Jerry Jeff Walker, the legendary Texas singer, songwriter and storyteller, is back in Aspen for his semi-regular Valentine’s week gig at the Wheeler Opera House.
Walker, 71, has been performing for live audiences since he was a teen in the late 1950s. He perhaps is best known for penning the song “Mr. Bojangles,” a hit for the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band in 1970. But his diverse career has taken him down many roads and includes fun-loving cover material that he has made his own (“Up Against the Wall Redneck Mother,” “Don’t It Make You Wanna Dance”), poignant original compositions (“My Old Man,” “Little Bird”), love songs (“Woman in Texas,” “Candles and Cut Flowers”) and bizarre sing-alongs (“Pissin’ in the Wind,” “London Homesick Blues”).
One morning earlier this week, over a few cups of coffee at his Dancing Bear residence, he was talkative and wise — with just a hint of the cantankerous side for which he was known during his hell-raising days of the 1970s. In a wide-ranging interview, he commented on everything from 40 years of married life with his affable wife, Susan, to the perils of substance abuse to continuing as an artist and performer. Susan Walker also chimed in with a few select remarks.
The show starts tonight at 8. Tickets are $65 and as of Friday afternoon, the venue was nearly sold out. Jimmy Ibbotson, the longtime member of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, is expected to open with a few songs before Jerry Jeff hits the stage with his band.
Aspen Times: Is this a one-time show out West for you or are you on a tour of sorts?
Jerry Jeff Walker: We’ve done this Valentine’s Week show in Aspen probably eight or nine times in the last 15 years. Last year sold out and it was a lot of fun, so we wanted to do it again. In Texas, in January and February, there’s a huge allergy situation, it’s called “Cedar Fever” and it’s only in central Texas. It’s so strong that people this time of year end up wearing surgical masks. We have a house in Belize and we go down there every January, and we looked for another little break, and so we re-inaugurated this show in Aspen. And it’s so hot and brutal in Austin in August and September, so we started going to Northern California around that time. Just kind of moving around.
AT: I guess you are at the point in life where you don’t need to do 100 shows every year.
JJW: We’re taken care of. So Susan and I say, “Let’s go here and there.” You can title this story, “He plays where he wants to go.” I play a couple of times a month.
Susan Walker: And we’re lucky that most places will still have you (laughing).
JJW: I don’t even know how I did all that (touring). I was able to do it because I was drunk, probably. That’s probably why Willie (Nelson) smokes all that dope. So he can ride that bus forever. I’m sketching out an idea for a song called “The Longest Bus Ride in the World.” How your career starts at 22 or 23 and if you’re lucky, you sign on for about a 40-year bus ride. It started out that way for me because most places didn’t have dressing rooms, so the bus kind of becomes your salvation. I did that for a while but then flying got to be cheap, and so I started taking a plane everywhere. We have a little plane but we don’t use it a whole lot.
AT: When we talked last year, you had some love songs you were working on. Have you been doing some more writing?
JJW: I have a new one about places where I always thought I might live my life. Really it’s about Northern California and Colorado. I thought I might live part of my life in these places as time went by, but I fell in love, got married and raised a family in Texas. But we are now doing that. I premiered it at the Napa Valley show and I might do it here.
AT: You and Susan have been married a while. It seems to me relationships and marriages don’t have the longevity that they used to.
JJW: It’ll be 40 years this December. We’re gonna set up a tape and try to cross it kind of like a marathon.
SW: We’re going to crawl over it on our bellies.
JJW: The world these days doesn’t afford that kind of commitment. Right now, the kids are following the tech industry around, trying to find jobs.
AT: But there seems to be less of “sticking to it” in relationships than there used to be, as in my mother’s era or with my older brothers and their wives.
JJW: Both Guy Clark and I talked about the fact that we tried to write love songs that kind of honor that battle, in a way. In “Woman in Texas,” I sing that she’ll have days where she will “cuss me too.” But I know she loves me. You just learn to go in the other room when a fight breaks out. I go play my guitar. And part of it is giving her plenty of room to do what she likes to do. Decorate the house? I could care less. I lived on people’s couches. So I say, “If that’s what you want to do, that’s fine with me.” We’ve kind of had that relationship from the beginning. She took care of the kids and the home front, and I went on the road and made the money. I mention that in “She Knows Her Daddy Sings.”
AT: Are you a lot happier these days then you were back in those earlier, wild days?
JJW: I think the middle years were about as good as it got. The kids got off to school. I was running and playing golf. It was the first time I cleaned up, from 1980 to 1988, along in there. I dedicated myself to drying out. I was playing a lot of shows; I think we got the Lost Gonzos Band back together for a while and we toured. In the 1990s, it got old and I switched and found this happy medium where I could do solo stuff or play with the band. But it’s always been that way. Every song I ever did, if you stripped it all away, I would still be playing what I played. The whole band could go to the bathroom and I could still be playing it; it was mine.
Some friends of mine in L.A. — a group of rock people told them, “Jerry Jeff does such warm, tender love songs and intimate, personal ballads, things that we don’t get to do. See if he wants to come out and play with us and show us how he does that.” Even ballads today are so powerful; they don’t have a sweet innocence to them. We don’t seem to have a sensitivity to that kind of music anymore.
AT: You’ve always been able to rock it out, too.
JJW: Like Zorba the Greek said, “There’s only two times when I play music: When I’m really sad or really happy.” You’re either celebrating a raucous kind of joy or intimately looking at telling a detailed story.
AT: Do you ever get tired of performing?
JJW: Once I hit the stage I have a great time. We play for the travel; the music’s free.
AT: Anything in particular on your mind today?
JJW: Well, I think I’m going to premier a song in Aspen, it’s called “The Rain Song.” It’s basically about addiction — mine was to booze — and it seems to be a prevalent subject right now, after (the death of) Philip Seymour Hoffman and what’s going on with heroin and Oxycontin in the country. This woman (Olivia Laing) wrote a book, it was on the best-seller list, “The Trip to Echo Spring.” In Tennessee Williams’ “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof,” Brick says, “I’m going to take a little trip to Echo Spring. I drink that ’til the little click happens, and then everything’s all right.”
Echo Spring was a kind of homemade hooch. The book is about six writers who have had addiction problems, but they also won Pulitzer Prizes. They were terribly addicted. I never drank like that.
AT: You were a heavy drinker, though? The perception of the young Jerry Jeff was somebody with a bottle of whiskey who partied all the time and did outrageous things. Do you drink alcohol anymore?
JJW: I was a “juicer.” Now I make veggie smoothies in the morning. I could be a liquid-tarian actually. I love soups. For me, it used to be a shot and a beer. The first thing I dropped was the shot, then the beer. I did backslide a couple of times, but that was getting near the end of me deciding that I couldn’t go out with a few friends and drink just a few beers. The line in the song I have is, “One’s too many; then the bottle don’t hold enough.”