Alaska musician Hobo Jim reflects on career after announcing end stage cancer diagnosis
ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) - James Varsos, better known to most as Hobo Jim and Alaska’s State Balladeer, has been a musical icon in Alaska for over 40 years. He announced over the weekend that he has been diagnosed with a terminal illness, end-stage cancer.
Varsos is known for his unique and catchy songs about the 49th state, the way of life, and the people who live here. He’s also known for his warm, genuine and humble personality, and bringing smiles to the faces of many.
“I always think that the thing that keeps you going is joy,” said Varsos. “I like being happy.”
Local radio personality Bob Lester has been a close friend of Varsos for many years. He describes Varsos as “the most humble famous person you’d ever want to meet.”
“This is a man that I’ve looked up to my whole life,” Lester said. “I mean he’s Alaska — he’s the ambassador of Alaska.”
Most people who grew up in Alaska grew up singing the “Iditarod Trail Song” in school, a Hobo Jim classic. Varsos says that tune changed his whole career, and even became the official song of the Iditarod.
“That song literally has taken me around the world and it was curriculum in the Alaska school system for a long time, but now it’s curriculum in Germany, and in Japan and lots of schools around the world,” he said.
During his career as a musician, he’s achieved many other accomplishments both in and out of Alaska. While talking about highlights of his career and moments that stood out to him, he mentioned getting the chance to perform with renowned musicians like Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, Reba McEntire, and Russell Smith from Amazing Rhythm Aces, just to name a few. Varsos even received a Doctor of Fine Arts degree from the University of Alaska Fairbanks back in 2018.
“But the national thing I look at as a very minor part of my career — the Alaska songs are what means anything to me,” Varsos said. “I’ve just been so blessed with everything my state’s given to me, (and) I feel I owe my state so much more.”
Recently, Varsos performed at the Alaska State Fair when he says he started experiencing some pain — something he thought was related to the chronic back pain he says he’s had for most of his life.
“But it was just getting worse and worse and worse, noticeably worse, and I just kept telling myself it was normal, and finished my shows,” Varsos said.
Despite the pain, he flew down to Wyoming to perform a show where he said things took a turn for the worse. He ended up in Nashville where he has a second home and then soon found himself admitted to a hospital there, not expecting to hear news from a doctor that would completely shock him.
“He told me the first day I had cancer and it was already end stage,” Varsos said. “I have very large tumors in the liver and stomach and pancreas, and they found it in my blood.”
The diagnosis is a grim reality to face for Varsos. He said the doctor told him he only has three to six months to live.
“I’ve never feared death and I’ve never feared what comes next — I’m good to meet my God at anytime, I always have been, so that part doesn’t bother me,” Varsos said. “In truth, the devastating thing to me is those I leave behind, in particular, my wife.”
After notifying family and several close friends, Varsos decided to make the announcement public on his Facebook account. Since then, that post has received thousands of comments from people around the world offering their thoughts and prayers, and letting him know how much of an impact he’s had on their lives. While holding back tears, Varsos said that support has been overwhelming.
“I’d just like to say thanks for 49 years of support — I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for you guys, and I’ve enjoyed every minute of it,” he said. “Mentally, I’m doing great. I just worry about others.”
Varsos said he was in the middle of working on various projects before he received his diagnosis, including an autobiography, but that he won’t be able to accomplish all of them now.
“My main plan right now is to get things in order for my wife — that’s my No. one concern,” he said. “And then after that, once that settles away, I think I’m just gonna fish and read and carry on like I always have.”
Varsos said one of his biggest passions in life aside from his own family is the state of Alaska, and says he’s proud of the state and proud that he’s lived here for so many years.
“All of you who live in Alaska, don’t take it for granted,” he said. “We are so lucky — never get tired of driving that highway.”
A GoFundMe campaign has been set up to help the Varsos family navigate this difficult situation.
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