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."
We took a morning run on the Town Lake Hike and Bike Trail along the Colorado River. "Frank Shorter called it one of the top 10 running trails in the world," Walker had told us.
We strolled around the pleasant University of Texas campus, admiring its landmark tower. "I don't think I'd ever want to live in a town without a big college in it," Walker said. "It keeps a place vibrant," and UT's 50,000 students are a big reason Austin supports so much live music.
We had chocolate milkshakes at Nau's Enfield Drug, just around the corner from Walker's house. Sit at the '50s-era soda fountain, he had advised. And we did.
We spent a couple of hours at the Texas State History Museum learning about the original Spanish settlers; the role of the city's namesake, Stephen F. Austin, in the war for independence from Mexico; the debate that led to statehood; the expulsion of the Comanches; the discovery of oil, and more -- even though Walker generally prefers "places for live people. Dead people had their chance."
We ventured out to the Hill Country, rolling terrain with wide-open vistas and low-slung trees west of Austin. We visited the Lyndon B. Johnson National Historic Park, toured the LBJ Ranch and appreciated the ruggedly beautiful setting along the Pedernales River that spawned the man one Austinite called "the only 100 percent Texas president."
But our primary destination in the Hill Country was Luckenbach, the hamlet made famous in song by Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson:
Between the Hank Williams pain songs and Jerry Jeff's train songs and blue eyes cryin' in the rain
Out in Luckenbach, Texas, ain't nobody feeling no pain.
Walker was an enthusiastic denizen of Luckenbach for several years after legendary "imagineer" Hondo Crouch bought the place in 1970. Walker recorded two of his 30 albums there.
"Just ask for Marge, the unofficial sheriff and greeter," he had told us. Marge wasn't there that day, but Jimmy Lee Jones was. After we ordered a midday Lone Star beer in the rickety, overstuffed general store/post office/bar that is Luckenbach, Jones sang a couple of country songs and told a couple of corny jokes. ("What do you call 40 millionaires watching the Super Bowl? . . . The Dallas Cowboys.")
Back in Austin, over three nights, we would listen to seven bands in five of the clubs the Walkers had recommended. We particularly enjoyed a happy-hour performance by the Hot Club of Cowtown, a western swing/jazz trio, at the Continental Club one evening, and we liked all of the acts at the Saxon Pub another night.
The Saxon Pub show started with an open mike for five acoustic musicians from the Austin Songwriters Group; continued with a two-hour set by the George DeVore Four, a polished and charismatic rock band; and closed with Carolyn Wonderland, whom one cyber-reviewer described as "Bonnie Raitt and Janis Joplin rolled into a 5-4, 26-year-old powerhouse." An overstatement, but substantially accurate.
The original-material-to-cover-material ratio at the Saxon Pub was extraordinarily high. All evening we had the sense that someone onstage might be a Next Big Thing in American music.
Jerry Jeff Walker, Texas troubador, was born and raised Ronald Clyde Crosby -- in Upstate New York. He adopted his present name in the mid-'60s after an odd progression that involved a fake ID, a desire to honor a jazz pianist he admired, and a bungled intro by a club emcee.
As a young musician bumming around the country from gig to gig, Walker was renowned for devotion to his craft and for hard living. He wrote "Mr. Bojangles," for instance, months after meeting a vagabond street dancer in a New Orleans jail cell. Walker was there because he had drunkenly come on a little too strong to a woman at the Cafe du Monde, the beignet bistro in the French Quarter.
"When the rest of the country was listening to the Beatles, I was writing a six-eight waltz about an old man and hope. It was a love song," he wrote in his 1999 autobiography, "Gypsy Songman." The song took off in 1970 when the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band made it a hit, and it was soon covered by numerous other artists, including Sammy Davis Jr., Harry Belafonte, David Bromberg and Bob Dylan. His career established, Walker settled in Austin.
"I just liked the way of life in Texas and the fact that people in Texas liked their life sung about, talked about and told about," he has said.
He, his wife, Susan, their daughter, Jessie, 24, and Django live in Clarksville, a modest, eclectic neighborhood just west of downtown. Susan runs the family's independent recording operation, Tried & True Music. She is a funny, no-nonsense woman.
"If it has tires or testicles, you're gonna have trouble with it," reads a sign on her desk.
She and her husband are passionate about Austin's environment. One afternoon Walker took us over to Barton Springs Pool in Zilker Park. The 900-foot-long, spring-fed pool has an average temperature of 68 degrees year-round and is the centerpiece of the park.
Walker, a Save Our Springs Alliance board member, considers the purity of the springs' aquifer a bellwether for the overall environmental health of Austin. As he stood next to the natural pool -- in which he has recuperated from back ailments over the years -- he said, "It's something worth saving, don't you think?"
That evening, over a four-course meal at the Driskill Grill, he and Susan explained that they plan to establish a nonprofit, post-secondary vocational school in Austin for 18- to 21-year-old musicians. The school would teach performance and business skills alike and, they hope, will be affiliated with Paul McCartney's Liverpool Institute for Performing Arts in England.
After dinner, the Walkers headed home -- he had an out-of-town concert the next day -- and Sue and I headed back over to the Broken Spoke.
"It's a great place," Walker said as we parted company. "James has had to drive me home many times."
That would be James M. White, the owner of the Broken Spoke. When you walk into his low-ceilinged dance hall, you know exactly which of the 50 states you are in -- if not because of the two-steppers on the floor, or the pickers and fiddlers on the stage, or the Willie and Waylon and Jerry Jeff memorabilia on the walls, then because of the bumper sticker tacked above a doorway that reads, "I'd rather be a fencepost in Texas than the king of Tennessee."
White has been running the south Austin establishment since 1964. "Yup," he said, when asked if he's ever had to be Walker's designated driver. "We used to call that Jerry duty."