Jerry Jeff Walker, the hard-living New York native who became an icon of Texas music, has died at 78. Walker passed away on Friday, October 23, due to complications from throat cancer. He was at his home in Austin until an hour before passing away at Dell Seton Medical Center.
Best known for the oft-recorded “Mr. Bojangles,” which he penned after meeting a black street performer in a New Orleans drunk tank in 1965 (“Jerry Jeff wasn’t there on a research project,” joked his onetime musical partner, David Bromberg), Walker lived to see his song filmed or recorded by scores of performers in many different musical genres, including Bob Dylan, Harry Belafonte, King Curtis, Dolly Parton, Nina Simone, and the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, who had a Top 10 Billboard single with the tune in 1971.
After living a troubadour’s life that saw him rambling around the country, with notable stops in the Florida Keys and New Orleans (when he met and helped inspire a budding performer named Jimmy Buffett), Walker took up residence in Austin, Texas in 1971. He was attracted to the Texas capital by a rapidly-evolving music scene characterized by a yeasty mixture of country, rock, folk, and blues, which became known as “progressive country,” “redneck rock” or “cosmic cowboy” music.
Walker quickly became one of the foremost figures of a singer-songwriter scene that also included Willie Nelson, Michael Martin Murphey, Doug Sahm, and Townes Van Zandt.
A hard-living persona contributed to Walker’s reputation for rowdy performances and offstage excess. A longtime friend, journalist and author Bud Shrake, compared some of Walker’s shows to NASCAR events: “an act that was full of thrills and suspense.”
Despite that, he was a performer and songwriter of durable longevity, and one who possessed an appeal to generations of fans and fellow musicians. During his 51-year recording career, he released 36 albums (including compilations) and became something of a musical mentor and inspiration to musicians such as Jimmy Buffett, Garth Brooks, Guy Clark, Pat Green, Robert Earl Keen, Jr., Todd Snider, and Jack Ingram.
An artist who had an oft-professed distaste for sterile recording studios, Walker over the years recorded albums in his home music room, in Texas’ oldest dance hall, at his getaway home on an island in Belize, and on the soundstage of television’s Austin City Limits. He recorded one of his most popular albums, 1973’s Viva Terlingua! in the dance hall of the tiny Hill Country hamlet of Luckenbach, TX, using hay bales for sound baffles. The recording session not only yielded some of his best-known recordings, including “Gettin’ By,” Guy Clark’s “Desperados Waitin’ For a Train” and Ray Wylie Hubbard’s “Up Against the Wall Redneck Mother,” it also made the miniscule town famous. That album also saw the original incarnation of what would become Walker’s longtime group, the Lost Gonzo Band (later the Gonzo Compadres).
Besides his advocacy for the songs of kindred spirits like Clark, Fred Neil and Rodney Crowell, Walker penned a substantial body of memorable original material, including “Driftin’ Way of Life,” “Little Bird,” “Hill Country Rain,” “Gypsy Songman,” “Charlie Dunn,” and “Woman in Texas,” to name a few.
Though never a chart-topping artist himself, and the possessor of a warm, expressive storyteller’s voice that nevertheless fell short of technical perfection, Walker managed to transcend the Cosmic Cowboy era and become one of the leading lights of the contemporary Americana musical movement.
Long dismissive of major record label practices and politics, Walker and his wife Susan determined to chart their own career path. In the mid-1980s, they formed their own label, Tried & True Music, based out of their home in Austin. Jerry Jeff was the talent; Susan was the manager and booking agent. The boutique operation eventually handled all of Walker’s bookings, tour promotion, merchandise, travel, publishing, and publicity, making it an early adopter of the DIY model in the music industry.
Susan once joked, “Hell, I can lay by the pool and answer the phone as good as anyone at (the) William Morris (Agency).”
Beginning in 1986 with releases on cassette tape and continuing into the age of digital downloads, the Walkers released 17 albums, at first in conjunction with the Rykodisc label and then on their own. Walker’s final release, It’s About Time, appeared in 2018.
Jerry Jeff Walker was born Ronald Clyde Crosby on March 16, 1942, in Oneonta, NY. He acquired his stage name while living and performing in New Orleans in the mid-1960s.
His father, Mel, and mother, Alma, raised him and his sister Cheryl, but it was Alma’s mother, Jessie Conrow, who proved to be Walker’s first musical influence, and one of his most enduring. “I never walk past the piano when I don’t sit down for at least a moment and see what it says,” she told him.
“Spoken like a true musician,” Walker wrote approvingly in his 1999 autobiography, Gypsy Songman. True to that code, when he was off the road, Walker spent at least a part of every day in his home music room, experimenting with melodies and lyrics until the very end.
Throughout his life, Walker stayed faithful to the troubadour’s ethos of traveling and making his own music on his own terms, reveling in what he was pleased to call “my portable occupation.”
Walker is survived by Susan, his wife of 46 years, as well as a son, Django Cody Walker and a daughter, Jessie Jane McLarty along with her husband Robert, as well as two grandchildren, Jackson and Allie.