The venue was the Variety Playhouse in Little Five Points, Atlanta. It was the Fall of 2002. Onstage was Jerry Jeff Walker, a stalwart of Outlaw Country Music and the writer of an American classic “Mr Bojangles.” Among the crowd, jam-packed into the small venue, were two good ole boys. During the gig they constantly got up to refresh, returning to the stage-front with a can of beer in hand. The T-shirt worn by one simply said: “Take Me Drunk I’m Home.”
This charming encounter said as much about the man on stage than it did about the two characters who were there to see one of the most endearing troubadours in Americana music.
For Jerry Jeff Walker, who died aged 78 on October 23, was one of the most affable singer-songwriters on the music scene, loved by fans and fellow musicians alike. He was born Ronald Clyde Crosby in New York State and began playing music as a teenager. He soon headed to the Florida Keys and New Orleans, where he took his stage name.
It was while he was detained in a New Orleans “drunk tank” that he was inspired to write a song about a down-and-out street entertainer who called himself Mr Bojangles (nickname of famed dancer Bill Robinson). The song got instant attention when Walker first recorded it in 1968 for his album by the same name. But it was to become an international hit when the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band released it two years later and it would be covered by some of the biggest names in music, from Bob Dylan to Sammy Davis Jr.
It was always assumed that the homeless tap-dancing drifter Jerry Jeff met in the early 1960’s was a black man. But in his autobiography, Gypsy Songman, Walker made it clear the man was white. He could not have been black, said Jerry Jeff, as the police cells in the south in those days were segregated. Whatever the origins, "Mr Bojangles" has a special place in musical history and contains one of the great refrains in music.
He shook his head and as he shook his head
I heard someone ask please
One of the first tributes to Jerry Jeff came from Americana star Jason Isbell, who tweeted: “Me and Amanda Shires were backing up Todd Snider one night in Austin and Jerry Jeff jumped up and did “Mr Bojangles” with us, and he took his shoes off when he got onstage so he could dance. RIP Jerry Jeff.”
After the success of “Mr Bojangles”, Jerry Jeff headed to Austin, the music capital of Texas, where he would remain for the rest of his life. He soon became established in the famous Texas Outlaw Country Music scene, alongside the likes of Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings and Ray Wylie Hubbard.
Asleep at the Wheel’s Ray Benson told the Tennessean that apart from Nelson, Jerry Jeff was the most important Austin musician. “He really brought that folksinger/songwriter form to its height in Texas. And for that, he’ll be eternal.”
It was Hubbard’s outlawish “Up Against the Wall Redneck Mother” that provided Jerry Jeff with a signature track on what would be regarded as his landmark album Viva Terlingua!, recorded live at the Luckenbach Dancehall in Luckenbach, Texas, on August 18, 1973. Other covers of note among the nine tracks were Gary P. Nunn’s “London Homesick Blues” and a wonderful - yet somewhat subdued -version of the Guy Clark classic “Desperadoes Waiting for a Train.”
Nunn was a key member of Lost Gonzo Band which backed Jerry Jeff during the live recording and the rock-blues-Mexican style they produced became known as the “gonzo country” sound. The band, with varying members, continued to back Walker during his long career.
There was a twist in the tale of Viva Terlingua when, some 33 years later, several original members of Lost Gonzo Band – joined by the likes of Austin favourites Cory Morrow and Jimmy LaFave - recorded a nearly track-for-track remake called Viva Terlingua! Nuevo. Walker took legal action over the album and it was eventually released in March 2007, but with the name changed to Viva Terlingua! Compadres!
Viva Terlingua was one of ten albums Jerry Jeff released for MCA records from 1970 until 1982. (There were two recorded for Elektra/Asylum in 1978-79). But he gave up on mainstream music companies in 1986 when he formed his own independent record label Tried & True Music. His last album It’s About Time was released in 2018, a year after he was first diagnosed with throat cancer.
Jerry Jeff’s “musician-of-the-people” reputation was further enhanced by his annual birthday celebration at one of Austin’s music halls. These events usually featured some of the biggest names in country music who would happily sing and swap stories with the legendary musician in front of adoring crowds – like the Atlanta good ole boys!
Jerry Jeff Walker is survived by his wife Susan, son Django and daughter Jessie Jane.
Editor – Crossroads Americana Music Appreciation