Texas Music Magazine - June 1976
The New Jerry Jeff Walker?
By Jay Milner
"You get seven or eight thousand people out there and they
want us to play something solid and tight..."
Jerry Jeff Walker's two latest albums - 'Ridin' High' and a brand
new one MCA hadn't released when this one was written - tend to leave a careful
listener and Jerry Jeff aficionado with the feeling that a new and perhaps
different Jerry Jeff Walker has crept in when we weren't looking. It's not so
much that old Scamp Walker has gone away completely, but something new and
foreign to our image of his basic nature seems to have been added. It's an
attitude, mostly. On these albums, and in concert over the past several months,
Jerry Jeff appears to work harder. Maybe there's even a new respect for his
audience in there too. His voice is better, that's for sure, than it's been in
at least three years.
It all tends to make one wonder if the man himself has undergone
basic changes. Which, in turn, leaves some of us with mixed emotions - like the
henpecked husband who heard that his mean old wife drove over a cliff in his
brand new Cadillac. No doubt about it, many fans received certain vicarious
kicks out of those wild tales about Jerry Jeff's unorthodox public and private
antics and his apparent don't-give-a-damn attitude regarding their effect on
And the easy way to write about Jerry Jeff, still, is to go
strictly for laughs.
Over the long haul, however, all those funny and outrageous
stories could only wind up being harmful to Jerry Jeff's career without
something to counterbalance them - something like tight, hardworking performing
on a consistent basis. And this doesn't even take into account the obvious
damage to his physical well-being there had to be, even if only half of what
was told about him were true.
There were exaggerations, to be sure, but most of the stories
seemed to be at least based on the truth. (Like the time Jerry Jeff was so
eager to quell the malicious rumor circulating about how he'd performed at an Austin
club in his underwear. "That's a malicious rumor!" Jerry Jeff
declared indignantly. "I had on my bathing suit.")
Furthermore, I suppose it's fundamentally accurate to say that
Jerry Jeff, inadvertently, conspired with his fans to build and maintain his
image as the ultimate free soul who had little or no respect for convention,
propriety, rules, responsibilities, and not even enough real ambition as a
performer. ("What would he do without the Gonzo band?" people would
ask, not without evidence of some sadistic glee.)
As his part of the deal, Jerry Jeff, onstage, presented the
personification of most everything you'd heard about him. ("Hi, buckaroos!
Scamp Walker time again. Tryin' to slide one by yew once more.") Then,
too, he always seemed to be making his more foolish moves (something we've all
done) where a crowd was there to see it all and tell the tale again and again
with the usual improvements added as it went from mouth to mouth.
It seems to me, however, that a fundamental and legitimate part of
being an effective entertainer is the ability to take people on mental trips,
move them out of their routine monotonies and troubles for awhile. That is why
they pay good money to be there, in the first place. But fans can build an
image of their favorite performers (singers, actors, athletes, etc.) that
become too rigid and too widespread until they begin working against the
entertainer's efforts to keep improving and expanding the scope of his art or
craft. Fans sometimes, then, will resist efforts by the entertainer to effect
needed changes. (Bob Dylan's is a classic case in point.)
In a sense, this sort of thing was happening to Jerry Jeff, until
recently. It appeared, for him, dangerously close to the point of no return,
the point where his fans were about to join his detractors in actually hoping
to see him fall on his face, forget words to his songs, stumble over
microphones, and generally screw up a performance.
It is, therefore, a tribute to Jerry Jeff's professionalism and
his intelligence as well (and perhaps, to a degree, to his little over a year
old marriage) that he now seems to have yanked himself back on track.
There's always the possibility, of course, that Scamp Walker
planned it this way all along. But it didn't sound like this was the case here
when we talked not long ago, driving from Jerry Jeff's comfortable country home
near Austin, toward town to buy new guitar strings.
It was sunny but cool hill country afternoon. As he maneuvered his
new pickup truck out of the driveway, Jerry Jeff grumbled about the German
shepherd dog standing spraddle-legged beside a bush of some kind about a
hundred yards away.
"That damn dog is waiting til we leave to mess around with my
pups," he said. "They're not in heat yet, but they're on the verge
and we haven't had 'em fixed yet and he knows it." He slammed down on the
horn and yelled: "Haaaaah! Haaaah! Git! You horny bastard." The
German shepherd moved maybe four steps farther away before turning back to face
us, his face reflecting the patience of absolute confidence that he would win
in the end. If dogs look down their noses at people, this one did.
I had been the lone house guest of Jerry Jeff and his uncommonly
pretty wife, Susan, for three days and nights by then. Thus far we had
subsisted mainly on carrot juice and lots of relaxation, good conversation and
music. There was plenty of regular food available, but when in Rome, etc. Jerry
Jeff was into his new pre-concert tour conditioning routine. Into it
sufficiently, anyhow, to be able to say he was without being an outright liar.
