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 his image.
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 us..."
"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 it...
"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.