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James Hawthorn, 57, who goes by the stage name “Bobby Joe, the Singing Hillbilly,” has been homeless for nine years pursuing a career as a musician and singer. He lives in a tent and has a regular “gig” by the Fred Meyer grocery on Bakerview Avenue in Bellingham.
You can easily spot him by the large black cart he uses to carry around his many musical instruments and the bracelets he sells to support himself. He plays guitar, harmonica, harmonium and tambourine, which also doubles as a drum.
Although playing his various instruments rarely draws donations, he said it is useful to attract attention to the jewelry. He strings his bracelets with colored beads and small shells, some of which are gold. He is a somewhat of an entrepreneur with a touch of grandiosity. He is clearly not waiting around passively for handouts.
He grew up in Texas in a suburb of Dallas. His parents divorced when he was three and his father basically disappeared from his life. He never got along with his mother, who openly favored his younger sister. He initially became homeless at age 14 when his mother kicked him out. These experiences taught him to never trust anyone, especially women. He has had very little contact with his only sister; the last time was 10 years ago.
As a teenager he was somewhat effeminate and considered himself gay. Now, he has a baritone voice and an outgoing, masculine demeanor. He supported himself by prostitution until he was taken in by an older man whose father was wealthy. They lived together for 23 years. His benefactor bought a ranch for him in Texas where he raised emus, rheas and pigs.
But without a farming background, he was never able to break even. After two years the IRS seized it for back taxes. During that period, he began working as a butcher and was able save some money. His benefactor’s father died and his benefactor gradually went broke. After the money ran out, they bought an RV and headed to Ketchikan and later to Juneau to homestead. Unfortunately, his benefactor’s health declined and they returned to the lower 48, where he died.
As difficult as that sounds, it did not bother James much. Having been homeless as a teenager gave him the confidence that he could do it again. He had always harbored an ambition to pursue a musical career and this gave him the push to get started. That was nearly nine years ago. His RV no longer runs, now just serving as a place to store his belongings. However, the landowner where he has been storing it may confiscate it for failure to pay liability insurance.
He had been interested in music as a teen and for a while played first chair cornet in his school band. His idols were Johnnie Cash, Elvis Presley, Hank Williams, Willie Nelson, Merle Haggard and Liberace. He mostly sings and plays oldies but goodies. He is filled with stories about his idols lives and their music, as well as many other performers. Between playing music and selling the bracelets he makes enough to comfortably afford a cell phone, with which he has been able to access a free internet music theory program from a Canadian musician. He hopes to write his own songs with what he has learned. Although he drinks a few beers every day and smokes cigarettes, he says he has never had a problem with drugs or alcohol.
He has been fortunate to have been befriended by Nanol Calaro, a Bellingham woman who has helped several people escape houselessness. She loved his voice, which sounds much like Merle Haggard’s voice. They are developing plans to buy a food trailer and truck for him to sell hot dogs. He has yet to get a Washington state driver license. He plans to hire someone to make the hot dogs while he attracts attention with his music. He wants to live in Birch Bay, where rents are cheaper, and haul the hot dog stand to Bellingham daily. He still harbors aspirations of making it big in music.
— Contributed by John Dunne
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