"Tonight is Walker night!"
Michael Martin Murphey delivered the quick catch-phrase near the end of Saturday’s Texas Heritage Songwriters Association Hall of Fame show at the Paramount Theatre, speaking on behalf of Jerry Jeff Walker after T-Bone Walker had been inducted earlier. These Walkers (no relation) weren’t the only 2020 honorees; the evening also featured entertaining and informative tributes to Susanna Clark, Jim Collins, Larry Henley and B.J. Thomas. But it was indeed the Walker segments that were the most memorable.
Jerry Jeff is apparently the first of the Hall’s 49 inductees who’s not a native Texan, but the exception made for the Oneonta, N.Y., native who "got here as fast as he could" (per the notes in the evening’s program) seems fully justified. Walker changed Austin music in the 1970s more than anyone but Willie Nelson through not only his own songs, but those of other Texas songwriters he recorded.
RELATED: Our 2018 interview with Jerry Jeff Walker
As such, it was fitting that the grand finale featured Rodney Crowell leading a star-studded cast through the anthemic "L.A. Freeway," written by Guy Clark (husband of Saturday inductee Susanna). Murphey, Emmylou Harris, Joe Ely, the Dirt Band’s Jeff Hanna (who earlier sang Walker’s iconic "Mr. Bojangles"), Matraca Berg, Bruce Robison, Kelly Willis, Todd Snider, Jack Ingram, Pat Green, show host Ronnie Dunn and others all joined in joyfully.
And then, at the end, out strode Walker himself — gingerly, albeit, with a cane and significant assistance from his wife Susan and others. Walker, 77, has had some close brushes with mortality lately, and you could see on this night why there’s not presently a spot on the Paramount’s upcoming calendar for his traditional birthday bash. But just to have him in the house clearly meant the world to his friends and fans.
It may well have been the previous Walker segment, for pioneering Dallas blues guitarist T-Bone Walker, that stole Saturday’s show, though. Before speaking about Jerry Jeff, Murphey pointedly expressed how glad he was "to be here tonight for the first black inductee into this organization." That partly speaks to how limited the TxHSA’s horizons have been up till now, with little diversity of color or gender. (Susanna Clark’s induction was just the fourth for a woman, following Cindy Walker, K.T. Oslin and Liz Rose.)
Better late than never, though, and if the crowd’s response was any indication, the door may swing open to more black artists in the future. Saxon Pub regular Johnny Nicholas rounded up a superb cast of musicians to play T-Bone’s songs, including Austin blues scene master W.C. Clark, country-blues synthesist Lee Roy Parnell, the four-piece Texas Horns, and guitar greats Duke Robillard and Jimmie Vaughan, who recalled being 14 years old when Walker kindly snuck him into a show in Dallas.
Best of all was the mini-set’s finale, with Austin soul-blues-gospel dynamo Ruthie Foster stepping out for a roof-raising vocal tour de force on T-Bone’s best-known tune, "They Call It Stormy Monday." Several relatives of Walker, who died in 1975, were on hand for the Hall of Fame award presentation, with his daughter speaking graciously on her father’s behalf.
Susanna Clark’s induction was another high point, with Emmylou Harris taking lead on renditions of "Easy From Now On" and "I’ll Be Your San Antone Rose," both of which appeared on albums Harris recorded in the 1970s. Tamara Saviano, director of a documentary about Susanna and Guy Clark that will premiere next month at the SXSW Film Festival, accepted the award on behalf of the Clark family, after a short video segment that also celebrated Susanna’s visual art. (Willie Nelson’s mutimillion-selling classic album "Stardust" featured one of her paintings as its cover.)
Two Texas songwriters with significant Nashville mainstream country resumes were inducted earlier in the evening. Nacogdoches native Jim Collins teared up in accepting his award before joining the ace house band — led by bassist Bruce Hughes and also featuring his Resentments bandmates Jeff Plankenhorn on guitar and John Chipman on drums, plus keyboardist Stefano Intelisano — for a sweet rendition of his best-known tune, "The Good Stuff" (a 2002 chart-topper for Kenny Chesney). Matraca Berg also performed a song she wrote with Collins, who was introduced by previous Hall of Fame inductee Mac Davis.
Inducted posthumously was Larry Henley, an East Texas native who died in 2014 after a 50-year career that included major hits for Tanya Tucker, Tammy Wynette and others. Central Texas troubadour Wade Bowen performed Henley’s "Is It Still Over," a hit for Randy Travis, before Houston singer Mignon stepped out on "Wind Beneath My Wings," the Henley/Jeff Silbar co-write that won a Grammy for Song of the Year when Bette Midler recorded it in 1989.
The evening began with a salute to B.J. Thomas, this year’s recipient of the association’s special Darrell K. Royal Texas Music Legend Award. Born in Oklahoma but raised in Houston, Thomas scored big hits as a singer with the Bacharach/David classic "Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on My Head" and the pop-rock crossover ballad "Hooked on a Feeling," among others. Thomas was not on-hand to accept; a photo was shown of Royal’s widow, Edith Royal, presenting Thomas with the award during his performance at Austin’s One World Theatre two weeks ago.