Fly High, Jerry Jeff Walker

photo: Kevin Smith

Being a fan of old music has its many benefits. Not only is time the greatest filter for quality—doing a lot of the digging and curation for you—the nostalgia and history of the music allows it to resonate that much deeper, and meaningfully, especially when that history intertwines with your own in how your remember when, where, and who you were with when you first heard this artist, or that song.

But it also comes with a price. It means you’re resigned to outliving many or all of your musical heroes. And when they pass, the impact is compounded from all of that personal history you have with their music.

The death of Jerry Jeff Walker hurts especially, perhaps more than it should or you expected it to, and in a way that is decidedly disproportionate to the fame he enjoyed, or the hits or awards he accrued throughout his career. Jerry Jeff wasn’t that kind of artist. He was never really “famous” or “successful” in the conventional sense. He didn’t even really get to enjoy that late career retrospective like many music legends do, like Johnny Cash did, like John Prine did before his passing, and Jeff Jeff contemporary Willie Nelson is enjoying right now.

But Jerry Jeff Walker wasn’t that kind of artist. He didn’t give a shit. And he didn’t give a shit in a way we all wished we could, living life day to day, taking it as it comes, and accidentally becoming one of the most important and influential music artists in American history. Of all the songs that define Jerry Jeff—either written by himself or others, and that come to mind whenever his name is mentioned—the one that might define his legacy best is “Gettin’ By,” which started off his most recognized album, Viva Terlingua! from 1973.

A song about having no real plan of how to pull off recording a new album, but owing his record label one (Walker mentions MCA President Mike Maitland “pacin’ the floor” in the song), it’s the true-to-life account of how Viva Terlingua! came about.

Without enough new original songs written to flesh out an album himself, Jerry Jeff turned to the catalogs of some of the other songwriters bumming around the Austin area at that time. He selected Guy Clark’s “Desperadoes Waiting For a Train,” “Backslider’s Wine” by Michael Martin Murphy, “Up Against The Wall, Redneck Mother” by Ray Wylie Hubbard, and Gary P. Nunn’s “London Homesick Blues,” all of which would become legacy contributions to the American songbook.

Recording of the album took place in Luckenback, TX in the midst of a raging party. Jerry Jeff Walker and the Lost Gonzo Band would get up on stage and play a few songs for the audience, then retire to a mobile studio set up nearby to cut a few more. It was a completely rag tag, beautiful mess of an album making process that resulted in a masterpiece. Gonzo country was born.

Jerry Jeff’s signature song “Mr. Bojangles” from many years before came about in much of the same manner. Jerry Jeff wasn’t looking to write a hit, he bumming around the United States in 1965 as a folk musician with no real plan when he ended up in a New Orleans drunk tank, arrested for public intoxication. There he met the real “Mr. Bojangles,” who was a New Orleans street performer in for the same offense. The rest is simply a recitation of Jerry Jeff’s experience, not especially inspiring on the surface. But something about the way Jerry Jeff set the chords of the song, and the lyrics awaken a fanciful, and surreal scene in the mind’s eye made it magical. Covered by an incredible cross section of musical performers, “Mr. Bojangles” changed American music. It wouldn’t be the last time Jerry Jeff Walker would have that effect.

Few artists can claim they helped forge the very geography of American music. Jerry Jeff Walker never would, because he wasn’t the braggadocios type. He was just as much embarrassed by his accomplishments as he was apt to remind you of them. He came from the archetype of artists who seems to get off on their own self-destruction and implicit failures. Nonetheless, Austin, TX may have never been the musical hub it is today without him.

“The most famous musician in Austin when I got there was Jerry Jeff Walker,” Willie Nelson recalls in his biography with Bud Shrake. “Janis Joplin had sung for years at Kenneth Threadgill’s place in Austin, but she’d gone to San Francisco to make her reputation … Rock bands like Shiva’s Head Band, the Conqueroo, and the Thirteenth Floor Elevators were going from Austin to San Francisco and back.”

