Country Music Magazine - March 1978
'Heard all them stories about ol' Jerry Jeff? Well folks, they're all true - sort of.'
By John Morthland
They say around Austin that Jerry Jeff Walker can do no wrong, but whoo boy, does he ever give it his best shot.
There was, for example, the night he showed up to play at Castle Creek, a local club, in wet swim trunks, and spent most of the evening falling down and picking himself back up. Or the evening there that he swung around the room from the rafters instead of playing. Or the evening he threw up on the first row of tables. Then there was the time he drunkenly challenged rodeo champ Larry Mahan to a fight, and got himself punched out but good. In fits of anti-materialism, he's chucked a few TV sets into his backyard swimming pool and smashed some stereo systems to smithereens. Or how about the time he came to a Princeton faculty party hosted by a friend, drank like he'd just come off a month in the desert, and then delivered up his best impersonations of some stuffy faculty wives. That one supposedly ended when Jerry Jeff borrowed his host's rented car and disappeared. The car, sans some parts but covered with a fresh batch of tickets, was found the next week in Manhattan, and Jerry Jeff explained it away by saying he couldn't recollect having been in a car that particular night.
You bet. Such stories are about as hard to find in Austin as an empty longneck. In a city with its fair share of, shall we say, eccentrics, Jerry Jeff is considered something like the pet nut, sort of a Hill Country Jerry Lee Lewis. Some of these stories - some of them - are even true. The point is that Jerry Jeff's exploits have taken on mythological status, and people will believe and perpetuate anything they hear about him. Yet his reputation has worked to his advantage (people always come to see him) as often as it has too his disadvantage (they often come for the wrong reasons). It is a lot of baggage to carry, but Jerry Jeff is the first to point out he picked it up by choice and carries it by choice; he does so with an endearing enough style and spirit.
Asked if he thought his rep was deserved or blown out of proportion, he quickly responds, "Both, I've broken in too many journalists. Meaning, they've exaggerated the point. Being loose when I'm performing is something I've always tried for. I think music should be performed and played as if we were not too uptight about it.
"The other side of the coin is that I did do a lot of carryin' on, yeah. I haven't calmed down much either and it does haunt me sometimes, yes. The big joke that always gets around is that people will say, 'We all came and we didn't expect you to show.' I don't know why they would not expect me to show. I've usually walked off more shows because of the people puttin' them on, almost never because I was too messed up to play - I will usually overcome most anything in that department. The final thing, I dunno, is that my name's up there on the marquee and if everybody else screws up - the sound people, the people selling tickets, whatever - it finally gets down to my name is the one that's blamed.
"I just think that some people have a tendency to get carried away over something they've heard before. I've talked to people who've never seen me who have their opinion before they even see the show. There were enough times that I was messed up that young journalists got a 'good story' out of it. But don't you think they could also put down some of the magic we did while we were doing all that other stuff? That would be nice to relate to people. Sure we hung out, we drank, we took the girls home. But the carryin' on part seems to be the only part anyone wants to put down. They didn't chronicle the event. The thing is to have your fun, but also get some truth as to what went down."
We are sitting in the basement of a Greenwich Village folk club run by a friend of Jerry Jeff's. It is in the middle of a debilitating heat wave, and if there is a comfortable spot in all of Manhattan, it's the best kept secret in town. The interview had begun upstairs, right after Jerry Jeff's show at the Bottom Line, a couple of blocks away. Jerry Jeff, who has trouble sitting still for very long, had wandered away for about a half hour at one point. When he returned, he apologized and allowed as to how he'd found this cooler spot downstairs, so why didn't we go there to finish talking? But before we go any further with that, let us return to the show momentarily and get some truth as to what went down.
The Bottom Line is a rock showcase not exactly noted for downhome ambience. But his particular night the place was jam packed with big city buckaroos decked out in cowboy hats, tee shirts and red bandanas. They whooped and hollered and stomped their boots and ran the waitresses down to a frazzle with their steady, no-nonsense demands for "MORE BEER!" It was definitely Jerry Jeff's kind of crowd, and this cannot be attributed solely to the fact that there are enough expatriate Texans in New York that they almost qualify as just another ethnic group in the city's bottomless melting pot. Jerry Jeff is quite popular with many New Yorkers - he once lived in the Village himself, in his folkie days - and he hadn't been to town in quite a while.
