Tales of a pilfered puppy in Nashville, campfire songs in Ohio, sangria wine in Coconut Grove.
Jerry Jeff Walker was remembered with affection and honored in song at an outdoor memorial tribute concert for 1,000 fans and friends in Luckenbach on Saturday.
The sold-out event vividly brought to life and fleshed out stories which dwell in Walker’s archives at The Wittliff Collections at Texas State University. Many touched on those mysterious early years when he was a drifting folk singer in the 1960s.
Walker, who died on October 23, 2020, would surely have loved the musical talent onstage, beginning with his son, singer-songwriter Django Walker who got the crowd going. The bill included old friends H.R. “Stoney” Stoneback, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, Emmylou Harris, Rodney Crowell, Keith Sykes, Jeff Hanna of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, Pat Green, Steve Earle, Jimmy Buffett and many others.
Jerry Jeff’s widow and manager, Susan Walker, organized the memorial show and opened it with heartfelt words – and historical perspective.
(The anticipatory mood had really kicked into high gear just moments earlier when Waylon Jennings’ self-reverential hit “Luckenbach, Texas (Back to the Basics of Love)” played over the sound system. In the spot where Willie Nelson sings about “Jerry Jeff’s train songs,” whoops and hollers went up.)
Susan reminded the crowd that she and Jerry Jeff had been married at the Luckenbach general store more than 46 years ago with Hondo Crouch as best man.
“When Jerry Jeff died, and I went through his personal belonging, I found just as many photos and mementos of Hondo as I did of me and the kids,” Walker said.
“And that’s when I realized that if Jerry Jeff hadn’t met Hondo when he was passing through Texas in the early ’70s, and Hondo hadn’t brought him to the little town he’d just bought, I’m not sure he would have stayed in Texas. There would be no ‘¡Viva Terlingua!’ I wouldn’t have met him . . .”
Proceeds from Saturday’s memorial will fund a life-sized Clete Shields’ bronze sculpture of Jerry Jeff and Hondo sitting on a bench which is planned to reside under the trees in Luckenbach “where they contemplated the meaning of the universe,” Susan Walker explained.
Her remembrances were often lighthearted. She shared a story of how “after some unfortunate bar mishaps,” Jerry Jeff had visited a plastic surgeon about his nose and took along a photo of singer-songwriter Guy Clark. He wanted his nose.
The best old stories came from those who knew Jerry Jeff Walker years before he made it, years before he’d even hit on his name.
Stoneback, the inspiration for the song “Stoney,” performed onstage from a wheelchair. He shared stories of hitchhiking in the summer of 1963 and meeting the troubadour, “Jerry Ferris” (the name Ronald Clyde Crosby aka the future Jerry Jeff Walker was using). They rambled around Virginia, Kentucky and Ohio.
“I could tell you some stories, But I don’t have time,” said Stoneback with a chuckle. He hushed the crowd with a tale about one of his last phone conversations with Jerry Jeff.
“How are you doing really, man?” Stoneback asked.
“I tell you what, Stoney. I’m right on the edge and it can’t get worse. My fingers are cracked. My hands are all dry. I can’t play the guitar,” Jerry Jeff replied.
Stoneback hung up the phone and wrote down the chorus for a song, “I’m right on the edge, and it can’t get worse. Don’t know if I’ll finish this song’s next verse. Can’t ride in my pickup. Oh, I don’t want no hearse. I’m right on the edge and it can’t get worse.” He sang it Saturday.
Stoneback lightened the mood with hitchhiking tales singing gospel songs and recounted laying down a couple of studio tracks in Cincinnati, Ohio for a local record company, an experience that turned “into a scuffle.”
Former CNN news executive and journalist Earl Casey who researched and guided Walker’s memoir, “Gypsy Songman,” served as emcee and kept the show running, dropping in historical tidbits along the way as he introduced musicians.
The house band was killer: Lloyd Maines on pedal steel guitar, lead guitarist and accordionist Chris Gage, drummer Steve Samuel and bassist Brad Fordham.
