There are many folks that saw the former Ronald Crosby catting around the Texas Hill Country in the early 70’s who probably would have scoffed at the notion of him making it to see age 75 and the year 2017. When the self-proclaimed gypsy songman first headed south from New York and hit Florida with a spring break ukelele and wanderlust for days, nobody could’ve predicted him making a career as a musician and songwriter. As he vagabonded his way through the south and partied with some kid named Jimmy Buffett in New Orleans to a degree that threw him in a drunk tank with a homeless old drunk that called himself Mr. Bojangles, Crosby began to put together a new identity. A folkie turned honky-tonker named Jerry Jeff Walker. Walker’s travels would eventually land him in Texas.
Jerry Jeff stuck his flag down in Austin before Willie. As they both exploded out of middling 60’s career missives, Nelson became otherwordly and Walker became one of us. A man of the people. A rowdy rabble rouser who just wanted to have a good time. If a song, show, arrest, party, story, love affair, fight, adventure came out of it…even better. Good times were plenty in those days and the shows started becoming bigger. Jerry Jeff became a must see across the state and the south. His tolerance for all things illegal became legendary…as did his gigs. Thankfully, he’d met up with a sage PT Barnum type named Hondo Crouch who’d purchased a Hill Country hamlet called Luckenbach. Between FM trips under the moonlight in a beat up old truck, a live record was conceived. On a humid August night, wires were strung around live oak trees and tape rolled as Jerry Jeff and his ace Lost Gonzo Band (featuring Gary P. Nunn, Bob Livingston and the whole gang) tore into a seminal live recording that set a bar that is still the standard benchmark for live recordings in this kind of music.
The studio recordings that Walker cranked out during this time are equally as important as his live masterpiece. Ridin’ High, A Man Must Carry On, Contrary to Ordinary et al became signposts on a map of how to do this whole independent thing the right way. Basically hit record in a living room and release it as raw as you’d hear it at John T. Floore’s and roll with it. He wrote many hit songs, but also had an ear for good ones, especially the work of Guy Clark. Jerry Jeff is perhaps the greatest interpreter of Clark’s songs ever. During this time period, the New York kid began a healthy fascination with the rodeo lifestyle and struck up a friendship with famed cowboy Larry Mahan. This western influence found its way into JJW’s music and added a new layer to the festivities.
The 70’s roared on and at some point, Jerry Jeff looked around and realized he was the only one still at the party. Record deals, hedonism and antics that would make 1985 Motley Crue blush came and went. Back surgeries, marriage and kids slowed ol’ Scamp Walker down as he plowed through the 80’s. He became a fixture on The Nashville Network making numerous appearnaces on Ralph Emery’s Nashville Now show before becoming host of the Texas Connection; an ACL offshoot filmed in San Antonio that could never quite recapture the vibe of its Austin cousin. He released a memoir that is again right up there with Motley Crue’s The Dirt (doing blow in the Louisiana governor’s office anyone?), slowed his touring schedule, bought some paradise in Belize and became a mentor to the latest generation. Cut duets with Jack Ingram, played festivals with Pat Green. The islands found their way into this iteration of Jerry Jeff and he found common ground with his old friend Buffett…releasing songs written during his time on his own private island. His son graduated high school in Austin around this time and went off to art school in London. Django Walker would return to Texas with a de facto bookend to Gary P’s “London Homesick Blues” and “Texas On My Mind” would become a new scene standard.
At the dawn of Texas Music 2.0, Jerry Jeff was hailed as founding father. Somewhere between Willie and Ray Wylie Hubbard. He played the same festivals and venues as the kids who looked up to him until he just decided he didn’t want to anymore. Back pain and lack of motivation combined with the beautiful Belize distraction to cause the tour schedule to dry up to birthday bashes, private parties, Gruene Hall and some one offs. That’s where we find Jerry Jeff Walker at 75. Still doing things on his own terms. A survivor. One that many swore would never make it here. He’s a Texas Treasure. Get out and see him next time you have an opportunity. Tell him thanks and drink one for him…he doesn’t do that anymore.