Aspen Times Weekly: Jerry Jeff Walker at the Wheeler
Ryan Summerlin February 13, 2013
ASPEN – I had gone my entire life – 46 years and change – without ever hearing another man sing a love song for me on the phone – or anywhere, for that matter. And I was pretty OK with that.
Last week changed things.
It’s not what you think. It just so happens that Jerry Jeff Walker was on the other end of the line.
To some, he’s a living legend.
He’s the reason you hear “Mr. Bojangles” on the radio all the time, a big hit for the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band in 1970.
Like the title of a song he recorded with Willie Nelson, he’s the “Man in the Big Hat.”
Though born and raised in New York, he’s as Texas as tangy roadside barbecue sold from the back of a pickup truck 20 miles outside the Hill Country town of Dripping Springs on a showery day in the middle of July.
After all, he’s Jerry. Jeff. Walker.
He’s as Luckenbach as Willie or Waylon or any of the boys.
Now 70, he was a hell-raiser in his younger days, but he had some kind of middle-age epiphany in the 1980s, and today he tends to walk the line.
And there he was, talking with me about songwriting in advance of his Feb. 16 show at the Wheeler Opera House and singing a love song. The tune was something inspired by his wife, Susan, the source behind many of his compositions over the past few decades.
I was in awe. Admittedly, I’ve been a huge fan of his for the past 25 years.
Jerry Jeff could open up the Aspen municipal code on land-use regulations and put it to music, and I would probably beg for more.
He explained that for many years, he wrote the good-time songs with which many people closely associate him: “Charlie Dunn,” “Pissin’ in the Wind,” “Sangria Wine,” “Railroad Lady.” Now, he’s more reflective and introspective.
“I’ve got a new one about, how does love enter our lives? And how do we know it’s the real love?” he said.
He doesn’t have a title yet. He “just started fooling with it.”
“There’s mysteries in life we really can’t explain/How do we fall in love and how does it remain?” he sings in his iconic, whiskey-and-honey-warm voice.
“If you fall in love, you know it,” Walker said. “All you do is think about her. You make plans to see her again. It’s kind of goofy how that works. And it doesn’t happen with everybody. And sometimes it’ll happen for a short time, and then it goes away.”
I asked him about his songwriting process. It’s something with which he is intimately familiar, not only because of his huge catalog but because of the memorable songs he’s covered by the great Guy Clark and many others.
“A lot of times, it all goes fast if I know exactly what I’m talking about,” he said. “I don’t spend a lot of time trying to figure it all out. I just do it because I want to get it out.
“Other times – one guy said we write to understand something we don’t know and not what we do know, so you write to see where it leads you. So on a certain day I’ll sit down and I’ll just start with a question.
“Why did she stay beside me so long? Why did my wife stay with me through all this? And I just search around through it, about her and me and understanding and women and true love. These tests are what make true love.”
Walker explained that while he always wrote love songs in the early days of his recording career – usually with the theme of somebody leaving somebody or thinking about leaving somebody – the process became more difficult as he matured.
“I was trying to write about love, which nobody exactly knows about,” he said. “That was one of the last things that came to me because I had written songs about bootmakers and having fun and cowboys and stuff like that, but I never really wrote about love, the kind of love when you are in it for a long time.”
Walker said he’s excited to return to Aspen, where he recently purchased a time-share unit. He resides in Austin, Texas, but spends a lot of time in Napa Valley, Calif.; Belize; and Colorado, especially when the Texas weather is unbearable.
The last time he played a show at the Wheeler, a few years ago, there was a blizzard, and it made for a difficult travel experience, he recalls.
His friend Jimmy Ibbotson, a Woody Creek resident and longtime member of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, might be joining him on the Wheeler stage, he said.
“I invited him to come play at the show,” Walker said. “I think he’s going to come.”
Walker’s bringing a full band to Aspen. In previous years, his bands almost always had a “gonzo” link to them: The Lost Gonzo Band, The Gonzo Compadres, etc. Right now his band has no name.
The “gonzo” connection is not exactly related to the late Hunter S. Thompson and his gonzo journalism, although Walker noted that he was friends with Thompson, and occasionally they got together at his Woody Creek farm.
“Gonzo meant taking an unknown thing to an unknown place for a known purpose,” Walker explained. “And that was what we were doing with the band. You go and do something, you get back, and then you reflect on it and write a song.
“That’s kind of what Hunter did with his writing. He never did the story he was sent to do; he did the story that came out.”
Those “gonzo” band names seemed unusual at the time but don’t quite compare to names that groups come up with today, Walker pointed out.
