Jerry Jeff Walker
Far and Away, at Home
by John Brown
- Jerry Jeff Walker has his back to the river this Sunday evening in Colorado and he ain't going nowhere.
Bellvue, Colo. - The last installment of a big old three-night harvest moon is arching its eyebrows over the canyon of the Cache La Poudre River, and Ms. Pam Stock is selling some tee-shirts.
The shirts are simple black on white, with a goofball cartoon on the front and 13 words and a number on the back: "Rocky Mountain Laborfest 1998 featuring Jerry Jeff Walker, Todd Snider, Jack Ingram, Django Walker."
Pam S. is selling the shirts for her boss up there on that lodgepole stage and for his wife and business partner, Mrs. Susan Walker, barefoot and smiling and hugging the crowd in the immediate vicinity of what seems to be a reasonably good-natured combination of an SAE pledge party and some sort of recruitment gathering for the American Association of Retired Persons.
Pam Stock says, "Our band is deaf."
She refers to the Gonzo Compadres - Johnny Inmon, lead guitar; Bob Livingston, bass; and Freddie Krc, drums - with young Todd standing in this evening on good guitar and general backup singing. As Pam Stock offers a quick catalogue of auditory difficulties occasioned by 25 years of 200 nights a year listening to your best work coming back at you with some electricity attached, Mr. Django Walker at 19 years of age walks into the midst of the Gonzo Compadres, unannounced and unheard, and sings with his father a song about flying on untested wings. Meanwhile the smoke from a 55-gallon burger cooker at stage right is beckoning the hungry, as St. Pam continues to clothe the naked.
The saved and the unwashed, the intentionally forgetful, the Denver chapter of the Devil's Whomever motorcycle club, and the oncological surgeons with ancient album covers clutched like Mayan tablets - they've all come to sing along. They've come to sing and probably to dance, if Walker will play their own special song just one more time.
E is for Everyone.
Earlier, Jerry Jeff Walker of Austin, Texas, and somewhere in Belize had been scribbling his made-up name on hats and shirts and photographs and old record covers for anyone with a writing surface. He had been shaking hands and reminiscing and signing autographs with all the hard-earned nonchalance of his geezerdom. Whereupon.
A bearded middle-age man with the unmistakable face and torso of someone who runs 30 or 40 miles a week approached to announce that "You got me through medical school, Jerry Jeff." Whereupon.
Jerry Jeff turned to Susan and to Pam and he said, "I think it's a first."
And the healthful subspecialist stood not 10 feet from some adolescent idiots trying in their beered-up fog not to knock over either the doc or the 56-year-old country-music Gonzo artist even as they tried most surely to burn each other with their cigarettes.
O is for Oneonta.
A man has to start somewhere.
Born Ronald Clyde Crosby, he sang along as a charter member of the Pizzarinos in upstate New York. He listened to his parents' Frank Sinatra and Vic Damone records. Later he wrote a song ("The Gift") about the guitar his grandmother gave him when he was but 13 years on this earth. He graduated high school and did his time at Fort Dix in the National Guard and then he took off south.
Not everyone who hauls it on out of Oneonta, N.Y., hooks up with Jimmy Buffett, but Ronald Clyde Crosby did, and in their shared apprenticeship of self-invention the former came out an islander and the latter seemed to be a Texan. The would-be Aggie drank too much one evening and found himself in a locked-down stinked-up room in New Orleans with an old man who missed his dog.
"Mr. Bojangles," the new Jerry Jeff Walker's first big song, stands now among the 100 most recorded tunes of all time. Susan Walker's husband helps people through medical school, and he writes lyrics that even Sammy Davis Jr., once found fit to sing.
Walker was an outlaw way before the music business coined the term to describe the rowdy and irreverent upstarts - Texans, mostly - who largely redefined country music - turning it "progressive," in radio-speak - in the early 1970s and for a long time hence. Nightly he suspended the laws of physics, singing and strumming from long-legged stools that most Yorkers would never have dared to mount had they been in Ronald Clyde's approaching condition.
T is for Then; N is for Now.
Only a tin-eared cynic would write "R" is for reform.
But if, in the waning years of the century he's still trying to understand, "reformation" applies to Jerry Jeff Walker, it does so in a way that might never have fit, say, Martin Luther. JJW wonders why we can put a man on the moon but can't manufacture a workable electric car. He asks why we have a president when all we really need is someone in a nice suit to greet the Queen of England for a fraction of the current salary. He's sent his children off to Europe for a few months of Eurail touring among cultures that "don't ask that everything be brand new." He asks why his business-manager wife won't let him buy either a used trumpet or the cherry mid-'70s Triumph 500 with a little purple teardrop tank he's found for an unheard-of $5,900.
