The country music community lost a great one as Jerry Jeff Walker died after a years-long battle with throat cancer.
Walker became a household name back in the 1960s after writing the song, “Mr. Bojangles,” which turned into an instant hit that was covered by the likes of Bob Dylan, Sammy Davis Jr., Neil Diamond and more. The country legend is also known as one of the artists who created the landscape of Texas country music, alongside Willie Nelson.
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Jerry Jeff Walker, who wrote the enduring “Mr. Bojangles” and helped establish the Austin, Texas, progressive country music scene of the 1970s, died Friday evening (October 23, 2020) after an extended battle with throat cancer. He was seventy-eight. Born Ronald Clyde Crosby in Oneonta, New York, Walker learned banjo, ukulele, and guitar. Still in his teens, he hitchhiked to Florida and then to New Orleans, where he sang for tips on the street. He eventually gravitated to New York City’s Greenwich Village folk scene. “Mr. Bojangles” was inspired by a character he had met in a jail cell in New Orleans. Walker sang it one night over an influential live radio program on WBAI-New York, and the song became an instant local hit. In 1968 his album “Mr. Bojangles” appeared on Atco Records. In 1970–71 the song was a major pop hit for the @nittygrittydirtband. Walker moved to Austin in 1971. The shuffling troubadour represented everything that was carefree, boozy, and musically alive about the city’s music scene. His 1973 album “Viva Terlingua” — recorded in a dancehall in the fanciful little town of Luckenbach, Texas — set the era’s tone with its mixture of poignant balladry (Guy Clark’s “Desperados Waiting for a Train”) and party anthems (@raywylie Hubbard’s “Up Against the Wall, Redneck Mother”). A Texas treasure specializing in what he called “gonzo country,” Walker is featured in the Museum’s major exhibition “Outlaws & Armadillos: Country’s Roaring ’70s.” Artifacts include Walker’s denim stage wear and the door from the Luckenbach post office that made it onto the cover of “Viva Terlingua.” The exhibit also includes an interview with Walker by filmmaker Eric Geadelmann, including this excerpt about the making of “Viva Terlingua.” #countrymusichalloffame #jerryjeffwalker #vivaterlingua #luckenbachtexas #luckenbach #austinmusic #outlawcountry #outlawcountrymusic
Many people in the country music realm took to social media to honor Walker for his contributions to the genre. The Country Music Hall of Fame published an in memoriam video on IGTV, in which they passed on the story of how Walker made it big and progressed the music scene in Austin, Texas.
Mark Wystrach, lead singer of Midland, remembered the singer-songwriter with a poignant black-and-white photo of Walker with his wife, and some kind words honoring his legacy.
“What a career, what a body of work, what a duo…What a legend. Thanks for all the good times…They shall live on. Thoughts go out to Susan and their kids and grandkids,” Wystrach wrote.
“On My Way to You” singer Cody Johnson reminisced on the impact Walker has made in his life, from playing in the background on his first date with his now wife to landing in Los Angeles with his band.
“I think it’s safe to say that if you’re an artist from Texas, he’s played some role in shaping your music. Thank you Jerry Jeff for making music that made us love, smile, and feel inspired,” Johnson said.
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“Mississippi you’re on my mind” was playing in the truck the night I made out with my NOW wife, Brandi, on our first date. “LA Freeway” came on the radio in an Uber after I had landed there to meet my band. These are just a couple of the instances where JJW’s music has been present and meaningful in my life. I think it’s safe to say that if you’re an artist from Texas, he’s played some role in shaping your music. Thank you Jerry Jeff for making music that made us love, smile, and feel inspired. My deepest condolences go out to his family; you are in our prayers.
Margo Price also paid tribute to the country icon, tweeting, “blastin Jerry Jeff Walker records while cookin dinner tonight. ride high wild one.”
He is survived by his wife of 46 years, Susan Walker, and his children, Django and Jessie Jane. Walker was 78 years old.