“Nowadays, people make up the weirdest names you can think of,” he said. “I was in a coffee shop in Lufkin or somewhere, and a guy says he loves my music and all that. He says, ‘We’re called the Migrating Wolverines.’ I said, ‘Great. I’ll check it out some time.’
“They’re running out of names. They’ve got bands called He and She and Them and Us and who knows what else.”
Walker promised that the Wheeler show will be multifaceted, taking bits and pieces from a storied career that has spanned nearly six decades.
There are a lot of songs his fans love to hear – “Hill Country Rain,” “Pissin’ in the Wind” – but he rarely performs them live. After more than 30 albums and countless live performances, he’s earned the right to play what he likes.
“The Wheeler is so sensitive,” he said. “We can play pretty quietly, and we can get rowdy, too. We’ll do some ballads, some stories. I’ve played solo there a few times. I don’t think I’ve had a band in there for years.”
He’s a little worried that there will be a big snowstorm on the day he’s traveling up to Colorado.
We discussed songwriting again. I asked him to talk about the origins of a few of his compositions and other songs he’s closely associated with.
Or whatever he wanted to say about them. With Jerry Jeff, you have to go with the flow.
• “Hill Country Rain”: “I only do that once in a very blue moon. I only play that when I’m feeling cosmic.”
• “Candles and Cut Flowers”: “It’s kind of a woman’s song. Why women love flowers so much and candles and the comforts of the room and the smell and all the things that make their lives fuller.”
• “My Old Man”: “I came from a railroad town. My dad’s dad worked on that. During the Depression, he went off on the rails. A lot of people’s dads did that during the Depression. It was all about traveling, and being a traveling musician is kind of woven into that. And coming into a town and changing it with your music. I think (former Aspen resident) John Denver covered that on his very first album.”
• “Backsliders Wine”: “That’s a Michael Martin Murphy song, actually. I knew it and said, ‘Michael can’t sing that song like I can because he’s not a backslider like me.’ We were looking for something to put on the (‘Viva Terlingua’) album.”
• “Little Bird”: “It was about an early love thing, about having it and it drifts apart. One morning I woke up in Dallas, in the 1960s, and it was raining, and a bird was on the windowsill. I grabbed my guitar and started picking, and I was kind of watching my reflection on the window and the bird. That started it all. The bird became something that flies back and forth between me and her.”
• “Pissin’ in the Wind”: “That wasn’t anything. It was just a made-up jam, and it was funny. It’s kind of like Jimmy Buffett’s ‘Get Drunk and Screw’; it has a bigger life than you ever intended. I don’t perform it a whole lot. It’s just something stupid. I probably never should have put it on a record.”
Walker said when he writes a song now, it tends to be about important life events more than anything else.
He wrote a song for his daughter Jessie’s wedding five years ago and one in honor of his parents’ 65th wedding anniversary.
“An event comes up, and somebody wants a song. Or I write it if it really means something, like if an old friend passes away. I want to grab a guitar and capture it,” Walker said.
Walker’s son Django is trying to make it in the music business in Nashville, Tenn. It wasn’t too long ago that Walker was singing about his kids in songs like “She Knows Her Daddy Sings,” “Django’s Lullaby” and “Gypsy Songman.”
“He’s trying to get himself established in Nashville,” Walker said of Django. “They find out you’re a straight-ahead guy and that you like to work and write, and then things start to happen. It’ll click; it’ll come for him at one point.
“Nashville’s a hot place right now.
I tell him, ‘You need to have fun with it.”
A few months ago, when I heard Jerry Jeff Walker would be coming back to Aspen for a performance at the Wheeler Opera House, I got pretty excited.
Soon I started digging through my collection of vinyl records. I wanted to see what kind of shape my old Jerry Jeff albums were in. They were upside down and hard to find, sandwiched between Al Hirt and Roy Acuff. That’s because of the haphazard way my LPs are arranged. I really need to make people who visit and want to pick out albums put the records back in the sleeves when they finish playing them.
Anyway, I found two oldies but goodies, “Ridin High” (1975) and “A Man Must Carry On” (1977). I have some of his other recordings on CD and cassette. But I wanted to hear the songs the way they were meant to be heard – honest and old-school – so I plopped the latter LP on the turntable.
A flood of memories washed over me. You see, for many years, roughly from 1987 to 1993, Jerry Jeff Walker’s music was the soundtrack to my life.
And that’s no exaggeration.
I was fresh out of college, or maybe serving my last semester of it, and working as a cub reporter at a now-defunct daily newspaper in northwest Louisiana. Most nights I was hanging out at a place called Enoch’s Cafe, which for a few years was a musical and culinary oasis in the cultural desert of Shreveport, La., my hometown.
