Jerry Jeff Walker to Play White Sulphur
Legendary country music singer Jerry Jeff Walker headlines the Red Ants Pants Music Festival this month (with Lyle Lovett) in White Sulphur, Mont., playing with Rodney Crowell, Guy Clark, Carrie Rodriguez, Martha Scanlan, and other artists. Walker is perhaps best known for having written the cross over classic Mr. Bojangles.
Jerry Jeff’s story is well known to fans and aficionados—he moved to Austin, Texas, in the early 1970s, reinvented himself as a Lone Star troubadour (born Ronald Clyde Crosby in Oneonta, New York, 1942) and became the name most associated with the Austin music scene along with Willie Nelson. Walker (or Jerry Jeff, as he is known) puts on an annual Birthday Bash in Austin, a celebration that’s become a cultural event in Texas attracting top names in country music. Jimmy Buffett attended in 2004—some call Jerry Jeff the Jimmy Buffett of Texas, and it was Walker who first drove Buffett to Key West (from Coconut Grove) in an old Packard. Legend holds that Walker and Buffett co-wrote Railroad Lady riding the last run of the Panama Limited.
Walker, a unique country music talent, developed what he calls Cowjazz, a style described as a cross between that of Bob Dylan and Harry Chapin. He is undoubtedly the Jerry Jeff referred to in the iconic country song Luckenbach, Texas (Back to the Basics of Love), as Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, or any number of others covering the tune sing: Between Hank Williams pain songs / Jerry Jeff train songs / and Blue Eyes Cryin’ in the Rain.
With Willie and others, Walker is regarded as a standard bearer of authentic and even counter-culture country music. He has inspired many in the business, including a fellow named Garth Brooks.
Walker took his stage name in 1966 and spent his early days in the Greenwich Village folk scene before going country, and his east coast counter-culture roots turned up in songs like Up Against the Wall Red Neck Mothers, a satire pointed at the differences between Walker’s roots and the at times “Red Neck” ways of certain individuals, a song nevertheless received as one of the greats of Outlaw country music.
Walker recorded the classic album Mr. Bojangles with the help of folk great David Bromberg. Mr. Bojangles is Walker’s most famous and often covered song. It tells the tale, based on Walker’s personal encounter, of a real life but mythic alcoholic, tap dancer (in Walker’s autobio-graphy Gypsy Songman, he tells us the man he knew was not the famous black dancer Bill "Bojangles" Robinson, but a white man). Walker’s Bojangles was a legendary drifter who sang and danced across the South, one of the most gifted dancers of all time, it is said. Reports of Bojangles were noted from the 1920s through the mid ‘60s. Artists such as Sammy Davis Jr., Nina Simone, Bob Dylan, the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, and dozens more, have either covered or recorded the related song.
Just before press time we caught up with Jerry Jeff—here’s what he told the Pioneer about Montana: "I've been to Montana a lot over the years. I played the Kalispell Music Festival, don't know how many years ago. Red Lodge—played a bar there for some friends. That's just naming a couple. My impression— there was so much space, almost like nobody was there. Beautiful… really looking forward to coming back. Coming out there, I feel like Gus and Call in Lonesome Dove— want to go see some wide open places before civilization turns everything ugly."
The Red Ants festival runs July 29 to 31 in White Sulphur Springs. See redantspantsmusicfestival.com.