The Song Remains: Jerry Jeff Walker 1942 – 2020

Jerry Jeff Walker, Mr. Bojangles to many, died on Friday 23 October 2020 from complications arising from throat cancer first diagnosed in 2017.  In his 50 plus years career, Jerry Jeff Walker was a singer-songwriter, song finder and for many, the Cosmic Cowboy, recording the definitive album of the ’70s Austin, Texas, hippy country music scene, 1973s ‘Viva Terlingua’. While he is often included in the same breath as other ‘70s outlaw Texas country artists and singer-songwriters like Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, Billy Joe Shaver, Guy Clark and Townes Van Zandt, Jerry Jeff Walker was in fact born in Oneonta, New York, on March 16th, 1942. Like many artists he was drawn to the freer music scene of early ’70s Austin, and when he arrived there he is reputed to have said he had found his home.

Folk-rock band Circus Maximus was the first recorded outing for Jerry Jeff Walker in 1967 on their Vanguard released debut album. The band made some waves and were compared to Country Joe and Fish but were too derivative to really succeed. Jerry Jeff Walker then secured a solo record deal with Atco Records and achieved fame with the title track of his debut solo album ‘Mr. Bojangles’. The album introduced Jerry Jeff Walker’s overall country-influenced style of well-played folk and country flavoured rock. The title track was subsequently covered by The Nitty Gritty Dirt band in 1970 reaching number 9 on the pop charts before becoming a modern standard covered by Bob Dylan, Sammy Davis Jnr, Neil Diamond and Nina Simone among many others. Jerry Jeff Walkers Atco albums did not do well commercially and after 1970’s ‘Bein’ Free’, which was the Dixie Flyers debut as a session unit, he moved to MCA Records. However, ‘Bein’ Free’ is a truly great record that has that feel which is often sought but rarely captured of great good time music. It may be folk-rock or country rock but the rock is secondary to the roots influences. Luther Dickinson of the Mississippi Allstars has said “It is beautiful early ‘70s folk-rock. I love it.”.

Jerry Jeff Walker’s move to MCA Records coincided with his move to Austin, Texas, and that is when he found his musical rhythm. His MCA albums became increasingly successful throughout the ‘70s and were the epitome of good-time country with superb songs written by Walker and his contemporaries. ‘Viva Terlingua’ could be the greatest live album recorded by any singer-songwriter. It was recorded in Luckenbach, Texas, with his road band the Lost Gonzo Band, and yes the band were named after Walker’s friend Hunter S Thompson which gives a flavour of where they were coming from. The band had that perfect sound of loose but tight and the songs were, and still are, some of the best Texas songs ever recorded on any single album. The album included five Walker originals, four, ‘Sangria Wine’, ‘Get It Out’, ‘Wheel’ and ‘Getting By’ had never been released before. The four cover songs include Guy Clark’s ‘Desperados Waiting For A Train’, Ray Wylie Hubbard’s ‘Up Against The Wall, Redneck Mother’, Michael Martin Murphy’s ‘Backslider’s Wine’ and Lost Gonzo Band member Gary P Nunn’s ‘London Homesick Blues’, which was the theme song for Austin City Limits for over twenty years. While the four cover songs are now well known, at the time, this was the album where most people first heard them they were that new. Songs and performance in perfect harmony are why this is such a classic album.

While Jerry Jeff Walker never bettered ‘Viva Terlingua’ his subsequent MCA albums, including ‘Ridin High’ and ‘It’s a Good Night For Singin’’, were of a sublimely high quality as well. At the end of his MCA contract and after a stay on Electra Records, Walker formed his own label, Tried And True Music, with his wife and manager Susan and continued to release albums until 2018’s ‘It’s About Time’. While he still recorded quality music, including an album of jazz standards, 2003’s ‘Jerry Jeff Jazz’, he never again reached the consistent heights of his ‘70s golden period. That said, he continued to look for ways to take his music in new directions and bring his music to a new audience with many gems strewn throughout his later work. 1987’s ‘Gypsy Songman: A Life In Song’ was an Unplugged session before Unplugged.  If anyone has any doubts that Jerry Jeff Walker was a major player in bringing country and rock music together just listen to ‘Viva Terlingua’ and any of his ‘70s records. Evidence of his songwriting capability is there on every record he released throughout his long career. The Country Music Hall of Fame agrees with this as it has included the dance hall door on the album cover of ‘Viva Terlingua’ as an exhibit. Praise indeed for the original Cosmic Cowboy who followed his own muse for over 50 years and who influenced subsequent generations of both country and americana musicians.

Author: Martin Johnson

I've been a music obsessive for more years than I care to admit to. Part of my enjoyment from music comes from discovering new sounds and artists while continuing to explore the roots of American 20th century music that has impacted the whole of world culture.

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