The watchword this late-summer afternoon in the canyon is "boundaries." No kidding. "Boundaries."
Which is why he invests now in mutual funds rather than in the high-tech speculatives he favored just a few years ago.
Which is why his concerts now end at bedtime, even if the congenial host might walk among his guests for a few hours afterward.
Which is why he reads books only about real people: no fiction beyond a story well-told about a physician or a mountain climber or a restorer of old motorcycles.
Which is why he thinks of politicians in pretty much the same way he remembers a cheap watch: "It was wrong so many times that I refused to believe it even when it was right."
Which is why night to night he can't really predict the one old song that will stick it right between his ribs.
"The songs that get to me still vary with the situation," he says. "The crowd. The location. The things that have been happening to me and my family and my friends. I would like to think though that I know a song for every situation."
Which is why, after all the drifters and the drillers of oil wells, the hero in JJW's own old western movie turns out to be Otto Streit, his father-in-law, Susan's daddy, "a cotton farmer from Vernon, Texas, a decent and hard-working man who has held to what he was taught."
Which is why his most memorable concert of the last little while turns out to be the Fourth of July 1998 rodeo in Jacksonville, Texas, complete with rural families singing along to his more thoughtful songs soon after this nation's colors had been presented by a toothsome cheerleader at full speed on a good horse. No alcohol in the arena, please.
H is for Home.
What a long-range trip it's been, right, RCC?
Ninety million miles on a bus, ten thousand nights in places whose principal sensory distinction is smoke, a whole bunch of too much fun, and Jerry Jeff Walker has settled into something like contentment. He has a new album out, a Caribbean-tinged cycle of country songs called Cowboy Boots and Bathin' Suits, and if that's not a direction that's disregardful of the dictates of the Nashville-and-country-radio lockstep way of life, then Jerry Jeff's not, well, Jerry Jeff.
He's taken with jazz trumpeter Chet Baker, and he's trying to learn an instrument that accompanied the hollers and whirligigs of good men on bad bulls, way way before a teenaged wannabe learned about Texas. Most evenings he reads, listens to some Bill Evans piano at low volume on his rebuilt record player, and proceeds to fall asleep.
"I've never liked living in any place just because there was work there," he says. "I like to live where the spirit of living is what you can do while you are not working. I've always thought the perfect home ought to at least include a backyard where you can drink a beer and play guitar without bothering anybody else.
"I guess in my case I'm lucky because I have a portable occupation - and we all need one, you know. So if any of the above rules are infringed upon, one can move around until said criteria are met."
As ever, JJW is a hopeful man, asking once again for just one more sunset across that Texas prairie. Any rural resident will tell you that this particular evening's sunset will surely be nature's all-time best; agriculture in America demands that sort of optimism, and the transplant himself has begun to think like a cowboy.
"Home is always changing," Walker says. "You just find a spot you like. Pretty soon everybody else finds out about it, and it changes. I have a theory that everyone can't do the same thing at the same time without it being ruined for everyone." Put another way, you can't make Belizers out of everybody.
Like it or not, Pizzarinos have disbanded. They sure were great while they lasted, but now there's room for others to do what Ron Crosby and Rod Jester did. Mr. Rodney Jester, the founder of the Pizzarinos, taught his friend how to play guitar way back then and, a grandmother's gift tucked under his adolescent chin, the eventual Jerry Jeff made his fingers work the way that country music might require. It's just that JJW still hasn't figured out which country.
He learned the music of Buddy Holly and Gene Vincent and the Everly Brothers and Eddie Cochrane, and he heard there songs that tasted like asphalt. A thousand years later, Rodney came out to see his old bandmate during a Saturday night concert in a canyon. Retired from a career with a public utility, Rodney Jester came out west to say to his former pupil,
"You're still doing what I always wanted to do."
What to say in return? What to say back to a rock-and-roll guitar teacher who factored out his days stringing electricity? "A man must carry on," maybe. Maybe, "A man must carry on."
D is for Dad.
Dad thinks Django and his friends spend too much time playing video games, and so he has dusted off the golf clubs, demanding that his backup singer come outside and play. Dad reminds Mom that his own parents honeymooned on an Indian motorcycle (mass production begun in 1923) in an ongoing campaign to convince Susan that the Crosbys have always gone on two wheels. Dad watches daughter Jessie Jane soften and toughen and become more like her Mom everyday, and he turns to blow a few notes on a brass instrument that too tastes like asphalt.
He imagines a boundary, and he tries to shove that horn somewhere up close there, listening for something that sounds like a Texas prairie. It's all he asks. One note, one day at a time.
Because a man has to start somewhere.
John Brown lives with his wife Maryann and his daughter Ellie and some Angus heifers on a ranch outside Eureka, Kan.