The sweet sound of a gently strummed guitar floats on an early spring breeze as we walk up to Jerry Jeff Walker’s front yard in West Austin. Beyond the gate, there’s Jerry Jeff, sitting on the porch and singing softly to himself.
Realizing company has arrived, he ambles on over, gingerly. Ol’ Scamp Walker isn’t as light on his feet as he used to be, but his smile remains youthful, and his eyes still sparkle. To put it out there straight, we’re lucky he’s still here.
Things didn’t look so good last summer, when Walker had what he refers to as “a near-death experience.” He’s not kidding. He takes a long pause before detailing just what happened when a diagnosis of throat cancer led to a downward spiral that almost never turned around.
“At one point I had chemo, radiation and pneumonia, and a blood infection — all at the same time. That’s where I became touch and go,” he says. “As we were at the bottom, Susan (his wife of 45 years) said somewhere in there, ‘Do you want to fight? You want to fight for this?’
“They said I was going like this,” he says as he tilts his head, to connote contemplation. “Like I was weighing the decision.
“I guess I chose life. Because here I am.”
It’s been a long road back, one that’s still in progress. “There were times when I wondered if I’d made the right decision,” he says. “Because it wasn’t happy for the first couple of months or so.” When you’ve built your life as a singer of songs, recuperating from throat cancer is difficult in ways that go well beyond the physical.
“I guess I took my singing for granted, and now I don’t,” he says. After canceling or postponing all concert dates in the last few months of 2017, Walker just recently began performing again. He sounds much better now, if not quite at full strength. “I’ve done five or six shows, and I guess I’m a better showman than I knew, because I got encores on all of them,” he laughs.
“I didn’t like it at all, but I kept doing Louis Armstrong,” he says, applying a Satchmo rasp to demonstrate. “At one point I went into the old Jimmy Durante,” he adds, putting on a Great Schnozzola voice as he speak-sings his own most famous opening line: “I knew a man, Bojangles …”
IT WAS “MR. BOJANGLES” that put Walker on the map of American musical culture in the mid-late 1960s. Born Ronald Clyde Crosby in upstate New York in March 1942, Walker penned “Bojangles” after a now-mythical night in the New Orleans drunk tank where he met a man who “danced a lick across the cell.”
Memorabilia documenting “Mr. Bojangles,” including a reproduction of the New Orleans police record from that night, is on display through July 8 at the Wittliff Collections, an impressive museum and archive facility on the seventh floor of the Alkek Library at Texas State University in San Marcos. Titled “Viva Jerry Jeff: The Origins and Wild Times of a Texas Icon,” the one-room exhibit features several display cases of artifacts.
When Walker celebrates his 76th birthday this weekend by playing shows on Saturday at the Paramount Theatre and Sunday at Gruene Hall in New Braunfels, a tour group of fans will make a stop en route to see the exhibit, which includes fascinating early photos and reel-to-reel recordings plus lyric sheets and documents from his classic 1973 album “Viva Terlingua.”
That record, cut live in the tiny Hill Country hamlet of Luckenbach, is central to the 1970s Austin rednecks-and-hippies cultural collision that still informs an entire subgenre now often tagged simply as Texas music. From Robert Earl Keen and Jack Ingram to Pat Green and Cory Morrow to Randy Rogers and Wade Bowen on down, the river’s tributaries trace back largely to “Viva Terlingua” as a primal source.
The album featured not only Walker staples such as “Sangria Wine” and “Little Bird,” but it also included his versions of classics such as Gary P. Nunn’s “London Homesick Blues,” Ray Wylie Hubbard’s “Up Against the Wall Redneck Mother” and Guy Clark’s “Desperados Waiting for a Train.” His supporting cast, the Lost Gonzo Band, included a handful of players who continued to influence Austin music for decades: honky-tonk troubadour Nunn, eventual Willie Nelson harmonica ace Mickey Raphael, pedal steel player Herb Steiner, bassist Bob Livingston and guitarist Craig Hillis.
The Wittliff exhibit was culled primarily from artifacts Walker donated to the collection a few years ago. The collection’s namesake, celebrated Texas screenwriter and author Bill Wittliff, suggested it one night over dinner at Walker’s house. “I said, ‘Well, they’ve been scattered around drawers in here forever. It would be neat to have it all kind of collected someplace.’
“Once they decided to go, they hit here like a SWAT team. They were just taking stuff out of all the drawers and closets we had, and packed in the attic and stuff. They put that all together.”
Perhaps the most fascinating element of the Wittliff exhibit, though, is a historic sound reel the museum recently acquired on its own. Taped at a New Orleans coffeehouse in July 1964 when Walker was still using the name Jerry Ferris, it’s the earliest known recording of his music. There’s also a December 1965 recording from Houston, after he’d become known as Jerry Jeff Walker. Visitors to the Wittliff may listen to the recording while they browse the exhibit.
ASKED ABOUT THESE early recordings, Walker says he’s probably not inclined to reissue them, believing they aren’t a fully formed-enough representation of who he became as a songwriter. Still, they’re fascinating to hear, showing the early influence of folk acts such as the Kingston Trio and Bob Dylan on Walker’s development as a musician.
And something on the tapes surprised even Walker himself. “There’s one song that’s not bad,” he says. “A ’65 protest song I wrote: ‘Until Then I’ll Keep Bummin, Better Days Are Comin’.’”