Legendary folk singer, 89-year-old Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, one of Jerry Jeff’s idols, was an inimitable, craggily hoot, opening with “Old Shep” and sharing stories about smiling fish and sea-worthy dogs. He stopped mid-song during “South Coast Ballad” — a song by Lillian Bos Ross he learned decades ago from Frank Hamilton on travels through North Carolina on the way to New Orleans in a car painted blue – and switched to Bob Dylan’s “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright” (a favorite of Elliott’s).
Emmylou Harris recalled the early days with Jerry Jeff Walker in the late ’60s. They met in Greenwich Village back in the days when she wanted to be a folk singer, “the next Joan Baez.”
“(Jerry Jeff) sort of became the head of this family of all of us artists just struttin’ our stuff and learnin’ our stuff back then,” said Harris before singing Walker’s “My Old Man.” “He was kind of like the sun around which we all revolved. I learned a lot for him and was inspired by him . . . no one could sing it like Jerry Jeff.”
Singer-songwriter Keith Sykes met Jerry Jeff in New York in 1968 when he was only 19. “He blew my mind,” Sykes recounted before singing “Driftin’ Way of Life” from those early days. “He still blows my mind.”
Former Major League Baseball star and coach, musician Tim Flannery delivered two of the most emotional songs at the tribute show and shared heartfelt stories. Flannery and Walker were close friends. They’d met decades ago in Amarillo at the Texas Moon Palace, a country bar.
“Last of the Old Dogs” was written for, and inspired by, his pal. “Everything in this song, he told me — somewhere, sometime in the middle of the night, in the morning. We became real good pals,” Flannery said, his voice cracking. The song’s opening line said it all: “The man singing on the jukebox is a friend of mine.”
Jeff Hanna, who sang Tom Russell and Ian Tyson’s “Navajo Rug,” was joined by Emmylou Harris and Rodney Crowell on “Mr. Bojangles.” Introducing the song, Hanna recounted getting choked up by the beauty and the lyrics of the song the first time he heard it on the radio.
(His story is not so different from that of John Pascale, the New Jersey guitar repairman who got Jerry Jeff to write out the words to the song in the summer of 1968 and managed to hang on to them until donating the pages to The Wittliff earlier this year. They are the earliest known surviving handwritten lyrics of the song).
“This is so cathartic,” Hanna said. “This is good for all our hearts. This is all my heroes back here, singing and playing.”
Michael Martin Murphey was one of the first to hear Walker’s “Little Bird.” They met at the old Rubaiyat coffee house in Dallas. Murphey was a freshman at North Texas State University. The singer-songwriter described the scene.
Jerry Jeff rolled in on a motorcycle in 1965. He had his guitar strapped on his back in a soft case, a couple of shirts and a flask. “He really just wanted to be a drifter,” Murphey said. “Like me, he really didn’t come from that life. He chose to take that trip, be that gypsy.”
He sang “Old Road” a cappella before going into “Backsliders Wine.”
“Everybody thinks about the happy go lucky guy that got onstage and sang meaningful songs while partying. That was his greatest trait. No matter what was going on, he could make you feel good,” Murphey said. “No matter what was going on politically. No matter what was going on economically or intellectually in this country.”
Before singing the original quiet arrangement of “Little Bird,” Murphey called it “his most poetic masterpiece of a song.”
Then, it was time to get loud and rowdy.
Pat Green powered through some Jerry Jeff material with the carefree panache of the young Jerry Jeff Walker on “Jaded Lover” and “Texas on My Mind.”
Steve Earle opened with a gritty Guy Clark song he “learned from a Jerry Jeff Walker record” – “That Old Time Feeling.” He followed it with a driving, edgy rock version of the Walker-penned “Hill Country Rain.”
“One of the best songs ever written,” Earle added as he kicked into the final lively chorus. “This is such an honor to do this. This is the first time I’ve been in Luckenbach since the ’80s,” Earle said. “I came here before there was a (expletive) song.” A passionate “Desperados Waiting For a Train” ended his segment with Jimmy Buffett making a cameo on vocals.
