NYTimes, May 10, 2001
'Mr. Bojangles' Author Still Strumming After All These Years
By EDWARD WYATT
For legions of expatriate Texans in New York City, few things can better infuse a bit of the Lone Star State into gritty, urban surroundings than an evening with Jerry Jeff Walker. Mr. Walker _ Jerry Jeff to his fans _ is a singer-songwriter best known for his rowdy renditions of songs like "Up Against the Wall, Redneck Mother" and for the lyrics of his famed ballad "Mr. Bojangles."
It is no stretch to say he is a folk hero, or even a cult figure, in Texas. At one time, ninth graders at Spring High School in Spring, Tex., studied his lyrics in English class. Now, some of those former students are among the exiled Texans who pack small clubs in New York City each year for a couple of shows of Jerry Jeff's music, old and new.
Most curious, then, about the devotion cultivated by Mr. Walker, who performs this weekend at the Bowery Ballroom in Manhattan, is that he is not actually from Texas. His roots stretch far to the north, all the way to Oneonta, N.Y., in the northern foothills of the Catskill Mountains, where Jerry Jeff Walker was born Ronald Clyde Crosby in March 1942.
His roots also pass through Greenwich Village, where in the late 1960's Mr. Walker lived for a few years on Thompson Street above a barber shop called Frank's, now Frank's Hair Stylist.
Experimenting with every kind of music from folk to hard rock, he played gigs at Cafe Wha?, the Night Owl and the Electric Circus, with bands called the Lost Sea Dreamers and Circus Maximus. (Typical of the musical gumbo that fed his roots was one night when Mr. Walker and Circus Maximus performed their psychedelic rock on the stage of Carnegie Hall alongside New York Pro Musica Antiqua, which plays Baroque music on period instruments.)
Perhaps it is his connection to New York that resonates with Texans here, who view his annual visits as a rite of their heritage. Or, just maybe, some of that appeal stems from the similarities some Texans see between one place and the other.
"Jerry Jeff talks about his kindred spirit with New York," said Lorin Kaye, who, despite growing up and going to college in Austin, first saw Mr. Walker perform after arriving in Manhattan five years ago. "I grew up hearing his songs, but I'd been away from home for a long time. Going to his show here was like being home again. You see cowboy hats and boots and everybody is singing along, going crazy."
Mr. Walker understands. "A lot of Texans go up to New York and stay there forever," he said recently in a telephone interview from his Austin home. "If there are any two places with more individual characters, I don't know them. New Yorkers have their own way of speaking, their own tempo, and Texans are a lot like that. As much as you think Texas is one thing and New York is another, they're very much the same."
Not that Texas is the kind of place that cottons easily to interlopers from the North. In the 1970's, residents scorned the "black plates," Michiganders who had moved to Texas and were easily identified until they swapped their license plates for the Texas variety. For years, Texans spurned youth soccer, proclaiming it a Yankee sport intent on undermining the primacy of football.
But Mr. Walker has managed to develop a Texan authenticity through his ability to see quickly what matters most to people, and to translate that into stories and songs that make listeners feel special about a place that exists, perhaps, only in history and in spirit.
"I'm a Texan," Mr. Walker said. "Some of me is still nestled up there in the Catskill Mountains; the summers I spent with my grandfather on the farm, and the guys I played basketball with in high school. But then that was it. High school ended, and Ron Crosby ended and Jerry Jeff began. Texas is where I found my musical self."
I spent a few years out running free,
I spent two or three in New York City,
And I moved back to Texas, tired,
Yeah, I'd had enough.
I go to Luckenbach on Saturdays
Cause Hondo had a way to brighten up my day
He'd always make me laugh when we rode in his pickup truck.
"Pickup Truck Song," Groper Music, 1989.
What will forever link Mr. Walker to New York City is a visit he paid in the wee hours of a November morning in 1967 to the studios of radio station WBAI-FM, where Bob Fass was disc jockey for an all-night show called "Radio Unnameable." Mr. Walker performed on the air, singing a song about a spindly, down-on-his- luck street dancer he once met in the First Precinct jail in New Orleans.
