Jerry Jeff Walker (1942-2020)
Lives don’t get lived harder than the one that Ronald Clyde Crosby lived for the past 78 years. The last 54 of those years were spent under the name, spell, spirit and lifestyle of Jerry Jeff Walker. Born in Oneonta, New York on March 16, 1942, Jerry Jeff had wandering bone and a gypsy heart that could not be contained. He bounced around with various garage bands in his teenage years before a stint in the National Guard. Walker wasn’t fit for military life and soon found himself AWOL and busking in New Orleans. The burgeoning folk music scene and troubadour lifestyle were moth to flame for Jerry Jeff Walker. He played coffee shops, listening rooms and any place that would have him from coast to coast. During this time and throughout the 1960’s, he was still seeking his truth. It certainly wasn’t Ronald Clyde Crosby, and it damn sure wasn’t going to be folk music. He was seeking more. More adventure. More life. More music.
At the age of 24 or so, and down to one of his last dollars and in a dingy New Orleans police drunk tank, Walker encountered an African-American homeless man who went by the moniker of Mr. Bojangles. The man was hiding his true identity from investigators and only responded to the Bojangles title. Bojangles was a a person of interest in a murder case involving hobos, and as if that wasn’t dark enough, he regaled Walker with a sad story about his dog dying twenty years earlier. The mood was dour and another celly asked if someone could lighten the mood. Mr. Bojangles then slowly began tapping until he laughed, slapped his leg a step. A dried out Walker immediately put the experience to song and created a masterpiece that will forever be part of the American musical canon.
Jerry Jeff continued to make his music anywhere he could and went through a phase where he headed a band called Circus Maximus. They were good enough to get a major label deal, but not good enough to gain any momentum. By now, Walker was roaring in his vices. Booze, pills, drugs. They all fueled his manic desire to live life to the last drop. The man was insatiable, he devoured every good time placed in front of him. He even invented a few. He continued busking, folk-ing across the country through the end of the 1960’s until he landed in Austin, Texas in 1971. He would revisit his signature song, record an album titled after it and seek a new path.
Fate. Happenstance. Kismet. Dumb luck. Whimsy. It all played a part in everything Jerry Jeff Walker ever did. But, it perhaps had no greater influence than placing him in Austin a step ahead of Willie and alongside such luminaries as Bob Livingston, Michael Martin Murphey, BW Stevenson, Rusty Wier, Gary P. Nunn and the like. Livingston and Nunn would soon collaborate with Walker on creating a new genre of country music. 1972 found Walker creating Gonzo Country. It would go on to inform and define Outlaw Country, Progressive Country, Texas Country, Red Dirt, Americana et al. The blueprint was laid on the first Jerry Jeff Walker collaboration with the Gonzo Band, 1972’s self-titled effort. Recording was split between Austin and New York as Walker struggled to shake off his past and embrace his destiny. First runs of “Hill Country Rain” and “Charlie Dunn” were placed alongside songs such as “LA Freeway” from a young songwriter named Guy Clark.
Touring behind that self-titled album led to a boon. Walker was soon packing joints out left and right. Word began to spread about this rowdy songwriter with a rocking band. He was given and earned the nicknames Scamp Walker and Jacky Jack Double Trouble. Scamp made the acquaintance of visionary and eccentric Hondo Crouch around this time period. Hondo owned a piece of land in the Hill Country and had appointed himself mayor, judge, sheriff and bartender. The place was called Luckenbach. Hondo told Jerry Jeff about his place and upon visiting, Walked agreed that it was indeed magical.
On August 18, 1973, Jerry Jeff Walker hired a ragtag recording crew with some finnicky state of the art technology to drive box trucks out to Luckenbach in the hottest part of the year to capture that magic on tape. The result was a masterpiece. Viva Terlingua (a misnomer because it was in fact Luckenbach), came to define Texas and Texas Music for the ensuing 50 years. Although, arguably the two most enduring tracks from the album aren’t written by his hand (Nunn’s “London Homesick Blues” and Ray Wylie Hubbard’s “Up Against the Wall Redneck Mother”), the entire project is dripping with Jerry Jeff Walker style, swagger and sound.
