Of all the vaunted singer-songwriters who serenaded the Lone Star State with a rock-tinged country-and-folk sound when Austin was putting down its Live-Music-Capital-of-the-World roots in the 1970s, it is Jerry Jeff Walker who perhaps best wears the mantel of troubadour. Part Jack Kerouac, part Woody Guthrie, and part French Quarter busker, he is a music-poet in the truest sense. Even though he performs less frequently these days, Jerry Jeff still tells stories and sings songs that interpret the human condition with insight and soul. He reminds us why life is worth living.
As we sit down to talk, I realize that even Walker’s age—66—connotes one of America’s fabled roads. Although the once-notorious rowdy has mellowed considerably in recent years, he doesn’t seem far removed from the Jerry Jeff who in 1969 penned Driftin’ Way of Life, the first of more than a dozen classics. From Greenwich Village, to Austin, to Coconut Grove, to Haight-Ashbury and finally back to Austin, few musicians have so astutely chronicled life on the road and the characters who travel them as has Ronald Clyde Crosby, aka Jerry Jeff Walker.
Jerry Jeff is best-known for the 1968 pop smash, Mr. Bojangles, about a tap-dancing, street character he met in a drunk tank in New Orleans. But Walker has proved a resilient and prolific artist with a lengthy discography that numbers more than 30 albums, including the iconic Viva Terlingua, which was recorded in 1973 in the Luckenbach Dance Hall.
Walker settled down a little when he married his wife, Susan, in 1974 in Luckenbach. The Walker family grew to include Jessie Jane in 1978 and son Django in 1981. Django followed in the family tradition and is a noted singer-songwriter in his own right. When not at home in West Austin, the Walkers travel between homes in Belize and New Orleans.
TH: You were born in upstate New York and first visited Austin in the 1960s, right?
Jerry Jeff: The first long junket was from upstate New York to New Orleans. I did street singing for about three years. One day, I saw a sign in a coffeehouse about sharing a ride to California, and I got in a car with a bunch of people and we drove through Texas. I was on a quest to see America, and you don’t see America without going through Texas.
TH: What enticed you to return to Austin?
Jerry Jeff: Because I knew about the music scene. I had a feel for it. I actually went out to Key West, but there was no music scene. There were a lot of smugglers and wasters and I got in with those guys. I knew I was going to get into a lot of trouble, and I did. In fact, the town board came to me and advised me to go somewhere else. I got arrested about 10 times there. I decided to use that as an incentive to get on with making music the way I wanted to. I wanted to get in with people who felt like me, played like me—mixing folk music, country music, and a little bit of rock.
TH: There’s a popular bumper sticker that says “I wasn’t born in Texas, but I got here as fast as I could.” Does that resonate with you?
Jerry Jeff: Everybody in my immediate family was born here except me. Susan says I’m a quintessential Texan. I take two parking spots with my Cadillac. You know, I really think I took advantage of Austin during the good times. I was out all the time. Now, there are too many of us, so I stay home. It’s been a lot of fun.
TH: What does a being a Texan mean to you?
Jerry Jeff: Texans have pride and are straightforward. We like what we like and we do what we do. I think the Hill Country, where I live, is perfect for my disposition. With the university, schools, books and theater. Another thing about being Texan is we like our lives told in a story poem, or a song.
TH: How about the Austin music scene, the business of music, how has it changed in the past 10 years?
Jerry Jeff: What I see is there are more musicians here, but I don’t see things organized any better than they’ve ever been. The bands coming in want to live in a musical community. There are three or four big musical communities in the country. One is Minneapolis, and Austin, San Francisco and, well, New York. It’s an important part of the culture.
TH: What similarities and differences do you see with the new, growing Texas music scene like the one Django’s a part of versus the cosmic cowboy generation back in the ’70s?
Jerry Jeff: The difference is we were trying to prove that music was viable—a way to have a career. Now, they take it for granted. They get their impetus to pursue because it’s not as scary for them doing it their own way instead of waiting around for someone to say ‘I’ll make your record.’ They start learning how to do the Internet and stir up stuff.
TH: How do Texas audiences compare to crowds elsewhere?
Jerry Jeff: Not so much different, though maybe in Texas the images may be a little closer to them. You know, the Charlie Dunns, Desperadoes Waiting for a Train, Women in Texas—those songs probably mean just a bit more.
TH: What do you miss most about Texas when you’re touring elsewhere?
Jerry Jeff: I miss my home. It helps remind me when I’m really annoyed about how crowded Austin is getting, and have just gotten back from Chicago or New York, or Atlanta, and realize, whew, this isn’t so bad. I think relative to everything else, we’re doing just fine.
TH: You’ve developed an international following like a number of Texas musicians. In what country or countries do you have the strongest fan base and why?
Jerry Jeff: I would say probably in Europe, though I haven’t gone as much as I’ve been invited to go. They call it roots music and like to tap into the stories we tell, but I still feel like I’m sort of on display as a Texan.
TH: After some 40 years, what’s the future hold for the Gypsy Songman?
Jerry Jeff: I think I’ll just play my music and tell my stories.
Rob McCorkle writes about Texas music because it gives him the chance to kick up his heels and celebrate what’s right about the Lone Star State.
Photographer Rick Patrick listened to his original copy of Jerry Jeff’s Viva Terlingua record so many times he wore it out.