After that, "Bob Fass kept playing that song a couple of times a night, forever," Mr. Walker said. The song, of course, was "Mr. Bojangles," which became a hit, made even bigger by the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, and performed or recorded by scores of others, from George Burns to Sammy Davis Jr.
It seemed for a time that Mr. Walker might carve out a niche among a new breed of singer-songwriters who were using New York City as the springboard to incredibly productive periods in their careers. In July 1968, Robert Shelton wrote in The New York Times about "two of the most interesting folk-oriented talents to emerge since Arlo Guthrie and Janis Ian were strumming in the Village two years ago," Jerry Jeff Walker and Joni Mitchell.
Of Mr. Walker, Mr. Shelton wrote, "His singing is gentle and introspective, with an unforced lilt that draws you into his cosmos."
Gentle and introspective, however, was not the way he chose. Through the 1970's, as the emerging country- rocker movement reached its zenith, Mr. Walker's life became crowded with cocaine and whiskey. A reputation of being too drunk to perform _ or at least to remember all the words to his songs _ steadily diminished the courage of promoters to book him. Not until the mid-1980's was he able to chart a new path away from the drinking and drug-taking and dire financial straits that were dragging him down.
Finally, in 1986, he sat down in his living room and recorded all his best songs. With his wife, Susan, taking over as his manager, he released the album "Gypsy Songman" on his own record label, Tried & True Music, and began peddling it at shows.
It sparked a renaissance. Now, he communes with fans at an annual birthday bash in Austin, on an annual trip to Belize (where he has a vacation house he rents through his Web site, www.jerryjeff.com)
and in the small shows that for the last 15 years or so have taken him to places from Jacksonville, Ore., to New York City.
Though Mr. Walker has little doubt about his identity now, some fans seem stuck with the gonzo image he cultivated decades ago. "People are asking me constantly whether he's going to show up," said Matt McCabe, owner of Saratoga Guitar, who is promoting a show tonight by Mr. Walker in Saratoga Springs, N.Y.
"If they think that is the real Jerry Jeff, they don't know him," said Mr. McCabe, who has arranged for Mr. Walker's parents, Mel and Alma Crosby, to attend the show, the closest he has played to Oneonta in a decade.
Whether in Texas or New York City, Mr. Walker's shows usually take one form: that of a two-hour singalong, with frequent shouts of "Ya-hoo!" and high-volume requests for a ditty Mr. Walker wrote some years ago about the virtues and perils of urinating into the wind.
"A lot of the college kids get a little overamped at my shows," Mr. Walker said. "I guess it's like being typecast as an actor. A lot of them feel that they discovered me and they know all about me, but they don't.
"Part of my job is to bring other elements to the fore. They like to sing a lot of the old stuff where they know the choruses. But I want to do all of the emotions."
I found a woman in Texas,
Who liked what she saw in me
I found a lady who figures that maybe
There might be a chance for me.
And you may not buy it, but you can't deny
That my life's changed in front of you
This woman I found,
Has turned me around
And she loves me true.
"Woman in Texas," Groper Music, 1989.
His willingness to dig into those quiet emotions is what many fans, from Texas and elsewhere, believe separates Mr. Walker from the Nashville musicians who dominate country-music radio.
"It's his storytelling ability that makes him kin to the great Texas singer-songwriters," said Deborah Erickson, a science writer who grew up listening to Jerry Jeff in Cinnaminson, N.J. "There's a mythical element to him, going to Texas and finding all the things he was looking for."
Keeping that focus can be difficult in today's silicon-and-money-rich Austin, Mr. Walker said, though it is not yet as hard as he found it in New York City.
"It seems in both places like people have lost their sense of time," he said. "I feel very fortunate to have gotten the New York experience and have gotten the maximum out of it. But the meter's always running. I'm glad I didn't get stuck there."
[This message has been edited by Marty (edited 05-10-2001).]