Country & Songwriting Legend Jerry Jeff Walker Has Died

From contributing one of the most important folk songs of the American songbook in history, to becoming a seminal member of the Austin, TX music scene and founding father of Texas country music, there is no comparing, and no replacing the impact of performer, songwriter, musical icon, and gonzo musician Jerry Jeff Walker. And now like so many of the greats, he has passed on to leave the rest of us searching and wondering who will fill his shoes.

Word of Jerry Jeff’s passing came down late Friday evening October 24th, according to Texas Red Dirt Roads and Galleywinter and other sources. He was 78 years old.

A native of New York State where he was born Ronald Clyde Crosby on March 16, 1942, Jerry Jeff is known most notably for penning the iconic song “Mr. Bojangles.” First coming up in the Greenwich Village folk scene in the mid 60’s, he wrote the song after making the acquaintance of a New Orleans street performer while spending time in a drunk tank. The whimsical story and compelling melody made it a song that was eventually covered by just about every contemporary of Jerry Jeff Walker at the time, from Bob Dylan, to Sammy Davis Jr., to Neil Diamond, and most famously The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band. It became Jerry Jeff’s signature song, and one of America’s.

But following the Texas credo that if you’re not born there, you get there as fast as you can, Walker would take his name recognition, prestige, and major label deal, and become one of the primary catalysts for creating the world-class music scene in Austin, TX that would later launch Willie Nelson and others to superstardom. Moving to the area in the early 70’s, the music scene very much formed around Jerry Jeff as he recruited the Lost Gonzo Band with Gary P. Nunn and Bob Livingston behind him (that he borrowed from Michael Martin Murphy), and made the Armadillo World Headquarters his second home.

Soon a guy known as a songwriter became known as a guy who shouted out and recorded some of the greatest songs from other songwriters of the time—songwriters such as Ray Wylie Hubbard, Rodney Crowell, Townes Van Zandt, Guy Clark, and later Todd Snider, helping to put them on the national map. He made Guy Clark’s “L.A. Freeway” a hit, as he did with Ray Wylie Hubbard’s “Redneck Mother,” and Gary P. Nunn’s “London Homesick Blues,” which became the theme song for Austin City Limits for decades.

Though Walker started his career as a folk artists, records like Viva Terlingua were decidedly country in style, and helped define the burgeoning Texas country sound. As many of his friends in Texas started to blow up like Willie Nelson, Jerry Jeff’s rambunctious, offbeat, country rock style and propensity to drink too much and blow shows kept him decidedly less successful than some that he gave a leg up to. But with “Mr. Bojangles” royalty money continuing to pour in, Walker was given the creative freedom to explore his muse, and the laid back lifestyle he regularly sang about in his songs. Soon he became to embody the carefree attitude, yet high standard for storytelling that made the country music from Texas so special.

After recording for MCA and Elektra, Jerry Jeff formed his own label Tried & True in 1986 with his wife and manager Susan, who he married in 1974. Under the imprint, he released multiple records that would bolster his legacy, including 1987’s Gypsy Songman, and 1994’s Viva Luckenbach. Despite not being born in the state, Jerry Jeff became his own Texas tradition, with annual birthday celebrations at the Paramount Theatre in Austin, and at Gruene Hall.

But moreover, the way Jerry Jeff Walker turned the unexpected fame and attention he received from writing “Mr. Bojangles” to benefit so many others via shout outs and song credits is what stands out as the defining mark of character and contribution Jerry Jeff Walker left. He never wanted to be famous, but he sure enjoyed bestowing fame to others.

It was revealed in September of 2017 that Jerry Jeff Walker had been suffering from throat Cancer, and developed pneumonia and a blood infection. According to Walker, at one point his wife Susan asked if he wanted to continue the fight. That is how dire the situation became. But Jerry Jeff was able to recover, and released his last album in 2018 called It’s About Time. His official cause of death was a relapse of the throat Cancer.

Jerry Jeff Walker is survived by his wife and manager Susan, daughter Jessie Jane, and son and fellow musician Django Walker.

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