It’s Still Scamp Walker Time Part 1
Through ages and changes,
Jerry Jeff triumphs by remainingcontrary to ordinary.
There was a time when a gambler wouldn’t have taken 100-to-1 odds that Jerry Jeff Walker would live to celebrate his 40th birthday, much less make it to 60 and still be producing quality albums in the 21st century. In the 1970s, Walker burned his candle at both ends and “found new ends to light,” he once said. Party buddies were amazed at Walker’s hollow leg for booze and hollow nostril for cocaine and his ability to go long stretches without sleep, but they figured his luck would vanish sooner rather than later. “I told him at his birthday party two years ago, ‘Jerry, I never thought I’d live long enough to see you live this long,’ ” said Ray Wylie Hubbard, who wrote “(Up Against The Wall) Redneck Mother,” one of Walker’s signature songs.
Former lead guitarist John Inmon witnessed much of the journey and marvels at Walker’s gusto. “His whole life has been this one wild ride,” Inmon said. “He’s like a Hemingway kind of character. He’s one of those guys who takes life by the horns. He wants to get the most out of it that he can. Often it doesn’t have a good effect on people around him, but he insists on pure freedom for himself. You got to admire that. He’s the real deal.”
Six decades have passed since Walker was born Ronald Clyde Crosby in Oneonta, N.Y., and fashioned himself into a gypsy songman and road scholar. He survived the rootless existence, name changes, drunk tanks, the righteous ’60s, rollicking ’70s, lowly ’80s, and rejuvenated ’90s, and he remains relevant in the current Texas Music regeneration.
Walker’s departure from big record labels in favor of self-production and internet-based distribution in the mid-1980s became the model that his contemporaries follow today. His nonprofit foundation is attempting to start a pop music vocational school similar to Paul McCartney’s innovative Liverpool Institute for Performing Arts. Meanwhile, his son, Django Walker, is reaping praise for his own budding music career.
The metamorphosis continues. After spending most of the past decade performing with a band, Walker is planning to play more solo performances in 2003 — just Jerry Jeff, his guitar, songs, and stories. He’ll be with his band at the first Big Tex Music Festival on Oct. 19 at the 2002 State Fair in Dallas. Thirty years after Walker and a handful of Texas musician made Lone Star and Luckenbach household names, he can command a spot on a State Fair bill that includes the fashionable Dixie Chicks, Pat Green, and Charlie Robison.
A decent résumé for a guy who seemed destined to live hard, die young, and leave a good-looking corpse. His recent explanation for playing one of his most popular songs, “Mr. Bojangles,” in differing styles and tempos through the years is a fitting reflection on his life. “It goes through evolutions; that’s part of what music is about,” he said. “We’re not just machines out there.”
The phone rings, and Jerry Jeff Walker grabs the receiver and grumbles hello. The phone has been ringing frequently in the past hour since Walker sat down in his Austin home with Fort Worth Weekly for an interview — the likes of which he disdains and typically avoids.
Walker doesn’t cater to news people and entertainment writers, although he wasn’t above manipulating them early in his career. He might be good for the occasional colorful quote on the fly, but he dislikes answering stale questions or keeping appointments (other than his concerts). As he wrote in his 1999 autobiography, Gypsy Songman, if you don’t want him to do something, tell him he has to do it.
Walker was rebellious early, a poor student who preferred playing basketball and hanging out with older guys in pool halls, cigarettes dangling, prowling for girls. He developed a love of music by listening to his parents’ jazz-oriented albums, and he learned to play guitar on an old Harmony borrowed from a neighbor. The cheap instrument was difficult to play, and he later switched to a ukulele. His first job as a professional singer was playing ukulele and singing at limbo contests on the beach in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., where he and a friend had hitchhiked.
He ditched his birth name, Ron Crosby, in favor of Jerry Ferris after he left home for good in the early 1960s and moved to New Orleans. He was pursuing adventure — and AWOL from the National Guard — and left his old identity behind. He chose Jerry Ferris because someone in New York had given him a fake ID with that name. A few years later, he cleared up his problems with the National Guard and wanted to start fresh. This time, he chose the name Jeff Walker. He liked the sound. But his French Quarter friends and lovers rejected his new name and continued to call him Jerry.
Jerry Jeff Walker. The name would soon break the confines of New Orleans, spread to Texas, and then ignite the country’s imagination. Austin was musical Mecca, and Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, and Jerry Jeff Walker were the three kings of Outlaw music, the next musical phenomenon to follow ’60s rock and Woodstock.
In 1970s Austin, the native New Yorker kept quiet about his roots and his real name and, with the help of a New York manager, used the media to help craft the Jerry Jeff persona as a Lone Star rabble-rouser. Early on, his media savvy was more sophisticated than that of his peers. “People raised in the South, it’s ingrained that you don’t toot your own horn or ring your own bell,” Inmon said. “Humility is prized. Up north, in populated areas, you have to be aggressive to survive. You have to promote yourself. This was ingrained in Jerry Jeff. When he came down here and realized that a lot of these people were just humble good ol’ boys, he could promote himself and have a great effect because nobody else was promoting themselves much.”
