Memories of Jerry Jeff Walker, from bandmates, fellow musicians and a president
Jerry Jeff Walker’s death on Saturday at age 78 from throat cancer spurred an outpouring of sentiment from former bandmates, fellow-traveler musicians and even a president of the United States. We’ve gathered excerpts from social media posts and our own interviews to reflect on the loss of a Texas troubadour who helped define Austin culture for decades.
Bob Livingston, Lost Gonzo Band member (via Facebook)
Jerry Jeff was ornery. And we got down to it a few times. I mean really down to it. But we were brothers in a way, so that goes with the territory. I’ve never met a more resilient, roll-with-the punches grumpy butt. He just went for it, whatever it was. He was a master of the “Vegas Move,” whereby you go for a U-turn on a six-lane highway in full traffic. That was Jerry Jeff. That was his life.
Musically, he was all instinct. He called a great set; there was never a set list. Most songs started with him bashing on his guitar. There was never a count-off. Jerry Jeff was the center of it all, and his rhythm was right in the pocket. We were young and green and right from the get-go it was full-tilt. It all seemed somewhat surreal. The audiences loved the music so much. They loved him. And they loved the band. Every song we played was a hit to those crowd’s ears and eyes. And the joints were always sold out, whether it was Billy Bob’s Texas, the Palomino, the House of Blues or Carnegie Hall. And a thousand more.
He had a good pretty good work ethic, if you can call it that. He would talk guitars all day and play every day. He’d write a song, usually about Susan (his wife), who had saved his life a time or two. He said, “Write a song about your wife. It’ll get you out of a lot of trouble.” He would go jump in Barton Springs and then hit all the music stores in Austin: Strait Music, Heart of Texas, South Austin Music, Erlewine Guitars. They would see him coming. He would play every guitar in the place. He might buy a rare J-45, play it for a few weeks and sell it for far more than he paid just because he had played it. I told him he should open his own shop, “Scamp’s Guitars.”
I met him at the Troubadour in Los Angeles in 1970. I had met (Michael) Murphey a few months before and we had become friends. We heard that Jerry Jeff was in town opening for Linda Ronstadt. Murphey and JJ had been great friends, but I had never met him. Of course I knew about him, had heard “Mr. Bojangles” in Lubbock in about ‘67. I didn’t know who was singing at the time but it stopped me in my tracks. When Jerry Jeff walked onstage that night at the Troubadour, I knew this guy was way different. Cowboy hat, a funky velvet jacket and some loose bell-bottom pants. When he sat down to play, his pants came up to reveal the coolest boots I’d ever seen. I’d later come to know they were made by a boot maker in Austin called Charlie Dunn. He would write about it and tell Charlie’s story dead on.
This is the stuff I want to remember. The high hill country rain, good time fun. Never a blue note. Everything up and happening. Leaping and the net sometimes not appearing. And he was (alright) with that. Now there are three Gonzos down in 2020: Riley Osbourn, Kelly Dunn and Jerry Jeff. That “old time feeling comes sneaking down the hall.” But as the David Halley song he sang says, “I wish hard living didn’t come so easy to me.” It all caught up to him. He lived hard and played hard. I will miss you Scamp. We all will. Fly safe, Gypsy Songman.
(Livingston will be playing some of Walker’s songs in a 7 p.m. Friday livestream at facebook.com/boblivingston.)
Gary P. Nunn, Lost Gonzo Band member (telephone interview)
He was always having fun. If he wasn’t having fun, it was miserable! But he was a fun-loving guy and had a great sense of humor and great artistic abilities and gifts. It was a wild ride, but it was exciting and exhilarating and inspirational, those years we spent on the road with Jerry Jeff. I loved him dearly. He’s one of the people in my life that had the most influence on me.
(Regarding Nunn singing his own song, “London Homesick Blues,” on Walker’s classic 1973 live album “Viva Terlingua!”:)
He sprung it on me in the show. He looked over at me late in the evening and said, “Sing that song I heard you singing this afternoon.” The first time we’d ever done it was that live recording. I’ve always been very appreciative of having that opportunity. It was a career-maker for me.
One of the great lessons that I learned form Jerry Jeff was that you don’t have to be blind to other people’s material — to have your eyes wide open and look for other material.
I’d been thinking about him lately, wondering what his condition was. The Gonzos are all grieving today — me and Bob and Freddie Krc and John Inmon.
John Inmon, Lost Gonzo Band member (via Facebook)
There is something intangible and magical that rises between musicians when they make music together, particularly if it is of an extemporaneous, free-flowing style. This quality grows with time as the musicians work together. You can feel it in the music, and it was there in spades with all these guys — all of us. I am tremendously grateful for the privilege of having worked with each of them. They taught me so much.
Although I have been expecting it, this news has hit hard, as did hearing about Kelly (Dunn) and Riley (Osbourn). I left Jerry almost 20 years ago under a cloud which hung around for a long time. When I heard of his cancer diagnosis, I texted him, not knowing if the number I had on him was still good, and he texted me back, thanking me for my concern. The personal rift between us healed. I'm so glad this happened before he passed. Over the many years (1973-77, 1982-86, 1990-2001) that I worked for him, I never got tired of playing his music. I learned so much from it all. I will always be grateful for my time working with Jerry Jeff Walker.
