Jerry Jeff Walker: a gonzo compadre hits road to Aspen |

Jerry Jeff Walker: a gonzo compadre hits road to Aspen

Stewart OksenhornThe Aspen TimesAspen, CO Colorado
Contributed photoTexas singer-songwriter Jerry Jeff Walker performs Saturday at Aspens Wheeler Opera House.

ASPEN It must have been a match made in roots-music heaven: A young Jerry Jeff Walker, who was aching to share his songs with audiences, and Austin, Texas whose official motto is The Live Music Capital of the World. And it has turned out to be an enduring relationship: Walker, at 66, still calls Austin home, still throws his annual Texas Bash Weekend in the citys theaters and hotels.But at the time Walker settled in Austin, in 1970, it wasnt exactly a hopping place for songwriters, guitar-slingers, producers, record company execs, festival promoters and fans. As Walker puts it, There wasnt any music scene.I was living life. I wasnt looking to make any career moves, Walker, awaiting a flight out of Denver International Airport, continued, of his relocation to Austin.The singer-songwriter, who performs Saturday at Aspens Wheeler Opera House, listed several factors that drew him to Austin. His wife Susan was a native Texan. The natural amenities like Lake Travis (actually, a quasi-natural attraction; it was formed by damming the Colorado River at Austins western edge) appealed to Walker, a native of upstate New York who had spent the late 60s in New York City.Perhaps the biggest attraction at the time was the swarms of young people who attended the University of Texas. Those students didnt pick Austin for the music clubs that now line Sixth Street, but if there was music and beer on tap, they acted like college students anywhere.It was a college town, and pretty inexpensive a place to learn in, said Walker, who had first visited Austin in the mid-60s. There were a lot of new people moving in all the time. That put bodies in the bar. We could sing and actually make money. It was a musicians kind of place to live. You could play three gigs and pay the rent.Walker wasnt the only one who saw it that way. Just as he was settling in, two other musicians, both natives of Texas, returned to the state and landed in Austin. Willie Nelson came back from Nashville, while Michael Martin Murphey decided hed had enough of Southern California. The three are credited with launching Outlaw Country, a movement that probably required a healthy distance from the music business establishment in Nashville, Los Angeles and New York.We were looking for a place where we could be us, said Walker. It gave us a place to live the way we wanted to live, and make a living playing music. The center of the scene were the lakeside Hill on the Moon concerts every Sunday, featuring babies and Frisbees as much as musicians.Walker, however, didnt need Austin to launch his career. He already had a reputation thanks to Mr. Bojangles, a song he had written while he was part of New Yorks Greenwich Village scene. The Nitty Gritty Dirt Bands version of the song, released on 1970s Uncle Charlie & His Dog Teddy album, was a pop hit; it would later be covered by Bob Dylan, Neil Diamond and Nina Simone. But Walker wasnt interested in finding out whether living in New York would advance his professional fortunes.I went to New York City in 1967 that was my career move, he said. I took that one shot at paying my dues. I lived in an apartment with a million cockroaches. I couldnt imagine spending 34 years there. But I was lucky. Mr. Bojangles came out. So when I left, people knew who I was.Back then, Walker couldnt imagine spending much time anywhere without getting on the road. Moving around was a way of life: Mr. Bojangles was inspired by an episode in New Orleans; Walkers 1999 autobiography, named after one of his songs, is Gypsy Songman. It was like an adventure, said Walker, who has a second home in Ambergris Caye, off the coast of Belize, where he throws his annual Camp Belize festival. Youd go out and see who liked your songs. As long as it was fun and changing and new, it wasnt cumbersome. Traveling has now become something of a drag, and Walker has declared himself in semi-retirement.Among his stops, since the early 70s, was Aspen, where he visited the late Hunter S. Thompson. Inspired by the iconic journalist, Walker named his band the Gonzo Compadres.Walker recalls a session with Thompson where the two almost settled on a definition of gonzo: Taking an unknown thing to an unknown place, said Walker. I said, For an unknown purpose. He said, No, for a known

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