That swagger and sound was as much about the live show as anything that happened on record. Jerry Jeff Walker and the Lost Gonzo Band were energetic, lively and rocking. They were bringing rock n’ roll to country in a raw way. Less refined than what was happening with the Byrds and Gram Parsons. This was the punk rock version of that. With the exception being that the likes of Nunn, Livingston and John Inmon were impeccably professional and masterfully proficient musicians. They could rock and stay in tune, time and groove. Their live shows were energy in musical form and many live performers and bands have been chasing that dragon ever since their heyday.
The notion of Walker as a songwriter is one thing. He was an exceptionally fine one. But, he also knew a good song when he heard one from someone else. He was a gateway to other worlds through his interpretations of songs from Guy Clark, Townes Van Zandt, Ray Wylie Hubbard, Gary P. Nunn and Jimmy Buffett. Speaking of Buffett, his story doesn’t happen without Jerry Jeff Walker. If Jerry Jeff hadn’t decided to take his friend Jimmy on a mood-boosting lark from Nashville to the Florida Keys in November 1971 an entire industry and corporation would not exist. As legend has it, Jerry Jeff and Jimmy piled into a beat up 1947 Packard that Jerry Jeff had named “Flying Lady”. They landed in Key West and roared from one end to the other chasing the ghosts of Hemingway and trying to keep the hangovers at bay long enough to busk for change. Jerry Jeff soon departed for Texas and Jimmy really never left.
The success of Viva Terlinga was followed in quick succession by Walker’s Collectibles and Ridin’ High. Austin was the epicenter of the musical universe and while Willie gets all the deserved plaudits, it was Jerry Jeff Walker who was king of the scene. A man can only roar so hard and fly so close to the sun. Walker was determined to find out just how close that distance was. He married his wife Susan and began running around the rodeo circuit with guys like Larry Mahan. Chasing white lines of all kinds. In his memoir, Gypsy Songman, Walker recounts the tales of private planes and snorting cocaine in governors mansions. Stuff that would make Motley Crue look like a preschool. He was the type of guy that even Hunter S Thompson told to chill out. Jerry Jeff was an innovator, including in the after party.
As the 1970’s waned, so did Jerry Jeff’s interest in the same kind of music he had invented. He was burned out on all sides and in need of a creative reboot. He chased jazz, reggae and circled back to folk for a bit. The birth of his children, daughter Jessie Jane and son Django, centered him. Susan Walked proved to be smart, assertive and cutthroat in running Jerry Jeff’s business side. She freed him from his corporate overlords and developed an independent music roadmap that the likes of Robert Earl Keen and Pat Green would soon follow. Everything was done in house. Jerry Jeff focused on fatherhood and kept gigging throughout the 1980’s and into the early 1990’s. His Live at Gruene Hall and Navajo Rug albums are the high water marks of this era. A new generation was coming along and wanting to see what all the fuss was about. Jerry Jeff Walker sold it to them each time he hit the stage.
March always brought annual birthday shows in Austin, Gruene and beyond. Walker invested in property in Belize and was soon a burgeoning island magnate. The influence of the islands invaded his music much as it had his old pal Buffett. As Keen rose to massive prominence in the 1990’s followed by Green, Walker begrudgingly embraced his role as elder statesman. The gigs became less frequent. The albums less solid. The focus less sharp. Jerry Jeff had done it all. New York folkie to country rock superstar to Texas legend. And he had damn near killed himself dozens of times along the way. The laurels were piled high enough for generations of Walker’s to live off of.
When historians look back on Jerry Jeff Walker they will find a man, songwriter, artist and performer who was peerless. A man that changed his name to find himself. A songwriter who had a sly and unique take on life. An artist unafraid to chase muses, covers, genres and rules. A performer who only knew full-throttle, good-timing, turn the amps to 11 and make them smile. Jerry Jeff Walker’s music, legacy and inspiration will live for eternity.