Jerry Jeff Walker, the “Mr. Bojangles” songwriter and a pioneer of the “cosmic cowboy” sound that would evolve into outlaw country, died Friday after a long battle with throat cancer. He was 78. Walker’s publicist confirmed his death to Rolling Stone.
Born Ronald Clyde Crosby in Oneonta, New York, in 1942, Walker made his way south, living for a time in the Florida Keys and in New Orleans, where he took his stage name. In 1971, he landed in Austin, Texas, and became a fixture of the local music scene, where artists like Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, Ray Wylie Hubbard, and Michael Martin Murphey were performing a new progressive style of hippie-country.
Two years later, Walker released his landmark album ¡Viva Terlingua!, a stripped-down, ramshackle, and occasionally rowdy LP recorded live in a dance hall in Luckenbach, Texas. ¡Viva Terlingua! — featuring Walker compositions like “Sangria Wine” and “Wheel,” along with Gary P. Nunn’s “London Homesick Blues” and Ray Wylie Hubbard’s “Up Against the Wall, Redneck Mother” — is regarded as a sacred text of the early outlaw country movement and, particularly, the progressive cosmic sound that preceded it.
“It’s still the quintessential Texas album as far as explaining how it all was before Austin City Limits,” Walker told Rolling Stone in 2018. In fact, “London Homesick Blues” — which was actually sung by Nunn, a member of Walker’s Lost Gonzo Band, on ¡Viva Terlingua! — would serve as the theme song of the TV concert series for nearly 30 years.
“Up Against the Wall, Redneck Mother,” about a ne’er-do-well “kickin hippies’ asses and raising hell,” stands as the album’s cult-favorite number. More of a sketch by Ray Wylie Hubbard than a proper song when Walker and his band decided to record it for ¡Viva Terlingua!, it was finished at the 11th hour after a phone call to Hubbard from Walker’s bass player Bob Livingston.
“I just wrote the second verse there over phone. I said, ‘He sure likes to drink,’ and I think I was drinking Falstaff Beer, so I said that. [And] that was it. I pretty much hadn’t even thought about it,” Hubbard told Rolling Stone. It’s Livingston who spells out each letter of “M-O-T-H-E-R” (“M is for the mud flaps you gave me for my pickup truck”…”R is for redneck”) in the song’s bridge.
Like the protagonist in “Redneck Mother,” Walker himself was known for volatility, both onstage and off (the inspiration for “Mr. Bojangles” came from a chance meeting with a street performer in a New Orleans drunk tank). His concerts were often unpredictable. “An act that was full of thrills and suspense” is how the late Texas journalist Bud Shrake described Walker’s shows, comparing them to NASCAR races.
But it’s “Mr. Bojangles” that gave Walker his greatest success and paved the way for him to record ¡Viva Terlingua!. Written and recorded by Walker for his 1968 album Mr. Bojangles, the song became a Top 10 hit for the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band in 1970, with artists as varied as Bob Dylan, Dolly Parton, Nina Simone, Neil Diamond, and Sammy Davis Jr. all recording versions.
In keeping with his outsider approach to the music business, Walker launched his own record label, Tried & True Music, in the Eighties with his wife Susan, who served as his manager and booking agent. He documented his career in the 1999 autobiography Gypsy Songman, recalling his relationships with Jimmy Buffett and Willie Nelson.
Still, Walker remains most identified for his contributions to the Texas music scene and to country music in general. The dance hall door that adorns the cover of ¡Viva Terlingua! hangs on display in the Country Music Hall of Fame in Nashville.
“‘Outlaw country’ made it sound like you had to go to jail to be an artist, but it’s just that some people like Waylon and Willie were outside the business [norm],” Walker told Rolling Stone. “People said, ‘We’re different, but we’re not hillbilly country.’ We didn’t blacken our teeth and wear baggy pants, we just liked cowboys and played like that.”