So out he lopes wearing his tee shirt and red bandana, grey cowboy hat pulled down almost to his eyebrows, and lunges right into that tongue in cheek song about Scamp Walker trying to slide it past you one more time, all the while maintaining a good-bad-but-not-evil smile as he looks out over the crowds dancing in the aisle. His voice is deep and craggy, ravaged by too many four a.m. tokes and shots. It's not a "good" voice, any music teacher would hasten to tell you, but it's a very effective one for putting across Jerry Jeff's type of song. With no shilly-shallying around between songs, he and his band proceeded to deliver a set of hard, fast and lean music that made a diehard fan out of at least one previous non-believer (me) and drove most of the house to delirium.
This Jerry Jeff music has not yet been fully captured on record - not even on the live albums - and that is a shame. He likes to use the word "magic" often when he talks about music, and he also likes to emphasize the "pure joy of just playing." If that isn't revealing enough about his attitude, the live show provides a reasonably accurate representation of the man himself; this music is tough but sensitive, serious but self-mocking, ragged but right. Sometimes it can be downright erratic, but it makes no apologies, and it likes to stay on the move.
As does Jerry Jeff, who was born and raised in upstate New York. It was a musical family; his grandparents were square dance people, his mother sang in a trio, and as he recalls it, "I was never not around music, and it never dawned on me not to sing, or to sing either. They'd just hit me upside the head and say 'You sing,' and so I did. After that I just sang, didn't get my head slapped. So pretty soon you stop thinking about singing or not singing and you just sing."
He spent his time ice skating, chasing skirts and singing doo-wop on the street corner; at one time, he wanted to be an astronaut. The starting forward on a high school basketball team that won the state championship, he got pretty good grades until he quit trying. Eventually, he dropped out of high school to bum around the country. (Though later he went back and finished.)
'Mr. Bojangles', still his best known song, was written in a drunk tank in New Orleans, but Jerry Jeff was living in New York City when it became one of the big hits of the Sixties. He was playing the village folk circuit, having only middlin' success despite the song's popularity with everybody from Richard Nixon ("I wasn't surprised to hear that was his favorite song; it was a lot of people's favorite song. He liked 'Home on the Range' too.") to the average Joe down at the end of the bar. But he wasn't very fond of New York, and he was further miffed by much of the folk crowd. Years later, when he saw a film clip of Uncle Dave Macon and Jimmie Rodgers on a Johnny Cash TV show, his feelings about that period clicked into focus.
"In this film clip, Uncle Dave puts his banjo on the floor, tuned to some open chord, and then he just dances around it, whacking away at it with his hat," Jerry Jeff marvels. "He was just having fun with his instrument, but he was making music. I watched too many people in that folk scene shush a crowd and tune to some weird Oriental tuning so they could show off how much technique they had. It turned a lot of people off from music; it wasn't fun, and music has to be fun and entertaining."
That's another recurring theme with Jerry Jeff, the importance of feeling over technique. He respects Nashville pickers for their ability to play anything right, but he also believes strongly that they lose spirit that way and start turning out carbon copy records with no soul. The records he's cut in Nashville were an attempt to get the best of both worlds - technique and feeling - and he's not entirely happy with the results in most cases.
For a while after leaving New York, Jerry Jeff was constantly on the move, as he had been earlier. To the extent that he lived anywhere, he lived temporarily in Key West, Fla. But early this decade he moved to Austin, a town he had passed through and liked several times already.
"Austin was my ace in the hole." Jerry Jeff points a finger and advises, "Always keep an ace in the hole for yourself. Besides, I knew I could always work there. I had an album sell 50,000 there that only sold 70,000 total in the whole country. And whenever I played, I knew I'd get a good crowd. Don't ask me why; I still don't understand it myself."
