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by Jeff McCord
In 1973, everyone was hearing Jerry Jeff Walker’s greeting from the lead track on his watershed release, ¡Viva Terlingua!, played on the radio. “Gettin’ By” was a mission statement, over a cowboy two-step. “Picking up the pieces wherever they fall/Just livin’ my life easy come, easy go.”
Walker, who passed away on October 23 at age 78, after a long battle with throat cancer, came from a folk tradition. Born Ronald Clyde Crosby in early forties New York, he would play in bands and busk through the south (including a brief stay in Austin), live in New Orleans, and along with the way, adopt his stage name.
In 1966, Walker relocated to New York City’s Greenwich Village. There, his trippy band Circus Maximus would release two albums, before Walker resumed his solo career. His 1968 album Mister Bojangles and its eponymous song, about a tap dancer Walker met in a New Orleans drunk tank, would become a top ten hit for the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band in 1971. The song would go on to be covered by Nina Simone, Bob Dylan and Sammy Davis, Jr., among many others.
With newfound success, Walker set his sights westward, but a detour to Austin derailed all that. Walker decided he was home.
Much of what people knew of Texas music in 1973 consisted of Bob Wills, Jimmie Rodgers, and those striving to make a living in the slick Nashville establishment – George Jones, Waylon, Willie and the boys. Like most anyone outside of the state, I hadn’t heard of Terlingua, or that matter Luckenbach (Waylon’s hit was many years down the road), the town (basically a saloon and dancehall) where Walker hired a remote truck to record Terlingua. Willie Nelson had already moved back to Texas, but his Red Headed Stranger masterpiece was still two years away. Meanwhile, Walker had done his homework, absorbing the works of relative Texas unknowns like Michael Martin Murphy, Townes Van Zandt and Guy Clark.
Walker’s covers of Guy Clark songs (the songwriter’s own debut album wouldn’t surface until 1975) were revelatory. His “LA Freeway” found moderate success. Terlingua included a cover of Clark’s classic, “Desperado Waiting On A Train”, and would aid as much as anything in Clark’s subsequent success.
Walker would have a long career of his own, influencing future stars like Robert Earl Keen. Showing his business smarts, Walker formed his own label back in 1986, when few others were doing so. He would release dozens of albums, and was honored by his peers at his annual birthday shows at Paramount Theater. His autobiography, Gypsy Songman, was published in 1999.
But no one denies Terlingua as Walker’s high water mark. The import of the album is hard to overstate. It didn’t sound like other records, even Walker’s previous releases. Such a free, boozy vibe had, at least at the time, rarely been captured on tape. Walker was in his mid-thirties at the time of recording but his voice sounds like old shoe leather, much more lived in. Hearing him stretch out the “Ohhhhh” in “Sangria Wine” is a marvel. His voice strains and cracks with pure joy.
Already well known, somewhat notoriously, for his riotous and drunken performances, Walker and his Lost Gonzo Band decided to end their Terlingua sessions in the Luckenbach dance hall with a concert. Expecting maybe fifty people to show at the remote location, they instead drew more like 900. It’s the two live recordings, both covers, included on Terlingua that cement its place in the pantheon of Texas music.
“Up Against The Wall, Redneck Mother” was more of an idea than a finished song by a young songwriter named Ray Wylie Hubbard. “Pretty much all I had at the time”, Hubbard admits; the song was reportedly finished over the phone at the last minute.
And “London Homesick Blues”, a song about just that from Lost Gonzo member Gary P. Nunn wraps up the album. With its longing to be “Home With the Armadillo”, Nunn, in a shaky voice was laying down Texas history. The song would go on to be the theme song of PBS’ Austin City Limits for over thirty years.
On this magical Saturday night in a desolate dancehall, the audience’s reaction was electric, nothing short of rapturous. It’s hard to conceive of the cosmic cowboy movement without this moment, frozen in time. As the world was changing, Walker and his band played on, and the raucous crowd hollered in delight. This was their moment, and there’s not a person who has heard Terlingua since that hasn’t longed to be right there with them.