Clinton, South Carolina, Sunday, October 25, 2020, 12:30 p.m.
I’m sort of rested again. When I heard the news of Jerry Jeff Walker’s death, I had been up all night and slept 90 minutes before I filled a commitment to go stand around outside’s Whiteford’s Giant Burger watching the “Red Devil Rewind” show. I was halfway to vegetative until last night, and about the only coherent project was trying to figure out how I got hooked on the Gypsy Songman, and I failed at that.
It wasn’t my old man, who passed on to me his love of Charley Pride, not to mention Willie & Waylon & the Boys. I don’t think it was the line “between Jerry Jeff’s train songs, Newbury’s pain songs and ‘Blue Eyes’ Cryin’ in the Rain,’ though that may have led me to Mickey Newbury.
It’s like genealogy. Jerry Jeff was more the roots of a family tree. I never would have written True to the Roots: Americana Music Revealed, had it not been for Jerry Jeff. Gram Parsons, John Prine and Townes Van Zandt were offshoots.
Now they’re all dead, Gram and Townes long ago and Jerry Jeff and Prine this year.
Jerry Jeff was within a month of being 16 years older than I, and yesterday, in my exhausted stupor, I realized that it was the perfect age difference between a fan and his idol.
I couldn’t cite a list of all the singers, songwriters and musicians who wiggled their out from the mighty oak of Jerry Jeff without leaving out a dozen. The same is true of friends from the old JJW “list-serve,” which is now an archaic oddity of the early internet. Maybe the musicians are roots and the buddies are branches. I grew a lot of branches myself while I was digging up the roots.
Twenty-five years ago, which is about the time Jerry Jeff’s warranty ran out, I would be crushed right now. I would be drunk, or stoned, or both, and felt like that was the way I should be. Now, however, probably due to my father actually dying when his warranty ran out, I don’t get sorrowful about the loss of people who lived memorable lives. I haven’t cried yet. Tears will come, though, the same way I weep when I see the tape of Carl Yastrzemski’s farewell to Fenway Park. Tears now come to me unexpected, often months or even years later. Memories live on and grow warmer with time. I haven’t cried about my mother and probably won’t until I get over the daily habit of wanting to call her. My NASCAR sportswriting compadre, David Poole, lingered in my mind for six months before I shed a tear.
Jerry Jeff gave me the inspiration to go buy a guitar at a pawn shop without having any idea what to do with it and the persistence to learn to halfway play it by pure trial and error. He’s the reason I now consider my guitars pets: dogs, to be precise.
The only time she barks is when I touch her wrong / But when I pet her right, she tags along / She doesn’t mind it when I want to take her far / All my dog really is is this guitar.
My words, not his. He wrote metaphorical songs about a bootmaker (“Charlie Dunn”) and a hat maker (“Manny’s Hat Song”). Most people know Charlie better. My preference is Manny, but not by much.
He’d say, “Set yourself down, tell us what you’re thinking about / Your hat says something about you, before you even open your mouth.”
His words, not mine.
In True to the Roots, I wrote a chapter about Jerry Jeff’s son, Django, whom I interviewed at a Schlotzky’s in Austin. I tried and tried to get an interview with his father, but that was a casualty of Jerry Jeff doing exactly what he wanted to do with his life. If he wasn’t “contrary to ordinary,” I wouldn’t have loved him so. The book includes a description of a conversation we had on the side of a street outside the Newberry Opera House, where a weary Jerry Jeff paused and chatted with me, with his guitar hanging at his side, en route to the Hampton Inn across the street. I wouldn’t trade it for an audience with the Pope. I’m not Catholic, and my religion is derived from Tom T. Hall: Me and Jesus got our own thing going / We don’t need anybody to tell us what it’s all about.
One of my favorite memories of many Jerry Jeff concerts was the way he’d grow irritated at the people who demanded to hear “that one song.” A Jerry Jeff concert was a matter of him choosing extemporaneously from hundreds, perhaps thousands, of options, in front of a band that was so good it could indulge him his whims.
Sometimes I’d yell, “Play what you wanna!”
True fans – Tried & True is the name of his publishing company and record label, and I write “is” because his music lives beyond him and collects royalties, to boot – drew amusement in watching him grow gradually rankled until he’d say, “All right, goddamn it, I’ll play ‘Railroad fucking Lady.”
Forgive the language. Sometimes it’s necessary to turn a memory into words.
Better words have been written by people closer to him than I. I’ve read a heap of them since word arrived that he’d succumbed to those dreaded “complications” that claim most folks.
The biggest personal loss in Jerry Jeff Walker and John Prine is now I’m going to have to write some more songs myself.
I’m not worthy, but to recall his tribute to Hondo Crouch, a man must carry on.
Take a look at my website, Laurens County Sports. It’s better now that Laurens County has actual sports again.
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If you yearn for my writing in larger doses, I’ve written quite a few books. Most are available here.
Lightning in a Bottle, the first of my two motorsports novels, is now available in audio (Audible, Amazon, iTunes) with the extraordinary narration of Jay Harper.
My eighth novel, a political crime thriller, is called Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. It’s right up to date with the current political landscape in the country.