So we drank carrot juice, didn't answer the phone, and now and then took long
walks among the flora and fauna, the Walker's twin Golden Retriever pups
galloping alongside, happy to get the extra attention. They now got to go for
walks twice a day, since I usually woke up fairly early and took them with me,
while Jerry Jeff, in the habit of arising late - because he doesn't ordinarily
get off work until 2 a.m. - took them with him too in the late afternoon.
Now, for the first time since I arrived, Jerry Jeff and I were
headed for town. I asked him a few questions, since the alleged reason for my
visit was to interview him, and he talked about recent changes that had evolved
in the attitude of he and the Gonzo band toward their work.
"We're working harder now than we used to. The band, the set
hours. We're actually kind of looking forward to the job of entertaining in a
different kind of storytelling-way, getting everybody off to a good night
jumping and singing...Still listening to the words of some of them, but really
a lot of boogying too. Havin' fun for a whole evening. That takes a lot of
work. We used to do all that and party all night too. But I found out I was
gettin' real tired."
"We've been getting out on the tour thing lately too. Going
out for a week or ten days, playing shows real hard, gettin' off on a couple of
hours of real sweat and hard work. Then we go back and have a couple of beers
and go to sleep and maybe get up and take a sauna. Maybe we do a little bowling
in the afternoon, if we've got a layover. But doing something different besides
playing and going to every party in town. Everybody always wants us to hang
around and stay up til dawn and crash and get up and travel to the next town
and do the same thing all over again. Then the shows start to get blurred and
we weren't really gettin' off and as we stayed more into trying to get to the
shows and really do good shows, we decided we were playin' tighter, harder and
stronger and actually it made the crowds better and got them off and that's
what they're paying their money to do. And it's kind of become a joy for
"If we backslide, we notice the next night we could've really
cooked if we'd had a little more strength; so, we've been gettin' off on doin'
that. It just came out that way. Plus we did an East Coast thing, then
Colorado, Utah and got into cold weather. Boy, there's nothing like getting
sick on the goddam road to really get you down. You can't lose it, and you
don't eat right; so, we're just trying to stay conscious of that fact and stay
a little ahead of it."
"It'll be a day like this in Denver, say, then we hop to Utah
and it'll be a snow storm and everybody's sneezing all over us and then we fly
out of there to some place the next day and pretty soon the whole band is
coughing and spittin'. But we try to stay a little ahead of that too now. Keep
up our strength and feel good, and it's kind of funky the way we came around to
"Before it got like it is now, I'd fool around and try out
different things onstage. But now our shows are pretty high gear, high level,
and crowds are getting bigger and you don't want to fool around as much. I have
to go right after the ones that want to hear now, the ones that work and are
tighter. You get seven or eight thousand people out there and they want us to
play something solid and tight. Before, it would be late some night somewhere,
at some club, and I'd be hearing this new tune in my head and I'd try it with
the whole band there onstage. But now, with maybe ten thousand people out
there, you got to work to keep them from turning on you. Them lions know that
chair might drop, man. Try the new whip trick (he simulated a move behind his
back) keep them lions up there in their seats, boy. That's what Fromholz would
say, 'Shoot the leader, Jerry, they're turning on us!' Well, you could see them
sort of driftin' away. We're up there laughin' and havin' a good time, and
they're about to stampede...Anyway, we're into something different now, and
it's all right."
In my studied opinion, that "all right" may be a shoo-in
as the understatement of the year. Over a period of months, maybe a year now,
of listening and re-listening to Jerry Jeff's albums - recent ones and those
made much earlier, before moving to Texas and immediately thereafter - of
attending his concerts and sitting out front so I could watch and hear better,
of studying his lyrics and the remarkable ways he utilizes both the strengths
and weaknesses of his surprisingly flexible voice and near-perfect pitch, I
have become convinced that this wild man could very well be the most underrated
of the Texas picker poets. Underrated - for whatever the causes and whoever
might be at fault - to the extent that even many of his avid fans aren't aware
of how good he is, as a performer and a writer.
All the way, from the time of his earliest albums for Vanguard -
when he was truly an apprentice at the business of getting his full potential
into the grooves of an album - Jerry Jeff's backup music has been consistently
outstanding. Often superb. When you think on�
that awhile, it tends to provide an answer for that perennial Austin
question concerning what he would do if the Gonzo band ever left him. It seems
obvious to me now that he would get himself another excellent backup band.
After all, he was smart enough to hire the Gonzos, wasn't he?
NEXT MONTH IN TEXAS MUSIC MAGAZINE: Part II: Scamp Walker meets
Miss Vernon and other surprises.