Enoch’s was a very cool place, a little out of kilter for the uber-conservative city, a small joint where rednecks and hippies and yuppies and naïve college kids like I was could get along with one another over cheap draft beer and a unique Cajun-style appetizer they called “Zydeco Nachos.”
Enoch’s had live music nearly every night. One of my friends from high school and college, Rourke, worked there as a bartender. A funny character named Linda Lou presided over the kitchen, and she knew her business. There was no reason to go anywhere else.
So one night when the owner, Doyle Jeter, poured me a draft and told me Jerry Jeff Walker would be playing in a couple of months, a look of puzzlement came over my face.
Admittedly, I didn’t know who the man was. They all had a good laugh at that one. I mean, of course I was familiar with “Mr. Bojangles,” by the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, but I didn’t know who was the force behind it.
And then Jerry Jeff came and played that tiny club, which might have fit 60 or 70 people at the most (at $30 a ticket). He did two shows of about 90 minutes each and packed a lot of songs into each performance. Every seat was taken, and some people had to stand up. You could have heard a pin drop during most of the songs. It was mesmerizing. I was hooked.
I didn’t exactly know how Doyle convinced a top artist like Jerry Jeff Walker, a household name in central Texas, to come over from Austin to play such a small venue. The rumor was that he promised to get him drunk, but it seemed to me that JJW was on his best behavior at the time. I recall that he was on the mend from back surgery, and maybe he was looking for a way to get back into the swing of performing by going to Shreveport and doing a “living room,” so to speak.
In the five years that followed, I was an ardent fan. If Jerry Jeff was playing within a 150-mile radius, my friends and I were there. It was always a good time, and there was usually a lot of beer and tequila involved.
More than that, though, the songs spoke to me and what was going on in my life in those years, which weren’t exactly the halcyon days of youth. I mean, the transition from happy-go-lucky college guy to working stiff wasn’t easy, especially with George Bush (H.W., not W.) in the White House.
My friends and I used to take rides through the nearby East Texas hills and farmlands, sometimes to play golf, sometimes just to goof off and pick up a case of Lone Star beer. On those occasions, the mystical “Hill Country Rain” would usually be playing in the car, or maybe “The Pickup Truck Song,” one of his folksy stories set to music.
If we were feeling rowdy, the uptempo country-rockers “Trashy Women” or “Rodeo Cowboy” were solid background tunes, as were “Don’t It Make You Wanna Dance” or “Pissin’ in the Wind.”
But Jerry Jeff’s music has another side – there’s a lot more to it than the good-time party tunes that roughnecks and frat boys alike have turned into sing-alongs. “Up Against the Wall, Redneck Mother,” his cover of a Ray Wylie Hubbard song, is a lot of fun, but after you’ve heard it 1,000 times, you’re kind of ready for something else.
During a tough breakup I had with a girl I thought was the love of my life, I remember listening to his pensive ballad “Little Bird” (from the “Live at Gruene Hall” album, 1989) over and over. It was cold and raining that entire month, January 1990 I believe it was, and the song brought me comfort. Or maybe it depressed the hell out of me, but I kept listening to it and drank a lot of whiskey as it rained hard every day, and by the time spring rolled around, I was over what’s-her-name.
Or we’d go fishing and almost always would want to hear one of his slow and peaceful numbers. “Mississippi You’re on My Mind” and “Desperados Waiting for a Train” would sometimes play on a jambox in the boat, as I recall.
So it went for the next few years. I picked up a few more old albums, like “Viva Terlingua” (1973), and bought some newer CDs, like “Navajo Rug” (1991). Each record had several great songs and a couple of throwaways, but it was all fine to me. I especially liked the song “Derby Day” (from “A Man Must Carry On”), but to this day I’m not sure why.
Part of the composition is a love song to his beautiful wife, Susan, but the lyrics sound as though they were written during a drinking binge. Another side of the song relates to picking winners, or maybe losers, at a famous horse race – “when Foolish Pleasure lost,” as he says at the beginning of the unusual tune.
I guess Jerry Jeff was trying to relate how life is an unpredictable gamble but that his wife was the best bet he ever made. Call it good advice from the honey-throated troubadour from the Texas Hill Country – albeit advice I never really followed.
Well, most of us follow the beat of the drummer inside our own heads. Looking back at Jerry Jeff’s diverse song catalog and the various styles of music he melds into his unique sound – country, rock, folk, jazz – it’s obvious that he does, too.