The words of Jerry Jeff Walker have echoed through your mind for as much as 30 years, but it is entirely possible that you have not heard his voice. Walker, an upstate New York kid, found his home in Austin, Texas, as he was approaching age 30. On his way to Austin, he wrote 'Mr. Bojangles,' a Top Ten hit for the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band. If you were around in 1971, you heard the song a thousand times then. If you're under 35, you've heard the tune (about the dancing man and his dog, who up and died) at least a hundred times.
Walker, born Ronald Crosby, was recording before he left New York with a band called Circus Maximus. They managed one bit of chart action with 'The Wind,' and then they went the way of most bands. Jerry Jeff Walker, who was developing a reputation as a hard-living musician, made his way south and ended up in a New Orleans drunk tank. There, he had a conversation with the real Mr. Bojangles, and the result was a song that made Walker a lot of money and probably sold most of the tickets to his shows. His 1968 solo album, Mr. Bojangles, made nowhere near the headway that the song itself did in the hands of another artist.
Even so, Walker became known as a superb songwriter who knew how to communicate the sights and feelings of life that he was soaking up from those around him. Once he homesteaded musically in Austin, the city took him into its heart as much as he did it. His birthday, March 16, is a party day in Austin, though there is a small chance that his birthday is an excuse to turn St. Patrick's Day into a 48-hour event.
Throughout the 1970s, Walker issued albums that earned him a core of diehard fans and the admiration of such other outlaw cowboy singers as Willie Nelson. With a mix of original material and exquisite covers of songs that suited his outlook on life, Walker maintained steady record sales and impressive ticket sales when he toured. His 1973 album, Viva Terlingua, achieved gold status and gave him a place of respect in the pantheon of outlaws.
As both pop and country tastes shifted away from gritty, unpretentious music toward the likes of Mickey Gilley's 'Stand by Me,' Walker found himself experimenting with different sounds, which led him as far as 1982's Cowboy Jazz, his last record for a major label. Since then, he has used the internet and his live shows as marketing venues. He has been releasing solid, intense material independently for nearly 20 years, with respectable sales.
While he has not achieved the commercial success of a Waylon Jennings or a Willie Nelson, Jerry Jeff Walker has remained true to the niche that these peers helped develop, that of the outlaw country singer. Most of Walker's radio songs have appeared with another vocalist doing the honors, but if you don't dig into his recorded repertoire, you must at least get tickets to see his entrancing performances onstage.
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