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Organic Tracks Interviews

Jerry Jeff Walker

Primarily a singer-songwriter, Jerry Jeff Walker was also instrumental in fueling the progressive country movement that came out of Austin, Texas in the mid-1970’s. 

ORGANIC TRACKS: How did progressive country come about, and where did it evolve from? 

JERRY JEFF WALKER: Well, coming through the 60’s, music went from being kind of a teenage thing, to the folk boom, which brought real stories and songs to the foreground. That lead to Bob Dylan writing stronger images that became part of popular music, but Country musicians were the last group to come along. They were still playing with the band all dressed in polyester suits and the producers choosing the songs. And bands would go back to Nashville and basically record with the same dozen musicians and then get on the bus and go out and play the songs just as they were recorded. Myself, along with Willie (Nelson) and Waylon (Jennings), and other bands in Austin, we were all playing the songs we wrote and playing them the way that we liked them, with our friends. We were just talking about things that were going on in our life; making life and music sort of intertwine. So that was really the whole thing that kind of shook up that side of the business. I don’t know what’s going on these days, but that’s what went on during the 70’s and early 80’s. 

OT: You once described the kind of country music you play in a unique way. What was that again? 

WALKER: Well, people would say ‘we never liked Country music but we like your music.’ I would respond by saying, "well, we play Country music; we’re just not sure what country it is."  I just saw a quote recently in Austin from Willie about recording in Nashville when he was younger. He said, ‘well I’d walk into the studio and be introduced to six guys I never met before and they’d turn to me and say, okay Shorty, now you sing’. (laughs)

OT: Let’s frame a few of your better-known songs. Your signature piece is an American classic. What’s the story behind "Mr. Bojangles"?

WALKER: Well, I wrote a book called "Gypsy Song Man." Part of the reason I wrote that book was so I could tell all these stories. But "Mr. Bojangles" was basically a situation in New Orleans where I got thrown into jail with a bunch of misfits. There’d been a murder in the French Quarter, and the police were rounding up some of the regular street characters. So the jails were jammed and we were all sort of piled in on top of each other. It also happened to be a three-day weekend; we went in on a Friday and there was a holiday that Monday. So, to pass the time away, this old dancer-character in the cell decided we should all tell stories and things about ourselves, and make the time go by. And he was the most colorful one and that’s how it all kind of ran together.

OT: "L.A. Freeway," what was that based on? 

WALKER: That’s a Guy Clark song. Guy and I were roommates in Houston. He went to California, doing set designs and stuff, and really missed the songwriting side of life. Then we crossed paths again. I had come to Nashville to do some mixing on a project I was working on, and ran into Guy. He had just come from L.A. and had written a song about leaving there. I thought it was really good and that I should put it on my next record to help him out, and call attention to him. 

OT: To this day, one of your most-requested songs in concert is "Up Against The Wall Red Neck Mother." What was the inspiration for that?

WALKER: One night, Ray Wiley Hubbard, our good buddy from Red River New Mexico, got into a confrontation in a hippie-cowboy bar, and some burly woman knocked him down. He said when he jumped up, he could’ve taken her, but she was with her big, Bubba son. So he said ‘I was forced to slunk off and write a song about it, to get even.\' So that was it.

OT: Another tune you’re associated with has a title that eludes many listeners. It’s not called "Gonna Go Home With The Armadillo," but actually goes by the name "London Homesick Blues."  

WALKER: Okay, now that’s a Gary P. Nunn tune. He was the arranger and piano player in the original Lost Gonzo Band. We were all running buddies at the same time when I first got to Austin. We’d all swap songs and play little a bit of Hank Williams, some Jerry Reed, and a little Chuck Berry, and we’d play some of the stuff we were writing. In fact, the nickname for us was ‘The Austin Interchangeable Dance Band.’ During the recording of "Viva Terlingua," Gary spent some time in England. I remember him saying ‘I just got back from London and this is a piece of something I’ve been working on,’ so we put it on the "Viva Terlingua" album.

OT: Recently, you began performing with your son, Django. What’s it like to perform with him on stage?

WALKER: Oh, it’s neat. I’ve watched him get a little more confidence. I think he’s probably gonna last longer than a lot of others, because he’s coming to it through enjoyment. I know some kids are already burned out at 19 or 20 that were playing when they were 7 and 8. But he got into it just playing music for his friends at parties, and having fun. He has a good affinity for it, so we’ve encouraged him to pursue it, so he’s going to a music school in Liverpool to learn his craft. I think it’s real easy to be famous these days; it’s not real easy to sustain success, so let’s let him grow into it.

OT: How about the Jerry Jeff audience? You seem to have a special rapport with your fans. Some of the people at tonight’s show have seen you 30 times and know all the words to all of your songs. It’s a great connection that very few artists have. 

WALKER: Well, I think my group as a whole, is an upbeat crowd, they’re good time folks. And if I was looking at it from an audience perspective, I’d like to be in an audience full of people that are fun, and not adversarial. So, I could see why they’d want to come back, if they remembered the last time, when they were laughing and singing after the show as they headed out to the parking lot to their cars. I’m glad they’re that way, and I think Buffett’s crowd is basically that way too. 

OT: There are other parallels between you and Jimmy Buffett. You spent some time with him in the early days in Key West, Florida. 

WALKER: Yeah, I tell a pretty good chapter in my book about our running around together. And he was nice enough to do a little blurb on the book cover. 

OT: What was the impetus for writing \"Gypsy Song Man?\" Did some of your friends nudge you and suggest a book?

WALKER: There’ve been fans who wanted to know more in-depth stuff, and just like you wanted to know the story of Mr. Bojangles, I’ve told that tons of times. I didn’t get into too much introspection about myself in the book. My songs are based on real characters, and real people. I just told the stories that basically described where the songs came from. Buffett’s books have been successful, so I thought that would be at least a reason enough to finish the book.

OT: Would you consider doing fiction like Buffett?

WALKER: No, fiction wouldn’t really hold my attention at all, I don’t know what it’d be about. Athough, I am reading a lot of McMurtry’s stuff lately. He’s written a book about growing up in a small town and how books first influenced him. And then his new book is a thing called "Roads." He just started driving around the country here at the millennium, but he’s taking only very fast highways. He’s not doing blue highways or dirt roads, he’s driving, just letting his mind wander; he flies through five states in one day. But it’s kind of neat the way he’s reflecting and going back, and that might be
something that I would consider writing about.