Walker and his manager created a myth, although myth and reality weren’t far apart. The tall, broken-nosed bard might have been a city boy from up north, but his true nature was a beer-drinking, hell-raising, boot-wearing, guitar-picking rascal who seemed every bit as Texan as Willie and Waylon — or Sam Houston and Lyndon B. Johnson, for that matter. “By keeping his origins and given name quiet, they invented this Texas character,” Inmon said. “It was only after he had been established as a Texas icon that he let it out that he was not really from here.”
It’s Friday, Sept. 13, and Walker is waiting the last few hours before a gig at his favorite venue, Gruene Hall, the oldest and probably most distinctive dance hall in Texas. This night he’s playing with a drum-bass-guitar backing, and he’ll continue to use the band for 40 or so gigs next year, but 2003 will also usher in a return to solo performances, something he excels at but has drifted away from in the past decade. “I’ve been talking to friends — Guy Clark who does a lot of it, and John Prine — just feeling out what is out there and what’s going on,” he says. “I’m going to play the One World Theater [in Austin] in January and probably record that show and do some solo stuff and mix in even possibly some old standards.”
Recording in front of friends or fans, rather than building songs layer by layer in a studio, appeals to Walker’s spirit of unstructured fun. Parts of the seminal 1973 album Viva Terlingua were recorded live, and a few of the songs were written on the spot. It remains a symbolic statement of Outlaw music. “Viva is still the definitive progressive country Outlaw record,” Hubbard says. “It really was progressive. It captured the time and the era. It was musically unique.”
Viva Terlingua shaped the musical direction of many current Texas Music artists, including Pat Green, who is often called a latter-day Jerry Jeff. “I really enjoyed that whole feel, that whole vibe,” Green told the Weekly recently. “It seemed to be loose, not polished, and I really liked that. They were playing fun music, and it matched with my personality.”
The looseness of live recordings has marked Walker’s sound for years. Live at Gruene Hall in 1989 gained him a new generation of fans after a bleak period in the 1980s, when he was struggling to regain his health and remain financially solvent.
The January live performance at One World Theater with original songs sprinkled among pop standards could spark more attention. Walker’s sole recording of a pop standard, “My Buddy,” from 1977’s A Man Must Carry On album, is one of his most touching moments. “Live recording has sort of been my forte,” he said. “I’ve done as many live recordings as I have studio recordings. I like it because I can concentrate on entertaining the audience. The studio is the only place you ever play a song five times in a row.”
Walker is restless during our interview — tidying his desk, fidgeting in his chair, and answering phone calls or turning them over to his dynamic wife and business manager, Susan Walker, who takes the calls in another room. His office contains a computer, a guitar, and books. French doors open to a shaded patio, picnic table, and swimming pool. The house is comfortable and sprawling, with plenty of hardwood, rustic décor, books, large photos of his relatives and famous friends, and a courtyard that reveals his love of Caribbean scenery.
The office walls are decorated with framed albums spanning Walker’s career, from his short-lived psychedelic hippie stint with Circus Maximus in 1967, when he was gaunt and wore a fuzzy soul patch under his bottom lip; to 1968’s debut solo effort, the classic Mr. Bojangles, when he looked like the roustabout street singer that he genuinely was; to the stoned and drunken cowboy of the 1970s Ridin’ High era that gained him fame and nearly killed him; and on to the rejuvenated and more grounded Gypsy Songman period of the 1980s and onward.
Austin was comfortably quaint when Walker moved there in 1971, and his national notoriety and widespread fan base helped spur attention and growth that would later make the city hard for some to bear. Walker has praised Austin in song and conversation for years, but he had given his heart to New Orleans after hitchhiking there in 1961 and living as a street singer in the French Quarter. He and Susan bought a house in the Quarter several years ago, and they like to flee Austin and soak up New Orleans’ eccentric scene. “The way Austin has changed now, I really like New Orleans,” he says. “There are only two cities that are really different, and that’s San Francisco and New Orleans.”
Another favorite city is Fort Worth. He holds the record for most performances at Billy Bob’s Texas and once drew 3,500 fans for a solo gig — becoming the only entertainer to perform solo at the sprawling honkytonk. “Fort Worth is starting to look like one of the most unique cities in Texas,” he says. “I’m a big fan of the Bass family, Lee and Ramona. They’ve been real nice to us and they’ve taken us to their ranch out by the King Ranch area, someplace down there — who knows? — for a couple of private parties, and they’ve had us at the (Fort Worth) Zoo, and they’ve supported us quite a bit. I think they’ve been really responsible for a lot of Fort Worth’s renovation and charm.”
