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Why I Love - Steve Earle on Jerry Jeff Walker

By Helen M Jerome

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Steve Earle joins me at the cosy Wattle Café in New York City’s financial district, tucking into waffles, crispy bacon and messy egg. Between mouthfuls, he’s mainly here to talk about his latest tribute album, JERRY JEFF, while also opening up about his traumatic past couple of years, losing his first-born son Justin Townes Earle and dear friends John Prine, Hal Wilmer and Jerry Jeff Walker himself.

Earle says he’s currently in a good place, but “kind of fried” as a single dad to John Henry, his 12-year-old severely autistic son. “I just know how lucky I am to be able to do something I love, and make a living in the first place. I’m in better shape and happier than I’ve ever been, and I’ve got this really nice place over here across the West Side Highway.”

He moved downtown to get a swimming pool for his son and changed every bit of his touring and work structure to fit around him and his schooling needs. For nine months of the year, John Henry lives with his dad in New York, and when his mother, Earle’s ex-wife Alison Moorer, has him down in Tennessee for three months each summer, Earle heads out on an intensive tour. Quite a change for a man who used to gig virtually non-stop, in “borderline Bob Dylan” fashion.

JERRY JEFF is the final part in a trilogy of albums that previously celebrated Earle’s other idols, Townes Van Zandt and Guy Clark; all inextricably linked to each other and Earle’s epiphany as a young, would-be musician.

When did you discover Jerry Jeff Walker?

Really early on, from my drama teacher in high school, Vernon Carroll, one of two teachers who didn’t kick me out of his class. He was doing a production of a play called The World of Carl Sandburg and wanted to interject ‘Mr. Bojangles’ into it, so he gave me a copy.

It was the second song I played in front of an audience; the first was ‘As Tears Go By’ in 7th grade. I told Marianne Faithfull, when we were doing a benefit together in Carnegie Hall, that it was the first song I ever sang for people, and she said, you know what, me too! It’s one of my favorite moments ever.

How did you feel when you heard his most famous song, ‘Mr Bojangles’?

Well, there’s not many songs like that. I played it at the Grand Ole Opry about three weeks ago and it’s the first time I’ve played it since I recorded it. I looked up halfway through and every single cellphone light in the entire balcony was lit, and by the time I finished the whole floor was lit. I’ve never had that happen when I’ve been singing that song before; it’s that song, it’s bigger than he was.

I learned about Townes and Guy simultaneously, but I heard Jerry Jeff first. He was a very big deal for me and when he passed I started thinking about it and felt I had to do this. I was invited to the memorial service as [his wife] Susan couldn’t have a funeral for him, because he died in the middle of the lockdown.

How did you contrive to meet Jerry Jeff Walker?

I crashed Jerry Jeff’s 32nd birthday party, when he was still with Murphy, a girl he lived with for years before Susan, and she was a whole other story herself. I heard he was playing his birthday at Castle Creek in Austin, and at the time I had a construction job and a couple of regular gigs a week. I quit the job because they wanted me to work on Saturday, I got my check and cashed it. I hitchhiked to Austin, which is only about 90 miles.

Castle Creek was kind of the place in Austin, funded by cocaine money like all those places. The dressing room and restrooms were right next to each other; it went ladies’ room, men’s room, dressing room, which opened directly onto the stage. I overheard the guitar player John Inmon telling a girl where the party was, and I hitchhiked there because I didn’t have a car.

I lied to this other girl and told her we were invited, and we went to Jerry Jeff’s birthday party after the gig. Not only was Jerry Jeff there, but BW Stevenson, Rusty Wier, Steve Fromholz and Bill Callery or “Billy C” who wrote ‘Hands on the Wheel’ on [Willie Nelson’s classic album] Red Headed Stranger.

I went in, pulled my hat down over my eyes and nobody threw me out. And just when Jerry Jeff was eyeballing me – and I’m convinced he was getting ready to throw me out – Townes came to the front door and all the attention was on him, not me anymore. He was wearing this buckskin jacket that Jerry Jeff had given him for his birthday, because their birthdays were about nine days apart. He had a beautiful girl on his arm and started a dice game, lost every dime he had and the jacket, and then they left, and he became my hero.

So it started being more about Townes than Jerry Jeff. A couple of months later, I was introduced to Townes in Houston, and fell in with that crowd and got to know him. I was still interested in Jerry Jeff, who was a pretty big star in Texas in those days.

“One night he came over and said, 'Grab your guitar, I want you to play a song for Neil'. We got there and it turned out it was Neil Young.”

