By Lynne Margolis
Jerry Jeff Walker, the singer-songwriter who wrote “Mr. Bojangles” and helped create what became known as progressive country, passed away Friday, Oct. 23, at 78. He had been suffering from throat cancer.
Born Ronald Clyde Crosby in Oneonta, New York, Walker had become part of the 1960s Greenwich Village folk music scene, then formed the band Circus Maximus. They released two albums before breaking up. Walker, who adopted his new name in 1966, wrote his most renowned tune, based on a stay in a New Orleans drunk tank, in 1968. His version reached only No. 77 on Billboard magazine’s Hot 100 chart, but the one recorded by the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band in 1970 became a massive hit. The song would be recorded by well over 100 artists, including Sammy Davis Jr., Bob Dylan, Harry Nilsson and Walker acolyte Todd Snider, who recorded a full album of Walker tunes, Time as We Know It: The Songs of Jerry Jeff Walker.
Two of its tracks appeared on Walker’s seminal album, ¡Viva Terlingua!, one of the most influential of the genre also known as cosmic country, which helped seed the outlaw country movement. Recorded live in Luckenbach, Texas, with the Lost Gonzo Band, in 1973 (Walker had moved to Austin in 1971), it contained songs by Texas tunesmiths Guy Clark, Michael Martin Murphey, Ray Wylie Hubbard (“Up Against the Wall Redneck Mother”) and Gary P. Nunn (“London Homesick Blues,” which became the theme song for “Austin City Limits,” the PBS music show that helped put Walker’s adopted hometown on the proverbial map).
At that time, artists like Walker, Willie Nelson and Asleep at the Wheel were attracting a mix of hippies, bikers and cowboys to their shows, all of whom blissed out to the cosmic-country vibe.
When Walker was inducted into the Texas Heritage Songwriters Association Hall of Fame in February, he was already weakened from throat cancer, but heard every word as a series of peers and admirers sang his praises.
Award presenter Rodney Crowell said Walker belonged on Mt. Rushmore, adding, “I don’t think it’s lost on any of us … it all starts with Willie and Jerry Jeff. He would be the fifth Highwayman.”
The other four — considered linchpins of outlaw country — were Nelson, Kris Kristofferson, Johnny Cash and Waylon Jennings.
Another artist Walker influenced, Jack Ingram, said that night, “If you wanna know how to make magic, just listen to all of Jerry Jeff’s songs.”
Snider, who wrote a chapter about Walker in his book, I Never Met a Story I Didn’t Like: Mostly True Tall Tales, pointed out that Walker wasn’t just self-made, but self-created.
“He came up with himself completely from scratch, just like Mark Twain and just like Will Rogers,” noted Snider. Added Bruce Robison, “For me, he set the tone for Texas music.”
Pat Green reported he and his wife got married at Luckenbach because Walker and his wife, Susan, did.
And the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s Jeff Hanna once again related the story of how the band learned the song from a scratched, waterlogged 45rpm single, and got a line wrong “on a million-selling record.” When Hanna apologized to Walker about flubbing the line, Walker told him, “That’s OK. I got a Coupe De Ville out of it.”
Walker is survived by his wife and manager, Susan, and by children Jessie Jane and Django.
Jerry Jeff Walker, center, being inducted into the Texas Heritage Songwriters Association’s Hall of Fame in February. Photo by Ted Parker Jr.