Billy Bob’s is a common stop, but he enjoys the acoustic intimacy of Bass Performance Hall. He liked playing at Caravan of Dreams before it closed, but “it was a little too small,” he said. For Walker’s 2003 solo run, he is seeking places that hold 500-700 people paying $25 or $30 each, with table service — warm and personal venues but large enough to pay for his services. “That’s part of what I’m trying to explore,” he says. “I’m poking around to see what’s going on.”
Walker leans forward, then back, then forward again, in constant motion as he sits at his desk. He’s always had a restless nature, but he’s also got a hurting back. A disc problem forced him to play with a neck brace at his 60th birthday party last March in Austin, an annual bash that draws thousands and provides funds for his nonprofit foundation that supports education in the arts.
Walker’s back is still hurting, but he’s recovering. He is wearing an untucked, button-down shirt, faded blue jeans, tennis shoes, and a hat that covers a tanned scalp and thinning gray hair. He appears healthy, although the years are evident on his face.
The desk is cluttered with half-written songs on scraps of paper, guitar picks (for those interested: Dunlop vinyl, mostly medium gauge), and literature about his latest hobby — photography. He recently acquired a digital camera and is finding outlets for that passion. His computer screen’s wallpaper shows pictures he took earlier that day of homes in his neighborhood, a charming old subdivision near downtown Austin.
The phone rings again, and Walker snatches it up. He listens for a moment and then says, “That Pat Green sure is an asshole,” and looks across the desk at his interviewer, who is recording the conversation.
“I’m doing an interview,” Walker says into the phone and laughs. His eyes twinkle and the creases deepen and stretch the length of his face. It’s the famous Jerry Jeff smile, the one that can be rare offstage with strangers but erupts so readily when he’s under the spotlights singing “Getting By,” “London Homesick Blues,” “Sangria Wine,” or any of his vast catalogue of barn-burning foot-stompers.
It’s Pat Green on the phone, calling to update Jerry Jeff on a gig that night in San Angelo. Green is sharing the bill with Walker’s son, Django, who followed his dad’s bootsteps into the Texas honkytonk scene and is creating his own following. “Django’s on stage doing a sound check now?” Walker says into the phone. “It’s a big outdoor stage? Tell him he needs to put some of that guitar in his monitor because he’s going to need it tonight — he’s got a new amp and a new rig. Yep. Well, every time I tell him something he says, ‘I’m not you, Dad.’ Yeah, he’s 21, he’s a man now.”
Walker talks to Green a while longer and then hangs up and returns his attention to the interview. The phone soon rings again, but this time Walker unplugs the cord. “Susan can answer it,” he says.
Talking to Walker can be as unsettling as it is interesting. The sheer largeness of his persona can both create walls and tear them down. Fans, acquaintances, and friends alternately describe Walker as outgoing, sullen, intelligent, ornery, generous, and petty. “He can be an asshole,” more than one person said during interviews for this article. Walker shows glimpses of all these traits during a two-hour interview. He dismisses questions he doesn’t like and shows irritation when he is interrupted or misunderstood. He also laughs and jokes when he’s enjoying a particular topic of conversation; he beams when he discusses his two grown children, Django and Jessie Jane; and he gives his interviewer more time than was promised, even after complaining about being tired and wanting to grab some dinner and take a rest before driving 45 miles to Gruene for his 9 p.m. gig.
By the time the inquisition ends, he has presented himself as a man who does and says whatever he wants and doesn’t much give a damn what people think — a man hard to dislike or disrespect.
“Jerry Jeff is very comfortable with where he is,” Green told the Weekly a few days later. “He still giggles, and he still has that fire in him. See him get mad about something, it’s fun to watch.”
Texas Music artists who become favorites of the college frat-boy crowd are ensured raucous shows and beer-guzzling, money-spending crowds that please promoters and accountants. Walker filled the role in the 1970s, Robert Earl Keen in the 1990s, and Green currently. But that college cult status can also enslave, making some artists feel like a Good Time Charlie jukebox, a dancing monkey. “What happens is you get these college kids following you on these bar gigs, and ‘The Road Goes on Forever,’ and everything is at a volume where there are no ballads; there is no subtle writing,” said Walker, who, unlike many artists, is not afraid to discuss the sometimes strained relationships between performers and fans.
Switching from noisy honkytonks to quiet folk festivals and coffeehouses can be difficult. Gagging a rowdy crowd is a challenge, because artists hesitate to disappoint or chastise fans paying money to see them. Walker has less trouble with that than most. “We’re going to announce on my web site that if you want to see me with a band, do that; but if you want to come and spend X amount of money and have a table and a waitress where you can sit and see me in a listening club, I’ll be doing those,” he said. “I’ll be able to play my wooden guitar and talk more. I just don’t want people to start doing tailgate parties and then coming over to this little listening club and wonder why I’m not doing “Pissing In The Wind” or something like that — wrong one, Bro’, you’re going to get kicked out.(Click here to continue...)
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