THEIR TOWN : People We Like and the Places They Love

Mr. Bojangles's Austin

By Bill O'Brian
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 12, 2003

"That's the last of the true honky-tonks," Jerry Jeff Walker said on a drizzly Wednesday last month as we left the Broken Spoke, a country music dance hall in south Austin, Tex.

Walker should know. He's played pretty much every type of music venue imaginable, from street corners to the Birchmere in Alexandria (regularly) to Carnegie Hall (twice). And over the past four decades, he and the Broken Spoke have been part of the country-rock-folk-blues-salsa-jazz-bluegrass meld that has made Austin the musical heart of Texas.

In Austin -- and to a relatively small but devoted group of fans around the world -- the 60-year-old singer-songwriter is known for heartfelt, humorous, irreverent lyrics; a gonzo wild streak that crested around 1978; a left-of-center political philosophy; an elaborate three-day birthday bash each March; a cowboy manner, a soulful voice, a sweet guitar and an engaging stage presence.

"Jerry Jeff epitomizes the flavor of Austin," former Texas governor Ann Richards, a longtime friend and fan, said recently.

Outside Texas, Walker is most famous for the pop classic "Mr. Bojangles" ("I know a man Bojangles, and he'd dance for you / In worn-out shoes . . ."), which he wrote, and debuted, in Austin at age 24.

We were headed, that rainy Wednesday, for Maria's Taco XPress, a sparse, authentic eatery with seating for 15 max. "It's the last of the old-time Austin-type things," Walker said. "It's pretty funky."

My wife, Sue, and I -- both in Austin for the first time -- had just arrived, and we wanted to know the best clubs to go to in a town whose alternative weekly newspaper lists 194 live music venues.

Over a tasty Tex-Mex concoction of eggs, tortilla crumbs and herbs known as migas tacos, Walker explained his vast preference for a "listening room" (where the audience knows to pay attention once the music starts) rather than a bar (where the crowd doesn't). He scrawled a map on a note pad and named a handful of spots -- the Saxon Pub, Antone's, Stubb's, the Cactus Cafe, La Zona Rosa, the Broken Spoke and, for jazz, the Elephant Room. Most were later seconded by his 21-year-old son, Django, who plays in a "Southern rock" band and who added two recommendations of his own, the Continental Club and Red-Eyed Fly.

So, we were good to go. But first one more taco, an egg-and-chorizo.

"You need a little grease for the pipes," Walker said. "Grease is one of the food groups."

Over the next four days, Sue and I weighed Walker's advice -- musical and otherwise -- as we immersed ourselves in the city he has called home since 1971.

We enjoyed a quick tour of the state capitol, a majestic domed building made of sunset red Texas granite, even though all Walker had to say about it beforehand was, "At least I know where they all are." "They" being conservative state legislators who frequently clash with liberal local residents, some of whose rallying cry is "keep Austin weird."

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