50 years after ‘Viva Terlingua,’ Wittliff Collections exhibit celebrates the album’s staying power

Scott Newton

“It’s just the quintessential Texas record,” says Wittliff curator Hector Saldaña. “All these years later, it holds up.”

50 years after 'Viva Terlingua,' Wittliff Collections exhibit celebrates the album's staying power

September 22, 2023

By Leah Scarpelli & Gabrielle Muñoz | September 22, 2023 | 1:24 pm

Many folks remember 1968’s “Mr. Bojangles” by Jerry Jeff Walker well – it was the song that put him on the map.

By 1973, the singer-songwriter was due another album for his record label, and overdue for a hit record. But what neither he nor his label – nor anyone else in the music scene – could have seen coming was what Walker and a band of musical outlaws were about to pull off in a sleepy little Hill Country outpost called Luckenbach. 

“With Jerry Jeff, just like Willie, they’ve got that welcoming quality, but Jerry Jeff’s got that fun quality, you know? There’s that kind of fun loving – and I think that’s what connects all these years later,” says Wittliff Collections curator Hector Saldaña.
Jack Morgan / Texas Public Radio

What happened there 50 years ago was heard and felt not just across Texas, but Nashville and way beyond: Not just the recording of “¡Viva Terlingua!,” a now-iconic album, but at its heart, a freewheeling musical gathering memorialized on tape – what some have described as the “Big Bang of Texas Music.” 

Terlingua’s actually about 400 miles from Luckenbach. So where did the album title come from? Hector Saldaña, a veteran music journalist and musician, and Texas music curator for the Wittliff Collections at Texas State University in San Marcos, said Walker and the musicians he was with at the time all had a great sense of humor.

“You know, there on the album cover, Hondo Crouch’s index finger pointing to the little – to Jerry Jeff Walker’s face. But there’s that ‘Viva Terlingua’ bumper sticker,” he said. “I think, just like a lot of musicians would say, ‘Hey, man, that’s kind of cool. Let’s just call it “Viva Terlingua.”’ That’s as near as I can get to a story, and I’m sticking with it.”

Jerry Jeff Walker and his wife, Susan, donated his entire archives to the Wittliff Collections in 2017. Now, a new exhibit, “Viva Terlingua: The Big Bang of Texas Music,” includes never-before-heard recordings from Luckenbach.

”Among the photographs, posters, letters to his grandmother, hats, all kinds of things, are the 16-track master recordings of ‘¡Viva Terlingua!’ We digitized them – I had advocated for doing that – and scoured them with the hopes that, you know, could there be some additional material that had not been heard?” Saldaña said. “There’s about an hour’s worth – actually a little bit more. And it’s them rehearsing, alternative takes, outtakes, unreleased songs, and four live performances from the now-iconic concert that sort of culminated their week out there at Luckenbach. That was Aug. 18, 1973. So, we can put you as close into that room as possible.” 

Saldaña said the album and gathering in Luckenbach were so important because of the chemistry that Jerry Jeff Walker and the Lost Gonzo Band had developed and were able to capture in a way that suited them. 

“They had recorded at Rap Cleaners there in Austin. But I think the setting there in Luckenbach – very rustic, laid back, you know, a little place owned by storyteller and cowboy poet Hondo Crouch – I think they could be comfortable,” he said. “I’m calling [the exhibit] “¡Viva Terlingua!: The Big Bang of Texas Music” because when you think about the songwriters represented in that album: Guy Clark, Gary P. Nunn, Ray Wylie Hubbard, Michael Martin Murphey, Jerry Jeff. … I think it’s just the quintessential Texas record. All these years later, it holds up. How Jerry Jeff Walker, this unlikely New York-born folk singer/storyteller, and the Lost Gonzo Band created this record is truly amazing.”

Walker had brought a mobile recording unit from New York to Texas in search of a sound he wasn’t getting out of studio recordings. 

“He’d done the Nashville trip; he’d done, you know, trying to do it on his own. But I think in that setting, it was coming out like he wanted it,” he said. “And also, with Jerry Jeff, just like Willie, they’ve got that welcoming quality, but Jerry Jeff’s got that fun quality, you know? There’s that kind of fun loving – and I think that’s what connects all these years later. I mean, the record just holds up over repeated listenings.”

Scott Newton Jerry Jeff Walker plays guitar on his wedding day at Luckenbach in December 1974.

Saldaña said the album– with its spontaneous shouting and even the sounds of crickets at the end of the first track – captures the “wild and wooly nature of Texas music” at a time before we threw around terms like “outlaw country” or “progressive country.”

“They were the originators of that. It’s really almost like garage rock, you know, garage band country or something,” he said. “You know, that’s what they were doing, like, ‘Hey, let’s play.’ You can hear it on the tape, like Jerry Jeff going, ‘Come on, let’s do it.’ And the guys all chiming in at different points. It was a collection of equals in many ways.”

Extended interview: Hector Saldaña on \"Viva Terlingua: The Big Bang of Texas Music\"

September 22, 2023

And out of a recording session that included using hay bales to isolate sound and convincing the county to bring in electricity to power up the recording unit came what many consider to be the definitive version of Guy Clark’s “Desperados Waiting for a Train.”

“Imagine hearing that song live that night, August 18. It has a lot of energy. It kind of kicks it up a notch. And especially at the end, you can feel it in the crowd, you know, clapping and whooping it up,” Saldaña said. “You know, Jerry Jeff Walker was very close to being the Bruce Springsteen of Outlaw Country. I’m not kidding. Later on, when Tomás Ramirez on saxophone joined the group, there are times when it has that kind of drama, when Bob Livingston is on piano and Gary P. moves over to bass and, you know, Bob sings the intro and then Jerry Jeff comes in. I mean, that’s about a year and a half before Bruce Springsteen is on the cover of both Time and Newsweek.”

Scott Newton A pensive Jerry Jeff Walker just days before the release of “¡Viva Terlingua!”

The album also includes an iconic song, “Up Against the Wall, Redneck Mother,” written by Ray Wylie Hubbard – known back then as just Ray Hubbard – but never actually written down.

“When I was putting the exhibit together, I was asking, Ray, do you have a snippet, anything, a draft of it? He goes, ‘Heck, I never wrote that song down, you know, it was just around the campfire,’” Saldaña said. “And then they needed some extra lyrics, and Jerry Jeff called them and they actually got it some extra words for the song.”

Saldaña noted that there’s a lot of mythology that’s grown up around the record.

“There was chaos, but they did care, too. We’ve discovered lots of rehearsals of that song, ‘Up Against the Wall, Redneck Mother,’ ‘London Homesick Blues,’” he said. “So, they did care, and even ‘Gettin’ By,’ which has so much adlib – you know, Jerry Jeff was great at making up stuff just on the fly. But even later, we’ve discovered there’s places where they tried different things because they wanted it to be a great record.”

Saldaña said he’s very proud to “do Jerry Jeff in the big room in a big way” at the Wittliff Collections on a college campus and bring the album to a whole new generation of listeners.

“So many people know this record forward, backwards, upside down, you know? And I wanted to present something enjoyable for them and something new, and that audio is very refreshing,” he said. “It just brings you back to that time. And then for young people, they walk away and they know this was a big deal, and he’s one of the originators.”

Viva Terlingua: The Big Bang of Texas Music” will be open at the Wittliff Collections at Texas State University through the spring of 2025.

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