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A New Yorker Who Became A Texas Music Icon: Jerry Jeff Walker Dead at 78

Carrie Conley

At one of the last big musical gatherings in Austin, TX before the closure of South By Southwest and everything else, Jerry Jeff Walker was inducted into the Texas Heritage Songwriters’ Hall of Fame. The Lone Star icon, well along in a terminal situation with throat cancer, had to be helped to and from the stage to join a finale performance on his behalf by a retinue of Texas and Nashville greats. It was a timely moment of recognition. Jerry Jeff Walker died on Friday at age 78.

Walker was an adopted Texan, but he became a pillar of the Austin music scene in the 1970s - a reflection and an instigator of modern Texas culture, where a New Yorker could remake himself into a cowboy poet and where meticulous songcraft coexists with beers-in-the-air revelry. Walker was a fine songwriter who created an American standard with “Mr. Bojangles,” but he was also an exceptional song-finder and interpreter, who always celebrated the creator and the creation with almost juvenile joy. 

Walker’s influence was clear in the many encomiums that poured out in statements and on social media. “Jerry Jeff Walker had a tremendous impact on my musical journey,” wrote songwriter Robert Earl Keen. “His music broadened the definition of Country music which opened my eyes to the infinite possibilities one has when writing a song. I think we'll all miss him. He was one of a kind.”

And Nashville’s Shawn Camp, close to Walker by way of the community around the late Guy Clark and Cowboy Jack Clement, remarked that “he was such a great character and artistic poet, a connoisseur of fine songs and a wonderful way of making any piece of music he happened upon to seem like his own.”

He grew up Ron Crosby in Oneonta, New York, hearing old-time music first through his grandparents and getting into bands in his school days. That’s when he started dreaming about Texas and about being there and of there, for its landscape and expressive, story-driven language. He went full Kerouac in the mid 1960s, hitchhiking around the country, busking for money and learning about songs from itinerant bluesmen before landing in Greenwich Village about the time he adopted his new name. 

Jerry Jeff’s first commercial project was the psychedelic rock band Circus Maximus, which released two albums on Vanguard Records. But Walker struck out in a more folk direction, landing his own contract and releasing “Mr. Bojangles” on a debut album of the same name in 1967. While that recording swayed with the kindly folk vibe of Washington Square, one could argue that Walker truly found his voice as an artist on 1969’s Driftin’ Way Of Life. Its title track and “Morning Song To Sally” show a writer bridging folk and country with the eloquence of a Mickey Newbury or Tom Paxton. 

“Mr. Bojangles” was inspired by a street performer Walker met on a night he spent in New Orleans jail for public drunkenness. It’s a sensitive profile of an itinerant song and dance man who still grieves for the dog he lost years ago but who is resilient with joy even waiting to get out of the drunk tank. Walker’s version was a regional success, and then in 1970 the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band put it on the national charts, launching decades of covers by performers as diverse as Bob Dylan, Nina Simone and Sammy Davis Jr. 

The middle book of Walker’s life, the one thickest with success and wild living, starts when he moved to Austin in the early 70s. If his gifts and roguish humor hadn’t been fully appreciated in New York, in Texas he found his people, becoming a leader of the new Austin outlaw scene with Michael Martin Murphey, Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings and swing band Asleep At The Wheel. 

His ability to write and to ferret out great songs by others helped him stand out, and he achieved full Jerry Jeff-ness with the landmark ¡Viva Terlingua!, an iconic country album recorded on a hot night in August of 1973 with his Lost Gonzo Band and a bunch of friends hanging out at the dance hall in the tiny enclave of Luckenbach, TX. Walker contributed the woozy ode “Sangria Wine,” while cutting a definitive version of “Desperados Waiting For A Train,” well before its writer Guy Clark recorded it himself. Also included was Walker’s cover of Ray Wylie Hubbard’s “Up Against The Wall, Redneck Mother,” establishing it as a kind of honky-tonk singalong state anthem, as well as Gary P. Nunn’s “London Homesick Blues,” a song so indigenous it became the theme song for the television series Austin City Limits.

A bit later in life, after getting excesses out of his system and tax problems behind him, Walker innovated in another way by going completely independent. He set up the label Tried & True Music in 1986 with his wife Susan, along with an in-house management and booking operations. One would expect nothing less from a certified free spirit. In all, Walker released 33 albums and he published the memoir Gypsy Songman in 1999. Susan Walker told writer Peter Blackstock this weekend that the family would take some time before announcing a memorial event. The songwriter is also survived by daughter Jessie Jane and son Django. 

One of my favorite Jerry Jeff Walker interpretations, and one of his more influential, gave wings to the song "Night Rider's Lament" by Michael Burton with a 1975 release. It would go on to be covered by many great artists including Ian Tyson, Suzy Bogguss and Garth Brooks.  

Nashville's Todd Snider was a kindred spirit to Jerry Jeff. Here's the tribute show he played live on Saturday night. The performace starts at about 25:00. 

Craig Havighurst is WMOT's music news producer and host of The String, a show featuring conversations on culture, media and American music. New episodes of The String air on WMOT 89.5 in Middle Tennessee on Mondays at 8 pm, repeating Sundays at 7 am. Twitter and Instagram: @chavighurst.