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His fan club includes the nation's top two executives (he played at President Clinton's inaugural), as well as staunch admirers like gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson. Now, after more than 25 years of road work and as many albums, Jerry Jeff Walker, writer of "Mr. Bojangles" and singer of the legendary anthem "(Up Against the Wall) Redneck Mother," is willing to give up the secret of his extended, cultish success:
"These young acts have to learn," he drawls during a phone conversation from his Austin, Texas, office. "It doesn't matter how many albums you cut or the mighty power of the radio--if you don't go out and see em [the fans], your trip will be short. People will forget about you if you don't tour. It's simple."
Walker doesn't count much on new-CD sales (although he sells fairly well) or radio airplay (he doesn't get any) or even, incredibly, newspaper features (he ain't much for talking, anyway). He makes a fine living mostly because his has always been a long-haul vision.
"What sticks is when they come out to see your show," he claims. "They, well, discover you. They might buy the tape you're selling at the show and later end up going out to buy all your albums. Hell, we're still selling 20,000 Live at Gruene Hall a year, and it's five years old."
Walker does concede that his approach--relentless, grinding touring behind no particular album--is rare these days. Of course, that long, winding road isn't nearly as grueling as it once was.
"Well," he admits, "I do have a plane now."
He entered this life as Ronald Clyde Crosby in Oneonta, New York, in 1942, and pretty much stuck around town until he turned 19. In his early teens, he was a fixture on the local music scene--a member of any number of bands, including the Pizzerinos. He began his rambling ways in 1962, after a stint in the National Guard, when he and a pal thumbed to Florida--not coincidentally, in time for spring-break activities. A year later, he hitched his way to New Orleans. There, he whiled away his time penning tunes and singing on the streets of the French Quarter as "Jerry Ferris," one of many noms de plume he would use.
"All those names came from fake IDs I collected while tending bar," he recalls. "Along about that time, sometime in 1964, I was starting to get successful--getting checks--and they were tough to cash. I was using the name Jerry Jeff Walker regularly, so I got it legally changed."
The morning following Independence Day, 1965, found Jerry Jeff Walker nursing a huge hangover in the Crescent City drunk tank. In his holding cell was a street singer/dancer known as Bojangles.
"The song," he says of the work made famous by the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, "actually tells the tale." While he tires of telling the story, he doesn't fail to sing the song at his shows.
About a year after his brush with Bojangles and a first-time visit to Texas, Walker loaded up an old Mercury and sang Dylan songs on his way to Washington, D.C., where the folk-music scene--the radical musical genre of the time--was exploding. He remembers the impact the man from Hibbing, Minnesota, had on him and on other musicians of the day.
"What were people's lyrics before Bob Dylan?" he asks rhetorically. "Straightforward, fairly general songs about war, love, death. Dylan showed you could write songs about what you, the individual, was thinking at the time. And you could cross all the lines you wanted, too." In D.C., Walker formed the Lost Sea Dreamers and also began a long association with the Birchmere, then and now a venerable little alternative room in Alexandria, Virginia, whose alumni include Emmylou Harris, Mary-Chapin Carpenter, the Seldom Scene, and Nanci Griffith. In 1966, the Dreamers moved wholesale to New York City, where they became the house band at the celebrated Electric Circus and changed their name to Circus Maximus, eventually recording a pair of albums for Vanguard Records.
When the group broke up in 1968, Walker's solo celebrity took off. He found himself sharing the stage at the Newport Folk Festival with David Bromberg, and soon released his Mr. Bojangles album. Another pair of LPs followed, Drifting Way of Life (1969) and Five Years Gone (1970), then Walker hied it to Key West and Coconut Grove, where the Age of Aquarius was in full debauch. Bein' Free (1970) was the result, but a restless Walker soon had a hankering to move on.
"That was a great place, a great time," he recalls. "But it wasn't exactly a music hotbed." So he moved to Austin.
In 1972, Walker recorded the first of nearly a dozen albums for MCA, Jerry Jeff Walker, which contained his cover of Guy Clark's "L.A. Freeway." By then, the town was swamped with hippies, country pickers, singers with psychedelic souls and castaways from L.A. and Nashville. Walker's own fortunes started improving, but it was about a year later that his career took a definitive turn.
While the Nelson-Jennings-Glaser-Coe-led outlaw movement was rattling the rafters at Ryman Auditorium and the strait-laced sensibilities of the traditionalists in Nashville, progressive country was in full, revolutionary swing in Austin and vicinity. The small village of Luckenbach, especially, served as a musical mecca of sorts for alternative pickers in the area, as well as for refugees from behind the Pine Curtain. A popular place to gather--if not at the town's general store for a hot game of dominoes--was at the tiny beer mill and dance hall named Terlingua's. Walker, along with the original, fabulous Lost Gonzo Band, recorded Viva Terlingua! live at the little joint. It was a seat-of-the-pants work that is easily Walker's most-identifiable collection.
"I think it's done pretty good," Walker typically understates regarding the still-solid-selling 1973 MCA opus. "Especially considering we didn't know what the hell we were doing. It was just pure music-making."
In 1977, the Lost Gonzos went their own way, and Walker formed the Bandito Band, resulting in 1978's Contrary to Ordinary and Jerry Jeff releases. But alternative tastes were beginning to shift to all things electrified, progressive country wasn't progressing much anymore, and ramblin' man Walker had gotten married and, in 1978, sired daughter Jessie Jane. The following year's Too Old to Change served as an aptly named swan song for an era of freewheeling experimentation. The alternative musical strains once emanating en masse from Texas were being replaced by an explosion of traditional country in Music City.
"They were doing their own business in Nashville then," Walker notes evenly. "Roy Acuff, Loretta Lynn, Conway Twitty--they were the stars. It wasn't what I was doing or what I wanted to do, but that's just the way things worked out. I wasn't going there. Now, I guess I probably could've been more successful with Nashville's help. It's not easy to admit, you know. But, of course, Willie and Waylon did well, and, hell, Lyle Lovett still makes good records, and they haven't killed his sense of humor . . . so far."
But he didn't make it to Tennessee, and by 1982, at age 40, Walker had had it with depending upon others to produce, record and distribute his albums. For the next few years, he was content to tour and raise his family, which now included son Django Cody, born in 1981.
In 1986, Walker and his wife, Susan, formed Tried and True Music--We wanted control over what was happening, and this seemed the way to do it," he says--and their company signed an international distribution deal with Rykodisc. Basically, Walker makes the music and Ryko distributes it. With 1989's Live at Gruene Hall placing three singles on Billboard's country-music chart, and another four CDs now in the bins, Jerry Jeff Walker is again giving his legions what they want. The latest, this year's Viva Luckenbach!, marked a return to the scene of his initial success for a 20-year-reunion session with his current Gonzo Compadres. It works, especially the "Gettin' By" redux and Walker's 1968 "I Makes Money (Money Don't Make Me)."
"Next big thing we're going to do," Walker notes, "is record all the stuff on the old records. We'll do it live at the Birchmere, and all those old songs will be home with us." In the meantime, Walker hits the road.
"What a country!" he enthuses. "Last Fourth of July, there were 8,000 people packed into the minor-league-baseball stadium in San Antonio, all of em singing 'Up against the wall, redneck mother. . . .' It was great. After the show, this Norwegian journalist comes up to me and says, serious as all hell [Walker approximates a Scandinavian accent], 'Mr. Jerry Jeff, can you tell me, are you for or against this redneck mother?'" Walker laughs.
"This is how I work, and this is the fun I get," he says. "You can't make this stuff up.