How did you end up literally driving Jerry Jeff around?

I’d emulated Jerry Jeff as much as anybody… I hitchhiked everywhere, I didn’t know you could get to Tennessee in any other way till I was in my mid-20s; Jerry Jeff hitchhiked to gigs, that’s the way he did the national coffeehouse circuit and 67, 68, 69. He hitchhiked or had a motorcycle that he’d tour on.

That “designated driver period” was in Nashville when he got to know me, and I was aged about 19. Every time he came to visit Guy I was with him; I was following Guy and [his wife] Susanna around like a puppy dog. I played bass with Guy’s band for a bit, so Jerry Jeff knew who I was. One day Guy comes over, having just signed a publishing deal, and said, “I need to stay here and write some songs, and I can get a better bass player”, so I got fired!

Jerry Jeff had some trepidation about driving in Tennessee, I don’t think he ever had a licence. Anyway, he tracked me down - no cellphones in those days - and just banged on my door, and I was his designated driver before I even knew what that was. One night he came over and said, “Grab your guitar, I want you to play a song for Neil”. We got there and it turned out it was Neil Young.

Tell me about one or two of his songs?

‘I Makes Money’ just has something about it; I always feel bad if I don’t have a mandolin song and I figured I can play that one on the mandolin. It was the first thing we started playing with the band on sound-checks as we headed towards making the record. I’ve been playing ‘Mr. Bojangles’ since I was 14, and I’m pretty proud of my version.

How does his music make you feel now?

I intentionally made a record of his songs because I didn’t want people to think of him as a one-song writer. Some people were more interested in songs he’s sung that were actually other people’s, like the Guy songs. Then there’s stuff like ‘Sangria Wine’ that I’m not gonna do because I’m sober and it doesn’t make sense, but I used to do it every night.

The difference between this and the Guy and Townes records is that Jerry Jeff was someone who was a big, out of reach star on records for me until pretty late; after I was in Nashville and doing it myself.

He was grateful I got in touch with him and we talked for a long time, then I started touring and got a record deal and we bumped into each other a few times. Then something like 17 years ago, I got a phone call from Jerry Jeff out of the blue when I was in Memphis and we hadn’t seen each other for years. He wanted help for [his musician son] Django. I’d just moved to New York, but I got him some telephone numbers and introduced Django to some people.

This was before Jerry Jeff got diagnosed with cancer. We stayed in touch and texted like girls sporadically, just about this and that. He was really angry about being sick, and when Guy died, he took it really hard, he had cancer himself by then. He was pissed off that his body was betraying him like that. The first thing I heard out of Susan’s mouth was, “When we were younger, we all thought we were going to live forever, but none of us thought Jerry Jeff would!” And it’s true.

Did you always have this trilogy of Guy, Townes and Jerry Jeff records in mind?

Yes, Jerry Jeff completes the set.

When I made the Townes record, Guy had already had cancer for 20 years. Guy and I then went through a long period of not speaking. I wouldn’t go to his house because he kept trying to make me smoke pot or take a drink - he did it to other people I know, too.

He and Susanna went to treatment together because they’d hit a wall; they went to the Betty Ford Center, way nicer than the one I went to, and he just walked out. They were separated for six years and that was why. Susanna made the decision to start drinking and using again because she wanted Guy back, and it eventually killed her.

It’s tough, but he basically kept trying to do that and I wanted to stay clean, so I quit going over there. Finally, he sent word that if I’d start coming over to see him, he wouldn’t do that anymore and he kept his word. He’d had cancer for a long time, and I think part of it was realising he wasn’t going to be around forever. So I started seeing him every time I went to Nashville - the last few years of his life - which I’m thankful for.

Two of your last three records have been tributes, one for Justin, the other for Jerry Jeff. The past couple of years must have changed you?

No doubt about it. I lost my firstborn son. I lost Hal Wilmer and John Prine on the same day at the beginning of this thing. Guy was hard but it wasn’t unexpected.

Townes was sudden but not unexpected. Justin was really hard because he’s my kid, because he was so much younger and died of a disease that I have; that he inherited from me. I did talk to him the night he died and the last thing I said to him was “I love you”, and the last thing he said to me was “I love you, too”.

I’m kind of sick of this, I don’t want to make any more tribute records. I think I’m done with it.

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Steve Earle's tribute album to Jerry Jeff Walker, JERRY JEFF, is released on Friday 27th May via New West Records. Read Holler's review of the record here.