What it appears to come down to is that Austin seemed like the kind of place where a picker could put his guitar on the floor and whack away at it with his hat. These were the days before Austin music was much in the public eye, but Jerry Jeff wasn't the only musician to discover this audience.
"People came back to Austin, and it was all a coincidence. Michael Murphey'd been out in L.A., Willie was living in Nashville. They were in sorta the same position as me; they'd had to go somewhere else to do anything, but they remembered Austin as a good place to live and work. And once they accomplished something elsewhere, they wanted to come back to Austin to enjoy it.
"I think Willie just let the air out of the balloon now," he adds rather cryptically. But a few minutes later he comes back to the point. "Willie just bought himself a house in Malibu. He wants peace and quiet."
It was on a early trip through Austin ("1962-3-4, somewhere in there") that Jerry Jeff first met the late Hondo Crouch, to whom 'A Man Must Carry On', Walker's latest album, is dedicated. Jerry Jeff played a gig then with Hondo's son-in-law. Later, while in Colorado, he heard that Hondo had bought the Texas town of Luckenbach, and he went there to visit. Since then, Luckenbach has always been a refuge to him, "a place to go when I wanted to get away," and his friendship with Hondo became one of the few constants in his life.
Jerry Jeff was in Austin mixing the double album early this year when he received word Hondo had died. He knew he was losing his Lost Gonzo Band, who were unwilling to go one more round with their unpredictable leader. So he had his mind on putting together the new group (which turns out to be as superlative as the Gonzos) as well as the album, which he wanted to represent "as many different moods and attitudes and things, and new songs, too, as possible." On hearing the news about Hondo, Jerry Jeff quickly worked it into a tribute album. His original plans, once he finished mixing, had called for Hondo to come up to Austin so the pair could "do some things together." What was it Hondo did that could be put on an album?
"I dunno, I never knew. You'll have to figger that part out for yourself." Jerry Jeff's voice trails off. "He just made magic. I never been anyplace he was where there wasn't magic.
From all reports, the two men were birds of a feather despite their age differences (Jerry Jeff is 35). Hondo was also known to enjoy a few nips and then conduct himself by rules other than those written by Emily Post. He liked playing the court jester at Luckenbach (pop. three, just a couple of buildings, really), he liked putting people on, he was a master storyteller, and he did not rise in the morning by alarm clock. Even beyond their similarities, Austin observed say, Hondo had a benign influence on Jerry Jeff, particularly in improving his self-esteem.
"I don't talk about it much," Jerry Jeff mumbles when asked just what influence Hondo did have on him. He is staring down at the table, the only time during the interview he seemed ill at ease. Prompted, he toys with his hat and then answers.
"I would say Hondo taught me to lighten up. I could get a little nasty and surly then, and he taught me not to take myself quite so seriously. He showed me the importance of staying a little innocent and naive, so that it was always possible for some other new thing to happen."
Perhaps this explains that child-like look, half quizzical and half gleeful, that Jerry Jeff usually has on his well-worn face. Perhaps it also explains some of the contradiction and impulsiveness that seems to swirl around the man. Perhaps that's what fuels his keen sense of the absurd.
Which is how this interview ended. Jerry Jeff was insisting that the most appropriate way to write about him would be to just leave a big blank space in the middle of the article, and readers could draw their own conclusions. I argued that while I saw what he was driving at, it wouldn't in this case make much more sense than were he to leave ten minutes of silence in the middle of an album or concert. (We were both sober during this, I swear.) With a derisive harrumph, Jerry Jeff got up and left.
Leo LeBlanc, his ace steel player, who'd been contributing to most of the discussion, stayed downstairs a few minutes longer, and we dug ourselves into rhetorical holes debating the relative virtues of Nashville music and Austin music, or Bakersfield's initial threat to Nashville in the early Sixties. We were both primarily amused by the turn of events - there are less classy ways, after all, to terminate an interview than with a philosophical debate on the aesthetic merits of blank space on a page. When we trooped upstairs ourselves, the man cleaning up at the bar said Jerry Jeff had just departed for Chinatown, where he hoped to hunt up a Samurai film. So what if it was 5:30 in the morning? I wouldn't be surprised to hear he actually found one.