Jerry Jeff Walker, the notorious rowdy raconteur who left a thousand beer-drinkin’, hard-partyin’ imitators at honky-tonk roadhouses all across Texas in his wake, penning songs of social consciousness? It’s not really all that far-fetched, as it turns out.
We’d been talking for less than two minutes when the conversation turned to politics, with no prompting. Walker mentioned he’d gone swimming earlier in the day, for the first time since last summer’s cancer diagnosis. “It’s like I’m gradually rejoining everything in the world,” he says.
And then: “But I look around and we’ve got a president I don’t really understand. What happened to our country? And the thing is that he allowed the Russians to pack our election. And his first sworn duty as president is to protect the United States. How come he didn’t do that? And how come he’s still president? It’s confounding what he’s getting away with.”
There’s more later, after we’ve talked about his ties to Belize, the Central American country where Walker has played an annual getaway concert for die-hard fans since the 1990s.
“I talked to George Bruno, who was the ambassador to Belize when we first went down there, and he said, ‘You written anything about Trump yet?’ I think it’s called ‘Nero Fiddled While Rome Burned.’ I think we’re just diddly-dickin’ around here, while we’ve got climate to worry about. And it is changing. I know it’s changing, the weather everywhere. And our infrastructure: Our country’s going to hell in a handbasket, and we’re just giving away a trillion and a half dollars because we didn’t know what to do with it? God, just think of all the things you could do with it.”
Walker has a new album coming next month, though he’s not (yet, at least) taking on the state of our nation. “It’s About Time” collects a batch of songs that have been germinating for years; indeed, it’s been nearly a decade since his last studio album, 2009’s “Moon Child.”
“It’s About Time” includes several original tunes he’s been playing in concert for a while. Perhaps the best is called “I Always Thought I Was Going to Live in California,” which retells how he landed in Austin in the 1960s while heading west after leaving his upstate New York hometown. He met Susan here, and the rest soon enough became history.
But “It’s About Time” also gathers tunes by others that he’s known and loved for decades. “South Coast,” with its moving “the lion still rules the barranca” chorus, was written in the 1950s by Lillian Bos Ross, Rich Dehr and Sam Eskin before being immortalized first by the Kingston Trio and then Ramblin’ Jack Elliott. And he taps into Paul Siebel, best known for writing the folk classic “Louise,” with a slightly updated take on “The Ballad of Honest Sam.”
That’s the one song on “It’s About Time” where Walker does get semi-political. “It really fits the Trump era,” he says, reeling off a couple of lines from the song about a character who “made his money shadily.”
If there’s more of that to come from Walker, he suggests it could perhaps be in partnership with his longtime friend Rodney Crowell. “I think he’s the best songwriter right now,” Walker says of the Houston native who has been on an impressive run in his autumn years.
THE ALBUM TITLE “It’s About Time,” in fact, could almost be taken as a nod to Crowell’s recent single “It Ain’t Over Yet” (winner of best song at the recent Americana Music Awards). With a key vocal contribution from Crowell’s ex-wife, Rosanne Cash, the tune is about making the most of the time we have left.
I ask Walker if it really hit home for him because of his recent brush with death. “Yeah,” he replies quickly, adding that he recently called Crowell to tell him that the song brought to mind Guy Clark’s masterpiece “The Randall Knife.”
“That was one of our favorites of Guy’s, where all his craft came in handy to talk about something personal,” Walker explains. “And in ‘It Ain’t Over Yet,’ he (Crowell) got real personal. He said he wrote it during the last visits with Guy. Which I was real envious of, because I was calling Guy on the phone to see how he was. To be able to go over and see him was a whole lot different.”
Clark died in Nashville in 2016 at age 74. It was Walker who gave Clark his first big break, recording “L.A. Freeway” and “That Old Time Feeling” on his self-titled 1972 album for MCA Records.
Lately, Walker has been mulling over the thought of recording Crowell’s “It Ain’t Over Yet” as a duet with Shawn Colvin. “We’ve been looking for a song to do together,” he says, noting that Colvin could be ideal for the part Rosanne Cash sings in Crowell’s version.
The recent call to Crowell was partly to clear up the lyrics in one of the lines that Cash sings. “Rodney told me clearly what she said was, ‘Silly boys, blind to be first.’ In other words, you want to be first. ‘I thought it should be ‘trying to be first.’”
He continues, reciting his own twist on the line. “‘Silly boys, trying to be first, you think of second chances as some kind of curse. But I have known you forever, it’s true; if you came by it easy, it would not be you.’ Wow, did THAT hit home. I did everything ass-backwards and the hard way.”
Maybe so, Jerry Jeff, but it worked out pretty well.
“That’s what Susan said,” he answers. “One day we were riding in the car and she said, ‘We’ve done pretty good for two people who didn’t know anything about the music business.’ Part of it is because we make it up out of the air. These people don’t really have any more idea about how it goes than we do. If you sit down with one of them, they’re going to tell you what they think you should do.
“Or you can go out and have all these emotional things, and pick songs that you like. I’ve been putting them in there one at a time, choosing my way as good as I can. And they fit me. So when it’s all done, and that goes away, I’m still me.”
Jerry Jeff Walker
When: 8 p.m. March 24
Where: Paramount Theatre, 713 Congress Ave.
Also: 7 p.m. March 25, at Gruene Hall (New Braunfels); technically sold out