But Jerry Jeff Walker came to Austin and stayed. First coming to the area on his way to California, he never really left, dropped roots for the first time in his life, and soon became synonymous with the city and its burgeoning music scene, no matter how strange it was for a guy from New York State (Oneonta, specifically) to hold that distinction, which he would share later with Ray Benson who was the head of the wild Western Swing revivalist outfit, Asleep At The Wheel. “Other than Willie, Jerry Jeff is the most important musician to happen to Austin, Texas,” Benson says.

Jerry Jeff Walker’s effect on making Austin and Texas an alternative to Nashville and California for country and rock musicians is indisputable, even though it was very much an accident, just like the success of “Mr. Bojangles.” The impact of that song meant wherever Jerry Jeff Walker set up shop immediately became a music hub. He had a similar effect when he moved to Key West, FL for a short time. Jerry Jeff was the first to drive Jimmy Buffett to the island, and David Alan Coe moved there for a short period due to Jerry Jeff’s presence. Now it’s a songwriting enclave all to itself, as is Luckenbach, thanks to Viva Terlingua!

Walker’s impact in Austin was chronicled in-depth in Jan Reed’s book on the formation of the Austin music scene, The Improbable Rise of Redneck Rock. The book that was responsible for inspiring the Austin City Limits PBS show, which for years used Lost Gonzo Band member Gary P. Nunn’s “London Homesick Blues” as their theme song, first featured on Viva Terlingua!

But author Jan Reed wasn’t one for lionizing Jerry Jeff, nor was anybody else. In the book, Reed recited his experience of seeing Jerry Jeff appear at the Armadillo World Headquarters piss drunk, ultimately blowing the show. Jerry Jeff liked to get drunk in those days, and piss in strange places, swaying back and forth with his eyelids permanently affixed at half-mast.

“Everybody wanted Jerry Jeff to play his classic “Mr. Bojangles,” but he never did like to be told what to play or when to play it,” Willie Nelson recalls. “If some host asked Jerry Jeff to play “Mr. Bojangles” or anything else at the wrong moment in the wrong tone of voice, he was liable to whip out his dick and piss in the potted ficus plant, and the fight would start.”

And that’s not an exaggeration. Stories of Jerry Jeff pissing in places not traditionally designed for piss are a dime a dozen. For some, his song “Pissin’ In The Wind” from 1975 is a favorite. One of the most telling moments in Jerry Jeff Walker’s career is when he appeared on the Dinah Shore Show in 1978. Watching former Dallas Cowboys quarterback “Dandy” Don Meredith dance around trying to ask Jerry Jeff to play “Mr. Bojangles” at Dinah Shore’s request while knowing what trouble could ensue is a piece of television magic. Luckily in this instance, Jerry Jeff complied.

But it wasn’t just the music, or the songs, or where Walker landed that left the greatest impact. It’s was the attitude. In a way that you can still palpably sense in the music and artists down in Texas—and in a way that is unique to the region—there is a laid bac feeling that permeates everything that Jerry Jeff Walker touched in his wake. It’s what made “Luckenbach, TX” such a landmark, Waylon Jennings made a #1 song from it. “Back to the basics.” It’s not just a musical style or legacy, it’s a state of mind that Jerry Jeff embodied, and helped forge in Texas that permeates the entire culture and mindset well beyond the music.

As time goes on, that state of mind formed by Jerry Jeff Walker and others feels like it’s slowly slipping away, just like everything else. Luckenback, TX is still around, and so are Jerry Jeff’s Walker’s songs. But Jerry Jeff Walker is not. And though we’ll never forget, it will be impossible to not remember all those good times Jerry Jeff afforded us, and feel a rush of incredible sadness proportionate to the impact Jerry Jeff Walker had on music, and people, and places, which was infinite.

READ: Country and Songwriting Legend Jerry Jeff Walker Has Died

© 2023 Saving Country Music