After performing a concert and closing down a local bar, Todd Snider and his singing buddy were walking through the deserted streets of Santa Fe at 3 a.m. Both were more than slightly buzzed when they heard the faint sound of someone softly strumming a guitar.
They followed the noise for a couple deserted blocks until they found a lonely street musician softly singing “Mr. Bojangles,” a No. 9 pop hit for the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band and a tune that had been covered by more than 100 artists, including Bob Dylan, Sammy Davis Jr. and Neil Diamond.
It was a surreal moment for Snider as he stood there listening with Jerry Jeff Walker, who had written the song in 1966 after spending the night in a New Orleans jail. When the song was over, Snider watched as Walker complimented the singer, tossed all his money in his guitar case and walked away with the satisfaction of knowing his music had been touching hearts for half a century.
Walker wasn’t a great singer, but his voice was instantly recognizable. It had laid-back authenticity and a warm genuine texture, the familiar quality of meeting a long-lost friend that always makes you smile.
Through the years, he gave us golden nuggets like “Sangria Wine,” “Gettin’ By,” “I Feel Like Hank Williams Tonight,” “Stoney,” “Charlie Dunn” and “Jaded Lover.” The list seems endless. He started a grassroots movement that propelled sleepy Austin, Texas into the “Live Music Capital of the World.”
After a lengthy battle with throat cancer, Walker died Oct. 23. He was 78. He nearly passed in 2017, but rallied. For a time, it appeared Walker had escaped from the grip of the ravaging disease.
Carbondale native Shawn Colvin said it looked like Walker had successfully rebounded from the health scare when she did a show last year at The Paramount Theatre in Austin with Joe Ely, Jack Ingram, Bruce Robison and Walker.
“Jerry Jeff had been sick and had had surgery, but he couldn’t wait to play — he needed to play. His voice was gravelly — more gravelly than normal. He was great that night. He was singing better than he was talking,” Colvin says. “It was a guitar pull, we swapped songs, everyone told stories about him. It was like a celebration of him, like ‘He’s back!’”
Colvin attended Southern Illinois University Carbondale and performed regularly as a solo act on the Strip. She then joined local band the Dixie Diesels and migrated with the group to Austin in the mid-1990s. She first got to know Walker when he organized his musician friends each Christmas to go caroling at local hospitals.
Walker is the poster child for the sun-soaked cowboy image of the fertile Austin music scene, but he is not a native Texan. He first visited the city for a short time in 1964 as he hitch-hiked across the country.
Born in New York, after writing “Mr. Bojangles,” he planned on tasting the West Coast musical water, but he first stopped in Texas and stayed. He once told an interviewer, “It was a party crowd and I never wanted to sleep. We had jam sessions in the park every Sunday. It became the Austin Interchangeable Dance Band.”
The Cosmic Cowboy revolution had started and Jerry Jeff was the ringleader.
He lived down a long dirt road south of Austin. His home was a hangout for the likes of Guy Clark, Townes Van Zandt, Ray Wylie Hubbard, Steve Fromholz, Bob Livingston and Rusty Weir.
Walker took elements of country, folk, Tex-Mex and Tejano music to create a fresh sound. He changed the culture in Austin, paving the way for Willie Nelson to join him to launch a musical “outlaw” movement still influencing Texas music today.
The salvo that started it all was Walker’s sensational “Viva Terlingua!” album. He arranged for a mobile studio from New York to travel to Texas for the project. The setting was not an acoustically perfect location, the capital.
Ground zero would be the Luckenbach Dance Hall in the Texas hill country, founded by eccentric Hondo Crouch, a former All-American swimmer. Bails of hay were used to muffle sound. There were no studio musicians. Instrumentation was provided by his trusted road warriors, The Lost Gonzo Band. There were no charts or master plan. For five magical days, starting Aug. 18, 1973, Walker would start playing and others would simply join in.
Opening song “Gettin’ By” set the tone.
“The song had 20 different takes, all with completely different lyrics. All his records had a live good-time feel. Recorded in primitive conditions,” Livingston says.
Walker put his best original songs on the record, but he also used Guy Clark’s “Desperadoes Waiting for the Train,” “Up Against the Wall, Redneck Mother” by Hubbard and Gary P. Nunn’s classic “London Homesick Blues,” which would become the theme song for Austin City Limits.
The powerful album changed the way music was recorded. The artist called the shots in Austin, not the record executives like in Nashville. Walker paved the way for Nelson, Waylon Jennings, Lyle Lovett, Pat Green, Kevin Fowler, Cody Johnson and countless others.
Maybe Hubbard summed up the loss of the Texas legend best.
“Losing him is gonna hurt for a while. But the legacy is going to be his songwriting, his belief in other songwriters, and his spirit with the way he would do things, his whole cantankerous coolness.”
Walker joins a long list of musical giants that have been lost in 2020, including John Prine, Charlie Daniels, Joe Diffie, Kenny Rogers, Little Richard and Justin Townes Earle.
Vince Hoffard can be reached at email@example.com or 618-658-9095.
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