Rodney Crowell took the stage with Emmylou Harris and smoothly launched into “L.A. Freeway” with the crowd singing along loudly. Harris took the spotlight singing Susanna Clark’s mournful “I’ll Be Your San Antone Rose.”
That’s when Crowell shared a story about the time Jerry Jeff stole his puppy in 1972. It was a period when all the Nashville songwriters would come to show Jerry Jeff their new songs whenever he was in town.
It was an all-nighter, Crowell recounted. He remembered Jerry Jeff didn’t like his dog’s name – Bilbo (named for Bilbo Baggins in “The Hobbit”). Crowell said he went to bed and the party was still going the next day. Then, he got a call that Jerry Jeff had taken the dog. Crowell sped to the airport.
“Jerry was carrying his stage boots and a saddlebag over his shoulder,” Crowell recalled.
“I kinda put two and two together when I ran down to the end and everybody was getting ready to board the plane back to Austin. There was Jerry with his saddlebags, and I said, ‘Where’s my dog?’
“He says, ‘What dog?’ I said, ‘I’m guessing the one in your boot.’ ‘OK, you got me.’ He pulled my little dog out. And he said, ‘Look, as long as you’re going to take this dog, you’ve got to give him the right name — a name that dog can respect. His name is Banjo. And I said, ‘It sure is his name.”
The crowd ate it up. Crowell followed the cute story about his famous pup with his own tune, “Till I Gain Control Again” and Waylon Jennings’ high-kickin’ country rocker “I Ain’t Living Long Like This.”
Jimmy Buffett, accompanied by acclaimed songwriter and musician Mac McAnally, was another cherry on top of a beautiful night. He praised Jerry Jeff Walker for “shining the spotlight on everybody else that he thought was going to make it.”
The two met when Buffett was a writer for Billboard. “Of course, he said, Well, let’s go out and get a drink.’ That’s how it started,” Buffett said. “At that time, I was kind of ending my first very quick marriage a d Jerry Jeff was very instrumental in it happening at a rapid-er pace then I thought it would.”
He also credited Jerry Jeff Walker for being “the first person to take folk music and then whatever country music was at that time to the beach” with the 1970 album “Bein’ Free.”
“Jerry Jeff Walker took me to Key West and brought me to Austin,” Buffett said. “He has a very severe gravitational force.” Buffett opened with a song they wrote together on a train from Nashville to New Orleans – “Railroad Lady.”
“Jerry Jeff finally learned the song. We played it four or five times and he didn’t know a goddamned word,” Buffett said. “We’re gonna do all the words tonight.” His set included the Fred Neil-penned “Everybody’s Talkin’” and played an electric ukulele for the fun finale, “Sangria Wine.”
Django Walker took the reins to close the night with spirited sing-alongs with Ray Wylie Hubbard’s “Up Against the Wall Redneck Mother” and Gary P. Nunn’s “London Homesick Blues,” highlights of the influential 1973 classic “¡Viva Terlingua!” Call it a full circle night.
On a personal note, it was with a sense of pride that I watched all the legendary musicians onstage Saturday playing in front of a banner with the logo I’d designed and drawn on a napkin and which graphic artist Michael Karshis later brought to life for my very first exhibition at The Wittliff in 2018 – “¡Viva Jerry Jeff! The Origins and Wild Times of a Texas Icon.” As the night revealed, there is still much to learn, cherish and preserve.
Used to get so excited when we had Jerry Jeff Walker backstage and on the Arneson River Theatre stage during KKYX Great Country River Festivals of long ago….
That was quite the beautiful nite in Luckenbach. The frogs in the creek were all singing along with the crowd.
Caught the JJW exhibit in 2018 after my last JJW show at Gruene Hall. Spent a chunk of time there. Looked at every piece and read every word. Really fun to take it all in. So glad my friend tipped me off to this. Thanks. RK
I learn a lot about Texas music every time I read something by Hector Saldaña.