People Magazine - August 31, 1987
"ROPED IN BY A HARD-SWEARING WIFE NAMED SUE, JERRY JEFF
THE OUTLAW, HOLLERS BUT WALKS THE LINE"
Written by David Grogan, reported by Kent Demaret
Soon after exchanging pleasant howdy-dos with a first-time visitor
to their country home in Austin, Texas, Jerry Jeff and Sue Walker suddenly fall
to cursing each other out, loudly and for no immediately obvious reason. After
a time, Jerry Jeff yells an obscenity, gets out of his chair and stalks from
the room, slamming the door hard. Moments later, he's back, scowling. Sue
shouts an obscenity at him, and then she storms out, slamming the door even harder.
Then she returns, smiling, and the two of them fall into an embrace.
Welcome to marital bliss, Walker-style.
"We have a lot of door slamming around here," Sue
explains cheerfully, between smooches. "We're both hot-tempered, but we
never let anything fester. We just duke it out."
She's right about that. A "gypsy songman" best known for
his classic ballad Mr. Bojangles, Jerry Jeff Walker, 45, is one of the all-time
hard-boozing, dope-dabbling bad boys of country music. Susan, 38, a college
girl and ex-Texas politico, is a raven-haired beauty with a barroom vocabulary,
a "no-bullshit-brain" as a friend puts it, and a volatile temper of
her own. They fight all the time, over anything and everything, and they don't
give a hoot who's at ringside.
Yet in 10 years of wedded furor, the battling Walkers have proved
inseperable, and they now have formed a second partnership. Since 1984, Sue has
assumed the awesome task of managing, if that's the word, Jerry Jeff, and the
startling result has been a new, generally saner and far freer working life for
Sick of restrictive contractual conditions proposed by record
companies panting after the latest trend - "They make me feel like I just
made a porn movie," he says - Jerry Jeff last year produced the album
Gypsy Songman on his own, and Sue organized its distribution to select record
outlets as well as a 10,000-member fan club. He has dumped the large, leeching
entourage, which in the wild days numbered up to 50, and he has given up
whiskey. With his costs way lower, he has cut down from 250 shows a year to 60,
mostly in the smaller, friendlier venues he likes and can now afford. "I
like to get personal with my audiences," he explains, contentedly. "I
can sit there now and pick and sing and talk to them. That's satisfying, very
satisfying. I work for a week, take two weeks off and make more money than ever
before. And I get to spend time with Susan and the kids and play golf."
"Jerry Jeff doesn't sit in an office and write songs with a
little rhyme book like some people do," his manager says of his liberation
from the demands of teh commercial music world. "He goes out and lives his
life and looks at how other people are living and chronicales it in song. He writes
about real people. I loved Jerry Jeff from the very beginning and always
respected him as an artist. He's truthful. He's not an ugly person, like so
many you meet in this business. And in a way, that's been his weakness."
It surely wasn't his only one. There was a time, not so long ago,
when Jerry Jeff would begin the day with a quart of whiskey and then pick
himself up with a toot or two of cocaine. Since 1965, when he spent a night in
a New Orleans drunk tank with a bojangles man, or street dancer, who tried to
cheer him up with a dazzling display of tap, he has built a cult following by singing
about such encounters.
Riding hard and fast through the '70's, creating an outlaw
reputation that rivaled those of his pals Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson,
Jerry Jeff packed beer halls and cow palaces across the land playing
"cowjazz," his mix of "bluegrass, science fiction, Country and
Western, gospel and rock." And folks loved to wonder what outrageous thing
Jerry Jeff would do next. "Maybe he'd throw a coffee table through a hotel
window," Sue says, "or sweep his hat through an aquarium to catch
fish." Or he migh tumble through the drums again, or maybe he'd come on in
his bathing suit and wiggle his fanny at the audience while drunkenly slurring
his songs. Greeted with hisses and catcalls on a bad night, he would be
surprisingly frank. "I don't blame you all for booing like that,"
he'd say. "If I paid good money to see this, I would have shot me by
now." Increasingly, he just might not show up at all.
Susan Streit met up with this wild troubador in 1972. She had
worked as a legislative aide at the State Capitol in Austin after graduating
from the University of Texas in 1970. A cultural gadabout herself, she rented a
rambling city house, shich soon became a hangout for such Texas literary icons
as Larry McMurtry, Larry L. King, Peter Gent, Gary Cartwright and Bud Shrake as
well as country music strays. One night, hanging out with Waylon and Willie at
the house, Jerry Jeff ran into Sue as she emerged from the bathroom after a
shower with a towel wrapped around her head. Startled, they both stopped in
"You look...holy!" Jerry Jeff blurted out.
Two years later they were married in Luckenbach, Texas, a storied
country music refuge. "I guess I felt that in every marriage there has to
be one asshole," Sue says, "and I'd know who it was." She became
a "groupie with a marriage license," but with musicians, roadies and
hangers-on to support, Jerry Jeff had to tour constantly just to break even.
"It was sad," Sue recalls. "Jerry Jeff has a lot of strange
ways, I know, but he has a big heart, and he doesn't particularly like to tell people
off or fire them." Instead, he vented his steam on hotel windows and
After four years of that, Sue made an announcement: She was going
to stay put on their five-acre spread outside Austin and start a family. In
April 1978 she gave birth to Jessie Jane and in August 1981 to Django Cody. But
Jerry Jeff's career was skidding downhill. In 1982 he lost his recording
contract, and the Internal Revenue Service gave him the news that he owed a few
back taxes. Eventually settling with the IRS for $150,000, Jerry Jeff took
Sue's advice and dumped his entire entourage, including musicians.
"For a while it seems kind of nice to have all these little
servants around all the time, wanting to run get you anything you want,"
Sue says. "But they end up sucking a lot of zest for life out of you. I
didn't want that bunch of people around my house, around my children. And I
told Jerry Jeff I was going to get a box of hand grenades and toss one out the
window now and then just in case anybody tried to sneak back."
More important, Jerry Jeff decided to clean up his personal act.
On Super Bowl Sunday 1984, he vowed to stay off hard booze and drugs until the
next Super Bowl - and he has renewed his pledge every year since. Eschewing
"expensive head-shrinking cures," he has become a compulsive jogger and
golfer, with a handicap of 12 to 14.
Is this any way to run a good ole country singer? Seems to be. One
evening recently, Jerry Jeff showed up at an open-air concert in Austin and
joined the local boys for two hours, just for fun. His singing and playing were
as rich and freewheeling as they ever were. Later, as they drove into their
driveway, Jerry Jeff popped a cassette into the tape deck and happily turned up
the volume. It was a new song he has dedicated to Sue, Last Night I Fell In
Love Again. Sue reached over and turned it down. "Goddamn, Jerry
Jeff," she said, "I've heard this 300 times already!" Cursing,
Jerry Jeff got out, slammed the door and headed into the house in a huff.
Moments later, Jerry Jeff and Sue were wrapped tightly together on their big
leather couch, French kissing like a pair of love-starved adolescents, while a
visitor waited for the next round to begin.