Walker’s 1973 live album ‘¡Viva Terlingua!’ is a cornerstone of the Austin, Texas, cosmic cowboy sound
By JOSEPH HUDAK
Jerry Jeff Walker, the “Mr. Bojangles” songwriter and a pioneer of the “cosmic cowboy” sound that would evolve into outlaw country, died Friday after a long battle with throat cancer. He was 78. Walker’s publicist confirmed his death to Rolling Stone.
Born Ronald Clyde Crosby in Oneonta, New York, in 1942, Walker made his way south, living for a time in the Florida Keys and in New Orleans, where he took his stage name. In 1971, he landed in Austin, Texas, and became a fixture of the local music scene, where artists like Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, Ray Wylie Hubbard, and Michael Martin Murphey were performing a new progressive style of hippie-country.
Two years later, Walker released his landmark album ¡Viva Terlingua!, a stripped-down, ramshackle, and occasionally rowdy LP recorded live in a dance hall in Luckenbach, Texas. ¡Viva Terlingua! — featuring Walker compositions like “Sangria Wine” and “Wheel,” along with Gary P. Nunn’s “London Homesick Blues” and Ray Wylie Hubbard’s “Up Against the Wall, Redneck Mother” — is regarded as a sacred text of the early outlaw country movement and, particularly, the progressive cosmic sound that preceded it.
“It’s still the quintessential Texas album as far as explaining how it all was before Austin City Limits,” Walker told Rolling Stone in 2018. In fact, “London Homesick Blues” — which was actually sung by Nunn, a member of Walker’s Lost Gonzo Band, on ¡Viva Terlingua! — would serve as the theme song of the TV concert series for nearly 30 years.
“Up Against the Wall, Redneck Mother,” about a ne’er-do-well “kickin hippies’ asses and raising hell,” stands as the album’s cult-favorite number. More of a sketch by Ray Wylie Hubbard than a proper song when Walker and his band decided to record it for ¡Viva Terlingua!, it was finished at the 11th hour after a phone call to Hubbard from Walker’s bass player Bob Livingston.
“I just wrote the second verse there over phone. I said, ‘He sure likes to drink,’ and I think I was drinking Falstaff Beer, so I said that. [And] that was it. I pretty much hadn’t even thought about it,” Hubbard told Rolling Stone. It’s Livingston who spells out each letter of “M-O-T-H-E-R” (“M is for the mud flaps you gave me for my pickup truck”…”R is for redneck”) in the song’s bridge.
Like the protagonist in “Redneck Mother,” Walker himself was known for volatility, both onstage and off (the inspiration for “Mr. Bojangles” came from a chance meeting with a street performer in a New Orleans drunk tank). His concerts were often unpredictable. “An act that was full of thrills and suspense” is how the late Texas journalist Bud Shrake described Walker’s shows, comparing them to NASCAR races.
But it’s “Mr. Bojangles” that gave Walker his greatest success and paved the way for him to record ¡Viva Terlingua!. Written and recorded by Walker for his 1968 album Mr. Bojangles, the song became a Top 10 hit for the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band in 1970, with artists as varied as Bob Dylan, Dolly Parton, Nina Simone, Neil Diamond, and Sammy Davis Jr. all recording versions.
In keeping with his outsider approach to the music business, Walker launched his own record label, Tried & True Music, in the Eighties with his wife Susan, who served as his manager and booking agent. He documented his career in the 1999 autobiography Gypsy Songman, recalling his relationships with Jimmy Buffett and Willie Nelson.
Still, Walker remains most identified for his contributions to the Texas music scene and to country music in general. The dance hall door that adorns the cover of ¡Viva Terlingua! hangs on display in the Country Music Hall of Fame in Nashville.
“‘Outlaw country’ made it sound like you had to go to jail to be an artist, but it’s just that some people like Waylon and Willie were outside the business [norm],” Walker told Rolling Stone. “People said, ‘We’re different, but we’re not hillbilly country.’ We didn’t blacken our teeth and wear baggy pants, we just liked cowboys and played like that.”
