50 Years Ago: Jerry Jeff Walker Records “Viva Terlingua”

There are classic country albums that 50 years after their release remain beloved and well listened to by fans, withstanding the test of time and unaffected by changes in style to become iconic. Then there is Jerry Jeff Walker’s Viva Terlingua whose legacy is so rich, deep, and stratified across a host of important and influential lines, it’s like its own institution.

There was country music before Viva Terlingua, and then there was country music after it. The album put the tiny little town of Luckenbach, TX with a population of 3 on the proverbial map, both geographically, and in the country music universe. It helped give Jerry Jeff Walker’s career a second wind. It made Ray Wylie Hubbard and Gary P. Nunn household names (at least in country music households), and helped support the careers of Michael Martin Murphey and Guy Clark.

Viva Terlingua also created a foundation for music in Austin, TX to grow from. And make no mistake about it, all of this came about completely by accident, thanks to the gonzo-oriented career of Jerry Jeff Walker who was simply trying to fulfill a stipulation of a recording contract without having to do any real actual work. He pulled it off with flying colors.

Jerry Jeff Walker was originally from New York State, and was already famous for writing the American classic “Mr. Bonjangles” when he moved to the outskirts of Austin, TX. At the time, Austin wasn’t especially known as a music town. Aside from the Kerrville Folk Festival out in the Hill Country and Austin’s own psychedelic madman Roky Erickson, there wasn’t much for Austin to hang its hat on. Janis Joplin stopped in for a cheeseburger, but kept on truckin’ to San Francisco.

Jerry Jeff Walker was one of the guys that the Austin music scene sprouted out from, at least on the country side of things. His 1972 self-titled album was recorded in Austin, and he borrowed Michael Martin Murphey’s band who’d just played on Murphy’s debut Geronimo’s Cadillac to cut it. Jerry Jeff’s “Austin” album was anchored by Walker’s recording of Guy Clark’s “L.A. Freeway,” and featured keys player and West Texas folkie Gary P. Nunn, bass player Bob Livingston, lead guitar player Craig Hillis, pedal steel player Herb Steiner, and drummer Michael McGeary.

After wrapping the Jerry Jeff album, the band then worked on what would become Michael Martin Murphy’s second album Cosmic Cowboy Souvenir. Then they hit the road for a tour with Jerry Jeff Walker, but Gary P. Nunn decided to go to London with Michael Martin Murphey to mix Cosmic Cowboy Souvenir. Nunn had such a terrible time in the U.K., when he got home he decided he wanted to re-enroll in Texas Tech and become a pharmacist. He never made it back to Lubbock though.

Gary P. Nunn and the rest of what would become know as the Lost Gonzo Band were roped into a crazy idea by Jerry Jeff Walker to record an album in the dancehall of the tiny and barely-known town of Luckenbach. Bumming around in the Hill Country, Jerry Jeff had taken a liking to the little ink spot purchased by “Grand Imagineer” Hondo Crouch. Jerry Jeff and Hondo became like best friends.

Hondo Crouch and his legendary finger

In 1973 while Jerry Jeff was under contract with MCA, he was required to release a new album every year. In the opening song of Viva Terlingua called “Gettin’ By” when Jerry Jeff sings…

Last week I was thinking it’s record time again
And I could see Mike Maitland had been pacin’ his floor
Ah Mike, don’t you worry, something’s bound to come out
Besides, I’ve been down this road once before

…this is real. Mike Maitland was Jerry Jeff’s handler at MCA. The producer of Vivia Terlingua was Michael Brovsky who was Jerry Jeff’s manager from New York. In 1973, recording an album remotely wasn’t exactly normal, or easy. But Brovsky arranged for an outfit called “Dale Ashby and Father” to travel down to Texas to record the album.

Despite the harebrained approach to most of Viva Terlingua, Dale Ashby and his father’s equipment was state-of-the-art at the time, and the engineering was stellar, though the power requirements once they were all set up required Hondo Crouch to beg the county for more juice, which luckily was provided just in time for the recording sessions that started on August 18th, 1973.

Bassist Bob Livingston recalls:

“There were no motels or accommodations of any kind in Luckenbach, so the band checked into a cluster of rustic little cabins, tucked back a-ways from Main Street, in nearby Fredericksburg. Then we went out to inspect the scenery and set up. We set our amps on the dance floor in front of the stage, picking our spots and settling in around Jerry Jeff who was urgently trying to finish six songs at once. McGeary set his drums up on the stage behind us. We baffled everything with bales of hay and the Ashbys set up mics and booms on everything. We needed a piano, so we brought mine from Austin, a Baldwin spinet. (The leg got busted during the move and the crack is still there.)

August 18th was the night when the songs with a live audience were recorded. Flyers were strewn all over the Texas Hill country, and a few hundred people packed into the Luckenbach Dance Hall. It was Bob Livingston who was responsible for “Up Against The Wall Redneck Mother.” Between gigs for Michael Martin Murphey and Jerry Jeff Walker, Livingston played some pickup gigs with a Texas songwriter named Ray Hubbard. Livingston had heard “Redneck Mother” and the band had practiced it, but Ray Hubbard was too bashful to play it in public.

Then one time when Jerry Jeff Walker broke a string on stage, Bob Livingston took the mic to stall for time and sung “Redneck Mother.” Jerry Jeff Walker loved it so much, he adopted it for his own repertoire. When Walker introduces the song on Viva Terlingua as being from “Ray WYLIE Hubbard,” the Wylie stuck, and so did the rest of the name and “Redneck Mother” into Outlaw country history.

As for “London Homesick Blues,” that was the (mostly) true story of Gary P. Nunn’s trip with Michael Martin Murphey to London to mix Cosmic Cowboy Souvenir. That is one of the many reasons Viva Terlingua is like the perfect time capsule into Texas country music at a time it was still in its formative stages. It’s this Jerry Jeff Walker album that made Austin and Texas remarkable enough for Willie Nelson to come to after he was tired of Nashville and his house burned down.

As for the rest of the Viva Terlingua songs, they were recorded in the Luckenbach dancehall as well, but sans the crowd, and in a more conventional fashion starting on August 19th. Well, conventional for Luckenbach.

“This was the general order of things: We would wake up at the cabins late, eat breakfast in town and get out to Luckenbach around 2 p.m. every day,” says Bob Livingston. “When we pulled up, Jerry Jeff would be mixing up a batch of sangria wine in a big galvanized tub. We would hang out for a while, watch the sky and the clouds drift by, eat some lunch, drink some sangria, start to fool around with our instruments and jam, getting loose.”

It was that “loose” attitude that permeated everything about the Viva Terlingua recordings and gave it that indefinable magic no other country record had at that time. “Gettin’ By” feels like an anthem for all of our lives. Some will argue Jerry Jeff’s version of Guy Clark’s “Desperados Waiting For The Train” is a definitive one. And “Sangria Wine” is now a Jerry Jeff Walker classic.

The importance of some albums is measured well beyond the songs they contain. Viva Terlingua isn’t just an album, or a collection of recordings. It’s is the heart and attitude of the laid back Texas way of life captured for posterity and forevermore in musical form. And just like Luckenbach, and Texas, Viva Terlingua! will outlive us all.

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