named “Alaska’s Balladeer” by the state Legislature brought down the house.
A highlight of the show was when Hobo led the bar in a rendition of “The Star Spangled Banner,” a song folks rarely sing along to these days. But with Hobo leading them, nearly every patron in the bar joined in for a version that proved to be more solemn and heartfelt than anything heard at a ballgame in recent memory.
Then there was the dead fish.
Midway through the show, the door beside the stage opened and in walked Soldotna’s Dennis Massey carrying the 28-pound king salmon he’d caught earlier in the day during the Homer Winter King Tournament. The fish took fifth place in the tournament, and Massey said he thought it would be a good idea to bring it to the show to pay homage to Hobo Jim’s love of fishing.
After posing for pictures with the fish, Hobo Jim then tacked it to the wall behind him and continued to play until it broke loose and was hauled off to be turned into fillets.
The surreal scene would certainly be out of place at a show in Nashville or New York, but in Soldotna, it made perfect sense.
“I perform so I can afford to fish,” Varsos said.
That his final show at BJ’s was performed in March rather than June or July was fitting, Varsos said, because while he makes his money performing for Alaska’s summertime visitors, it’s the year-round folks for which he truly loves to play.