Jerry Jeff Walker is one of the all-time greats in country music!
By Tom Bomb for Country Music News International Magazine
Jerry Jeff Walker was born as Ronald Clyde Crosby in Oneonta, New York on the 16th of March in 1942. His country influence started with his parents who were avid square dancers. His grandparents were also active musicians. Jerry Jeff was 12 years old when he got his first guitar and started playing in bands during his high school years. After he was kicked out of the National Guard for going AWOL, he would travel across America busking and playing random gigs. His first stage name was “Jeff Farris” and by the time he came to New York City in the mid-‘60s, he became known under the name “Jerry Walker”. He played in the folk scene and went on to join a rock band called Circus Maximus. The band’s sound consisted of a blend of folk-rock, jazz, and psychedelic rock. His first album was self-titled under his previous stage name “Jerry Walker”, which was issued by Vanguard Records in 1967. He became “Jerry Jeff Walker” on their second and last LP, 1968’s Neverland Revisited.
By the time “Neverland Revisted” came out, Walker had left Circus Maximus and started his solo career with the album Mr. Bojangles in 1968 on Atco Records. In 1970, Jerry Jeff Walker would begin to receive a bit more acclaim after The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band scored a Top Ten single with their cover of his most widely known song “Mr. Bojangles”. In 1971, he would visit Austin, Texas for the first time since the mid-’60s and was brought in with open arms by the “cosmic cowboy” scene that was defined by venues such as Armadillo World Headquarters and acts such as Michael Martin Murphey, Marcia Ball, Steve Earle, Gary P. Nunn, Jerry Jeff Walker, Ray Wylie Hubbard, Waylon Jennings, and Sir Douglas Quintet. Walker’s music and vibe fit the “cowboy meets hippie Redneck Rock” scene that defined the music scene.
Jerry Jeff began touring with the Lost Gonzo Band, a collection of Austin musicians. One of their shows in August 1973 was recorded live for his album Viva Terlingua, which became one of the defining albums of the Texas Outlaw Country scene. One of the songs, “London Homesick Blues” (written by pianist Gary P. Nunn, who also took the lead vocal), became the theme song for the classic PBS series Austin City Limits. While Walker would maintain a fairly large fanbase, Viva Terlingua started a phase of his career where his cult following transitioned into a more defined audience. Jerry Jeff Walker and his Lost Gonzo Band recorded a number of albums released on MCA throughout ’70s. These works include Ridin’ High (1975) and A Man Must Carry On (1977). He would then sign with Elektra Records for 1978’s Jerry Jeff. Walker produced his second album for Elektra, 1979’s Too Old to Change, but the album was not received well commercially or critically. He would sign with MCA’s Southcoast subsidiary to release 1981’s Reunion and 1982’s Cowjazz.
Cowjazz would be Walker’s last album for a major label. In the 1980’s, he formed his own record label called Tried & True Music. He would distribute his records through Rykodisc. Some of his more acclaimed efforts during this period include 1987’s Gypsy Songman: A Life in Song and 1991’s Navajo Rug, and 1992’s Hill Country Rain. Walker would continue to record throughout the ’90s and 2000s. His birthday was celebrated in Austin with a series of annual concerts at The Paramount Theatre that became a local tradition. After he was diagnosed with throat cancer in 2017, he made a comeback with 2018’s self-released It’s About Time. Walker would continue to receive treatment for cancer until he passed away on October 23, 2020, at a hospital in Austin. He was 78 years old.
For those looking for a great place to start, I would highly recommend his live 1973 live album Viva Terlingua as a starting point.