» READ MORE:Our 2018 interview with Jerry Jeff Walker
Bradley Kopp, former bandmate (via Facebook)
A couple of months back, I got a call from Jerry Jeff Walker out of the blue. He kept me on the phone for about 45 minutes talking about everything imaginable — grandkids, guitars, politics, religion, you name it. Then he said, “I'm gonna let you go, but first I'm gonna FaceTime you so I can see your smilin’ face!” Then he kept me on FaceTime for another 15 minutes, asked to see Molly the greyhound and then recited every word of his song about giving an old guitar to a friend who was down.
It was in that moment that I realized that he truly cared about me, and it was one of the most poignant moments I've ever experienced in my life.
You were one of a kind, Jerry Jeff. May your memory be a blessing!
Robert Earl Keen, fellow Texas troubadour (via Facebook)
Jerry Jeff Walker had a tremendous impact on my musical journey. His music broadened the definition of country music, which opened my eyes to the infinite possibilities one has when writing a song. I think we'll all miss him. He was one of a kind.
Bill Clinton, 42nd president of the United States (via Twitter)
I was saddened to hear about the passing of Jerry Jeff Walker. I’ll never forget seeing him at the Armadillo Music Hall in Austin in 1972, or his performance for my 1992 campaign the night before Election Day. He was a true original, and his music will live on.
Christine Albert, Austin musician and wife of Walker bandmate Chris Gage (via Facebook)
Whenever we were in Belize, something about it made Chris and I flip biorhythms. He’d get up at the rising of the sun and go fishing with (Walker’s wife) Susan, while I slept in and moved slow. Jerry Jeff would stumble out and play the latest song he was working on or one of the seemingly endless stream of songs he knew and loved.
Like pretty much everyone my age who plays the kind of music I do, “Viva Terlingua!” was my hymnal when I lived in New Mexico. When I moved to Austin and met Jerry Jeff, I was honored to be asked to sing on his albums, but he was kind of cranky and scared me a bit. He and Susan were a force of nature, and I looked up to them with awe.
When Chris started playing with Jerry Jeff 12 years ago, the fear subsided and a comfortable, deep affection took its place. Susan and Jerry Jeff became dear friends; playing Mexican Train and Trivial Pursuit, having long conversations over dinner and wine, sharing ideas for good books, long meandering phone calls with JJ in the middle of a busy workday, singing joyful harmonies onstage and off, loving his fur baby Bear. These times planted seeds of love for this complicated, brilliant, interested, interesting, wild, tenderhearted friend.
His voice always returns me to that moment in time when I was choosing my musical and life path. I’m grateful that it also led me to Austin and the chance to know the Gypsy Songman as a friend — and the crazy uncle I never had. And now I’ll go cry some more.
Tamara Saviano, Guy Clark biographer and documentary filmmaker (via Facebook)
My memories of Jerry Jeff are all tied up with Guy. JJ was an enormous help to me on my book, inviting me to his home in Austin and spending hours and hours telling me stories and showing me photos. He flew to Nashville to be part of our Old Friends Reunion on Guy’s 73rd birthday and regaled us with stories of (him) and Guy from the early days in Houston. One of my favorite memories is watching Guy and Jerry Jeff backstage at the Rockport Music Festival in 2011. They were cutting up and laughing and arguing. It was wonderful. I saw Jerry Jeff on the last normal weekend of 2020 at the Texas Heritage Songwriters event in February. He did not look good, but I was happy he was there for the honor.
Sara Hickman, Austin singer-songwriter (via Facebook)
My parents divorced when I was about 11, so when my sister and I would go visit our dad, it was a big deal.
One day — I was probably 13 or 14 years old — we were at his house for the weekend, and I was out in his workshop, practicing guitar and singing songs. I didn’t think anyone was listening. But as I was almost finished with “Mr. Bojangles,” I heard a strange sound coming from my dad in the other room.
I carried my guitar over to the doorway and shyly peeked into the adjoining room, and there was my dad, sobbing, his wife holding him in her arms. They were standing together, and, feeling as if I wasn’t supposed to witness this intimate sorrow, as I was about to sneak back into the other room, I overheard my dad say, “I love ‘Mr. Bojangles.’ It’s my favorite song. She’s singing it so beautifully.”
I couldn’t believe it. It was the only compliment my dad ever gave me (in terms of my music). So thanks be to Jerry Jeff for writing such a moving song, one that gave a daughter encouragement from a father who never really knew how to give it.
Cory Reinisch, leader of Austin band Harvest Thieves (via Instagram)
I have long thought that one of the greatest songs ever written about Texas is Jerry Jeff's "Leavin’ Texas." It probably plays more like a love letter to Texas than anything else. In my wilder years, when I was a bit of a wandering soul, I woke many a hazy morning and sang along with Jerry Jeff when he crooned, "Oh Texas, I'm just a little lost, but I'm keepin' on." As if we were both telling Texas herself that we were gonna make it, even if it didn’t look like it.
It would be difficult for me to name another song that better captures that lonesome sentimental reverence we often hold for our home state. For someone who wasn’t a native Texan, it speaks to his natural gift for songwriting. I really hope you caught one last sunset across the prairie, amigo. Farewell, to one damn fine Yankee.