A tribute that keeps the songs respectfully close to their original versions, but the added twist of Earle’s rambling outlaw country keeps things fresh.
Steve Earle is all about paying tribute to his heroes. In 2009 he recorded ‘Townes’ as a tribute to the legendary Townes Van Zandt, and in 2019 he put out ‘Guy’, an album that paid homage to the late, great Guy Clark; so with ‘Jerry Jeff’, Earle (and his Dukes) are completing a trilogy of albums in tribute to what he calls his “first hand teachers”. “The records were recorded and released in the order in which [the artists] left this world. But make no mistake – it was Jerry Jeff Walker who came first,” said Earle of the project.
On the opening track, the joyously loose ‘Gettin’ By’, Earle puts his own spin on the lyrics by swapping out “OK buckaroos, Scamp Walker time again / I’m trying to slide one by you once more” for “Hi buckaroos, Steve Earle again / I’m trying to my best to be Jerry Jeff Walker once more”. Earle’s takes on ‘Gypsy Songman’ and ‘I Makes Money (Money Don’t Make Me)’ are every bit as celebratory as the originals, but with a little more anarchic flair, something that’s aided in no small part by some skilful fiddle playing by Eleanor Whitmore.
While always a deeply reflective song, ‘Little Bird’ feels extra poignant with Earle’s gruff vocals against lilting strings and Whitmore’s soft harmonies on the chorus. The equally gentle ‘Mr. Bojangles’ is surely Walker’s most well known song, having been covered by everyone from Bob Dylan to Sammy Davis Jr., and despite the shadow those names might cast, Earle’s moving and soulful rendition stands on its own. It’s not surprising Earle was able to pull off such an accomplished version once you understand his personal connection to the song: At the age of 14, Earle was introduced to Walker’s music when his high school drama teacher gave him a copy of ‘Mr. Bojangles’, and when Earle finally moved to Nashville in the 1970s, he was able to get to know Walker on a personal level – even becoming his “designated driver” for a time.
‘Charlie Dunn’ showcases Walker’s storytelling skills at their absolute finest, proving the most uncomplicated of narratives can still be compelling. It’s a simple tale of the unassuming life of a master craftsman from Texas who spent his life making cowboy boots, and it gained Charlie Dunn some notoriety when Walker released the eponymous song in 1972. For his part, Earle sticks faithfully to the original spoken word style on the verses, and too to the upbeat style of the chorus that feels like a celebration of a life well spent. ‘Wheel’ is about the connection wheels and their related modes of transport have in our lives and ultimately, our deaths: “Rollin’ wheels, rollin’ on / Takin’ us all on our way / Rollin’ wheels, rollin’ on / Takin’ us all to the grave / Takin’ back all that they save / Takin’ us all on our way”. The harmonica laden ’Old Road’ is a meditative but still bluesy ballad, Earle injecting the exact amount of weariness needed for the tale of endless travel to be convincing.
This being his 22nd LP, Earle has proven himself to be a prolific workhorse of an artist, widely respected amongst his peers, whose name means more to his fans than platinum record sales. Much in the vein of Clark, Van Zandt or Walker, he’s a musician’s musician, someone who will surely be venerated years down the line, and maybe if he’s lucky enough, he’ll even get as careful and well produced a tribute collection to himself as this one is to Walker.