When fans draw that mental image of an artist like Jerry Jeff Walker, what springs to mind is invariably some old album cover: Texas’ Gypsy Songman, grinning and rambling to his heart’s content. It tends to be an image of what the man was.
But at 75, Walker has had to evolve, like any of his contemporaries who want to stay relevant in the days of Spotify and Instagram.
His last release, 2009’s “Moon Child,” was an internet-only release, as will be an upcoming album tentatively titled “About Time,” which Walker told the Star-Telegram would be wrapped up next week. He does Pilates to keep his body in good enough condition to continue to do one-off shows, and he has a Twitter account.
Despite the continued evolution, Walker said he still views himself as the grinning rambler, leaning up against somebody’s fencepost, eager for his next trip.
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“I’ve always said I haven’t really had a career as much as I’ve had an adventure with a guitar,” Walker said. “I still think I’m on that adventure.”
That adventure continues Sunday with Walker’s show at Billy Bob’s Texas and will at some point culminate with Walker on or near the Mount Rushmore of Texas Country, or progressive Country, or Red Dirt Country, or however each fan chooses to refer to the genre he helped bring to its first peak in the mid-1970s. When someone sings about Luckenbach, Texas, calling up memories of Waylon and Willie and the boys, they’re singing about Walker.
Walker, the old five-and-dimer, literally is “the boys.”
But time has passed. Things have changed; even Walker’s legendary habits of storytelling have had to be adjusted.
“The problem is that as you get older, you’ve already tapped into a lot of things,” Walker said. “You’ve written a song about your grandfather. You wrote a song about your favorite dog, or the girl you used to know. You’ve already touched on those things. As a writer, your pool of where you draw from will eventually go dry. It gets thinner, so you have to find new things, new approaches.”
Songs about songs
So, for at least a couple songs on his new album, which will be his first in about eight years, he’s once again showing signs of modernizing. He’s writing songs about the songwriting process itself. How meta.
“One was, I hadn’t written one in a while, and my wife wanted one, so I wrote a song about her wanting a song,” Walker said. “And basically, it says, ‘I do everything for you, so here’s a song.’ And the other one was about not knowing what I was going to do all day, deciding to write, and so it’s called, ‘That’s Why I Play.’”
But Walker hasn’t reinvented his act when he goes on the road. He knows how his bread is buttered.
“It’s the same stuff that I’ve always done,” Walker said of his more recent live shows. “One time I heard James Taylor say to a crowd, ‘I’m going to play a new song,’ and they all groan and carry on. I mean, even this new stuff sounds like the old stuff. It’s still you singing your songs, and it’s the way I sing them and play them. I’m playing music that pleases me first.”
On the iconic “Mr. Bojangles,” one of the tunes that has pleased millions of fans who have followed his career which has now spanned over 50 years, Walker spins the tale of an encounter with an old street performer in a New Orleans jail in 1965. In classic Walker fashion, he took snippets of memories from his time in New Orleans to introduce listeners to a man who could have been one of thousands of down-and-out streetwalkers and gave him a lasting and instantly endearing personality.
It’s one of the many stories that have stood the test of the decades, and the impression that the tale of Bojangles, his worn-out shoes, his silver hair, his ragged shirt and baggy pants, has left is something altogether set in stone.
So while the storyteller may change his routine, or Walker and his wife, Susan, may change the way his independent record label, Tried & True Music, does business, the soul of Walker’s wit will remain longer than the man will.
“I wrote the song quickly. Once I tapped into the start, ‘I knew a man Bojangles,’ I kept digging around to see what else I remembered about him,” Walker said. “But in the years since when I would play it, I realized that I was a young romantic and he was an old colorful character who had decided to fill up the space in the place, telling stories and making the time go. As opposed to me being a really insightful person, he was the one who loaded me up with some information I could use, if you care to. I gave you a little snapshot of him, that’s all.”
On coming to Texas
Walker has filled Gruene Hall, the old Luckenbach Dance Hall and countless other honky-tonks, arenas and seedy bars with a lifetime of Texas snapshots. Though he is originally from Oneonta, a town in the foothills of New York’s Catskill Mountains, and has rambled far and wide, basing himself in Florida and New Orleans before settling in Austin in 1971, he’s made it his life’s work telling the tale of the Lone Star State.
The traveling song man said he first started feeling like a true Texan soon after that last move, when he realized that in Texas, life is a song.
“I noticed that Texans like their lives to be sung about,” Walker said. “That went hand in hand with what I was all about. I once read an article where Van Morrison said, ‘There’s not a person in Ireland who doesn’t feel like their life is worth a song.’ I thought, well, Texans feel that way, too, so that’ll be my job. Write everybody’s song in Texas. And I’ve done quite a few.”
That job, an adventure with a guitar more than a career, has taken Walker through Fort Worth on numerous occasions since then. Cowtown, never the setting for any of the more outlandish Jerry Jeff Walker episodes, still holds a special place in the rich tapestry of his travels though.
He has played Billy Bob’s more times than he can count. He has played everywhere from the Bass family ranch to the opening of the Fort Worth Zoo.
It is, more than anything, a comfortable setting for someone steeped in the way things used to be, Walker said.
“I’ve just always liked Fort Worth. Obviously it’s one of the few real cowtowns left,” Walker said. “A big city, I mean, Dallas could be Chicago. Houston is a place people go to get a job and fly back and forth to that job. Fort Worth has always seemed like it’s taken its time a little bit better. But Fort Worth still feels a little like its old self. Its streets, its laid-back Texas twang. It’s not so aggressively racing into the future.”
Sunday at Billy Bob’s, Walker will be taking his time a little, too — doling out a lot of the old and a little of the new in a way that suits both country music fans and the old-five-and-dimer alike.
Matthew Martinez: 817-390-7667; @MCTinez817
Jerry Jeff Walker
- 8 p.m. Sunday
- Billy Bob’s Texas
- 2520 Rodeo Plaza, Fort Worth
- $16; $30-$35 reserved