There's a photo on the back of a
long-out-of-print Jerry Jeff Walker album that kind of sums it all
up. In the picture, Jerry Jeff is outside an old roadhouse on a
lonesome highway. It's night, and his collar is turned up against
the chill breeze as he hunches over to light a cigarette. His guitar
is slung around his back. It's hard to tell if he's entering or
leaving the roadhouse, but either way you figure he's got many miles
to go before he sleeps.
Somehow, one gets the idea that that is how
Jerry Jeff has always pictured himself. Even when he was playing
screaming cowboy rock 'n' roll to thousands of people, the solitary
troubadour was always on the inside, looking out.
Jerry Jeff has lived - and is living again - the
troubadour's life. Lots of musicians talk about the road; Jerry Jeff
really is the kid who rode his thumb out of his hometown in upstate
New York to such exotic destinations as Key West (where he introduced
another young musician named Jimmy Buffett to the pleasures of island
life)...He really did sing for pennies on New Orleans streetcorners,
alongside Mr. Bojangles...He really did strap his guitar on the back of
a motorcycle and go busking across Canada...And he really did sing in
the smoky cafes and folk clubs of Greenwich Village, following in the
footsteps of Bob Dylan and Ramblin' Jack Elliott.
And that all happened before he became a star.
Most folks know that story - how Jerry Jeff moved to Austin, Texas in
the early Seventies and reinvented himself as a Lone Star
country-rocker. He became, along with Willie Nelson and Asleep At The
Wheel, one of the arbiters of the internationally famous Austin
musical community. Since then, he has celebrated the music of peers
such as Guy Clark and Townes Van Zandt, and served as a fountainhead
and inspiration to younger musicians such as Robert Earl Keen, Pat
Green, Jack Ingram, Todd Snider, and a moderately successful country
tunesmith named Garth Brooks.
A string of records for MCA and Elektra followed
before Jerry Jeff gave up on the mainstream music business and formed
his own independent record label, Tried & True Music, in 1986. Another
series of increasingly autobiographical records followed under the
Tried & True imprint. The latest, Gonzo Stew, (his 30th album overall)
was released in 2001.
He's played for four or five presidents, toured
in Lear Jets and bought second homes in New Orleans and Belize (the
fruits, in part, of having penned an American pop standard, "Mr.
Bojangles"). His band of musicians, known variously as the Lost Gonzo
Band and the Gonzo Compadres, have been indispensable parts of the
But even with all that, Jerry Jeff still sees
the world with a troubadour's eyes. His songs are the way he makes the
world make sense, how he passes on stories of the people he meets, the
way he feels on a given morning. He has come full circle, back to his
solitary singer-songwriter roots. You might say he was heading this
way all along.