To hear Jerry Jeff Walker tell it, he was just a boy from the Catskills who wanted to see the world, but it’s amusing how much the maverick country singer’s early travails with the National Guard mirror those of another Texas transplant: George W. Bush.
He wanted a transfer to Florida, so he could bum around the beach all winter with his friends. When they wouldn’t grant it, he went anyway and didn’t report. (Sound familiar yet?) So he traveled the country and busked in a variety of places, including New Orleans, where he met Mr.
“I’d been gone about a year and all of a sudden I looked up in a bar one night and there was a guy from my National Guard unit having a beer,” the 65-year-old Walker recalls, speaking from his Austin home. “I’m like, ‘Oh shit, they sent him to find me.’ So I sat down with him … and he said, ‘By the way, when I left `to join the Navy`, I left your name on the books. They’ll have a tough time explaining that.’ They had me on the books for six months and didn’t know I’d been gone, so to cover that up, they just discharged me.”
Walker, born Ronald Clyde Crosby, objects that he’s not necessarily as free-spirited as Joe Ely, who was born for the road. It’s just that Walker “was afraid to get stuck there in `Oneonta, New York`.” The curious, itinerant youth ended up in Greenwich Village, catching the last embers of the folk movement, alongside James Taylor and Joni Mitchell. It’s a familiar theme for this multi-faceted, veteran musician: bad timing.
“As Rambling Jack `Elliott` would say, he’s always a little bit ahead or behind his time,” Walker chuckles. “`In 1968`, country was even opening its doors a little bit. Joan Baez had cut an album in Nashville. Dylan was heading down hat way. So there was cross-pollination. So by the time I decided to do that, ‘Mr. Bojangles’ was a hit `for the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band`, and then I didn’t know what I wanted to do.”
Walker ended up in Texas, but realized the only big-enough places he could play were honky tonks, and you had to have a band. He thought, “Why not?” but when he got there, he noticed the dance-floors in front of the stage and, ever the folkie, asked if they could put down some chairs. Club managers, of course, balked at risking their nice hardwood floors.
“That was frustrating, because my music had more lyrics in them than that,” Walker recalls. “I wasn’t a straight honky-tonk guy and there really weren’t concerts per se.”
It was the early ’70s, and in order to adapt, Walker eventually recruited what became his Lost Gonzo Band. They were backing a couple other singers in town, but as Walker recounts, “I had a record deal.” So it was, while still getting to know each other, they recorded a live album that emerged as one of the all-time classic outlaw- country records, Viva Terlingua. It was defined by Walker’s signature cover of Ray Wylie Hubbard’s “Up Against the Wall Redneck Mother.”
“I wanted a band that could play a little bit of everything — folk music, country music, rock music, whatever the song dictated,” Walker says. “We were having fun, and we let the fun show. It was really ragged, but we didn’t want to be controlled per se. Bruce Robison was over the other night, telling me he thinks there was a warmth and charm to that music that he doesn’t hear now.”
Walker has continued to explore a blend of country, blues, folk, and rock with a laidback style that out-grooves Jimmy Buffet, and a voice of finely calibrated honey and grit. Never one to stand still, his last album was 2003’s wonderfully unexpected Jerry Jeff Jazz, on which he covers 14 jazz standards.
“I’m bound and determined that’s not going to be the last one,” Walker jokes. “I thought it was going to come around sooner. It just came around when it did. They were standards I heard around the house when I was growing up. My folks had the music, my aunt was a jazz pianist, and so we heard all this stuff.”
Walker was also ahead of the curve in self-releasing his music, going back to 1988’s Gypsy Songman, in a distribution deal with RCA, and finally going it alone with his own Tried & True Music a dozen years ago. Now Walker is planning on releasing future music through his website (as well as Amazon and iTunes) in five-to-six-song batches.
“It seems like it’s going that direction, which I wanted to do six years ago, because you don’t need to make the album. The whole process of making the CD is expensive, and then people don’t want the whole CD, they want four songs,” he says. “I can do it a lot more often because I won’t have to think about a whole album all the time.”
The first set of songs he’s making available will include “Like Father, Like Son,” a song Walker wrote with his son, Django, and premiered at some recent solo performances. It went over well enough that they decided to record it. (His son is supporting his second album, last year’s Six Trips Around the World.) Meantime, Walker’s just sittin’, grinnin’, confident that if he’s pissin’ in the wind, at least he’s known for it. •
Jerry Jeff Walker
1281 Gruene Rd., New Braunfels