Jerry Jeff Walker, Who Wrote and Sang ‘Mr. Bojangles,’ Dies at 78 ~ NYT
He never had a Top 40 pop hit. But his best-known composition became an enduring standard, and he became a mainstay of the outlaw country movement.
By Bill Friskics-Warren
- Oct. 24, 2020
- Jerry Jeff Walker, the singer-songwriter who wrote the much-recorded standard “Mr. Bojangles” and later became a mainstay of the Texas outlaw movement that catapulted Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings to fame, died on Friday at a hospital in Austin, Texas. He was 78.
His former publicist John T. Davis said the cause was cancer. Mr. Walker learned he had throat cancer in 2017.
A native New Yorker, Mr. Walker began his career in the 1960s, hitchhiking and busking around the country before establishing himself in Greenwich Village and writing the song that would secure his reputation.
A waltzing ballad about an old street dancer Mr. Walker had met in a New Orleans drunk tank, “Mr. Bojangles” was first recorded by Mr. Walker for the Atco label in 1968. The song achieved its greatest success in a folk-rock version that reached the pop Top 10 in 1971 with the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, and went on to be covered by a wide range of artists, among them Nina Simone, Neil Diamond and even Bob Dylan. Sammy Davis Jr. included it in his stage show and performed it on television.
“At the time, I was reading a lot of Dylan Thomas, and I was really into the concept of internal rhyme,” Mr. Walker wrote of the song’s origin in his 1999 memoir, “Gypsy Songman.”
“The events of the past few months were still swirling inside, along with the memory of folks I’d met in jail cells in Columbus and New Orleans,” he went on.
“And it just came out: Knew a man Bojangles, and he danced for you. …”
The song was by far Mr. Walker’s best-known composition, the only original of his — he typically performed songs written by others — to become a major hit. But perhaps his most enduring contribution to popular culture was as an architect of the so-called cosmic cowboy music scene that coalesced around Armadillo World Headquarters, an iconoclastic nightclub in Austin.
The reception Mr. Walker received in Austin, he often said, signaled the first time he felt truly validated as an artist. “Texas was the only place where they didn’t look at me like I was crazy,” he told Rolling Stone in 1974, referring to the freewheeling ethos he cultivated with fellow regulars at Armadillo World Headquarters like Kinky Friedman and the Texas Jewboys and Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen.
“It was the first place where, when I got on the stage to play, they said, ‘Of course, why not?’ Other places, they said, ‘Aw, you’re just another Bob Dylan, trying to make it with your guitar.’”
In a career that spanned six decades, Mr. Walker never had a Top 40 pop hit. But in his 1970s heyday, he and the Lost Gonzo Band, his loose-limbed group of backing musicians, made a number of definitive Texas outlaw recordings.
Foremost was “Up Against the Wall, Redneck Mother,” a boozing, brawling anthem written by Ray Wylie Hubbard that appeared on Mr. Walker’s 1973 album, “Viva Terlingua.”
Singer-Songwriter Jerry Jeff Walker Dies at Age 78 ~ Vanity Fair
His 1968 hit “Mr. Bojangles” was covered by artists like Bob Dylan, Nina Simone, Sammy Davis Jr., and the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band.
BY JORDAN HOFFMANOCTOBER 24, 2020
Jerry Jeff Walker, the singer-songwriter who brought a Greenwich Village folk vibe to Austin’s outlaw country scene, has died according to the Associated Press. He had been diagnosed with throat cancer in 2017. He was 78 years old.
Born Ronald Crosby, Walker grew up in Oneonta, New York, and played in local teen bands. As a young man he traveled to New Orleans and New York City, eventually adopting his stage name in 1966. He was co-founder of the group Circus Maximus, which had a groovy, jazz-rock vibe. They had a minor hit with the tune “Wind,” but Walker was more interested in the folk side of things, so the band split up.
Walker began gigging with other artists like Joni Mitchell and David Bromberg, the latter of which played on Walker’s signature tune “Mr. Bojangles.” Walker based the song on a man he met in a New Orleans jail cell who refused to give his real name, only giving the nom de guerre of famed tap dancer Bill Robinson.