By Richard Skanse
In one way or another, Jerry Jeff Walker’s always done his own thing. Back in the early ’70s, when the native New Yorker built his reputation as the wildest of the wild bunch of Texas-based musical rascals eventually tagged as “outlaws,” he had already crisscrossed the country countless times as a folkie, rocker, street singer and professional restless gypsy. Even after finally settling — to use the term very, very loosely — in central Texas, he was still constantly on the go, flying to gigs in his own “Gonzo Air Force” jet and recording albums like 1973’s legendary Viva Terlingua! and 1977’s double live/studio opus A Man Must Carry On on his own anything-goes terms, even when he was still technically a major-label artist. So if ever there was a tried-and-true maverick artist who could get away with going completely independent, it was Walker. And in the mid-80s, that’s exactly what he did — jumping free and clear of the major label machine to found and run (with his business savvy wife, Susan), his own label, called (what else?) Tried & True Music.
Nowadays, of course, fans of Texas music put such high stock in a certain level of independence that artists are viewed a little skeptically if they don’t stay as far off the mainstream radar as possible and at least start their careers on their own label; guys like Pat Green eventually signing with a major is one thing, but God help you if you debut on a major before selling out Gruene Hall on your own. But when Walker started Tried & True, it was still a novel enough idea to seem downright crazy. Two decades, a dozen self-released albums and one DVD (last year’s The One and Only) later, and it’s almost hard to imagine Walker running his career any other way. This month, to mark the occasion of Tried & True Music’s 20th anniversary, Walker’s releasing a double disc anthology called The Best of the Rest, which collects the cream of the crop from five of his Tried & True albums: 1996’s Scamp, the 1994 live album Viva Luckenbach, 1992’s Hill Country Rain, 1991’s Navajo Rug and the Tried & True debut that started it all, 1986’s Gypsy Songman. We caught up with ol’ “Scamp” at his home in Austin to talk about the new collection and the best of the rest of his plans for the coming months, including another 20th anniversary on the horizon: that of his annual Birthday Bash in March.
This is a tidy little collection you’ve put together. Did you spend a lot of time revisiting the five albums these songs came from to determine what songs to use, or were you able to just pick the right songs at a glance?
Oh, I just went at a glance, from what’s still popular in the live sets. Like “Navajo Rug” is still really popular. The selection process was just a matter of making sure that I’ve been playing these songs for the last few years.
I was a little surprised that the track order isn’t chronological, but the way you’ve mixed the song order up works really well.
It was going to be chronological at first, but there ended up being too many ballads in a row that way, or something like that, so we moved stuff around a bit. We started keeping all the songs from each record together, but sometimes you’d hit a hole where there’d be like four ballads in a row, and I decided, I can’t do that. You’ve gotta intersperse stuff, and just like making any CD, you gotta find the right opening song and the right closing song for each CD, and have it go up and down in the middle.
Why’d you pick these five albums in particular? Were they all out of print?
No, we have them in the office — we just don’t want to run off a new batch. You know, order them 10,000 at a time, make sure the artwork’s all there, all that. This way, it just breaks it down. The idea was, we had so many CDs in print that it’s hard for an operation like ours to keep it all, and take it all on the road and sell it and keep it all in print. So we decided that five or six of the CDs were kinda package deals — they had a theme, like the Belize album [Cowboy Boots & Bathin’ Suits], the Live at Gruene Hall album, stuff like that — so we left those alone. But the others were just ones that we could probably take four or five of the songs off and get rid of the rest of the CD. I think I say in the liner notes how, if you have an album that has four or five good songs on it, you have a classic. If you have an album that after 20 years still has two good songs on it, you’ve got a good one. So in that light, it was like making a roux: you just kind of boil it down.
Were there any songs that you were on the fence about? Like, did “Nolan Ryan” (off of Navajo Rug) almost make the cut?
No. I don’t play it anymore. It’s too long and wordy. That song had it’s own little purpose, which was to show my son how you could write a song about anything. So I wrote a song about baseball. He was 9 at the time, and into baseball, so that’s why I wrote “Nolan Ryan.” But the selection process was all about, have I played these songs enough over a period of time, and did the fans really like them? I mean, that’s the whole point of putting it out — to have people pick it up and go, “Oh, I love that song! Oh, I love that song! Oh, it’s all here!”
Does every song you record or write feel like a keeper in some way from the start, or do the keepers only reveal themselves over time?
I think over time. And how I know that they’re keepers is, I can still remember them after a few years. I do stump the band almost every night, though. In my solo shows, I do a lot of different stuff than I do with the band, because when you’ve got a band, you’ve got to start and stop together. But sometimes I’ll just think of a song and do it anyway. But Bob [Livingston], my bass player, he’s been with me from the beginning, so it’s pretty hard to stump him.
Do you ever stump yourself? Like, start out with a song you haven’t done in a while, and midway through realize you don’t remember it all?
Yeah, I did that recently. I sang a verse and a chorus, and I talked the rest of the way through it to the end. It was “I Make Money,” the old song from New Orleans about Babe Stovall. I somehow got through it. But then I played it the next night and knew it, because it kind of pissed me off that I didn’t know it! But I knew enough of it.
Did you ever read Bob Dylan’s Chronicles book, where he talks about how he had to learn a whole new technique for playing in order to connect with and perform his older stuff?
Yeah, I did. But his stuff is pretty wordy shit. I mean, to have to try and remember 40-something verses of “Hattie Carroll” or any of that stuff? What I just do is, I have somebody in the office print me up a copy, and then I’ll sit here and play it through one time and I’ll remember it for another five years. I’m talking about something you haven’t played in 15 or 20 years.
“Charlie Dunn” has obviously proven itself to be a keeper many times over. The version here is from Gypsy Songman, but you first recorded that song way back on your 1972 Jerry Jeff Walker album, which is out of print.
Yeah, I play that one probably every night. What we did was we tried to make sure, if it wasn’t on the [Tried & True] albums we were keeping in print, then we had to put it on this collection. “Charlie Dunn” I would assume was everywhere. But on that Night After Night CD that I did in D.C. that has everything I play every night, that song wasn’t on it. So I put it on this one. “Charlie Dunn” had to be some place.
That song and “Manny’s Hat Song” — which is also on Best of the Rest — are similar in that they’re both portraits in song of people you’ve known. Do you find songs like that hard to do?
Well, storytelling is what I do best. I mean, about real people. Because I came from folk music. What’s harder for me is probably the rock ’n’ rolly kind of stuff. I mean, I can do it from other people — do other people’s songs, like Chris Wall’s “Trashy Women,” that way, but I can’t do it as well writing it myself. I just don’t sit down and play that way. I have to force myself to write rock type stuff.
“Life’s Too Short” is a really fun little song that I missed the first time around on Scamp. I’m glad that made the cut here.
Yeah. I actually played that last night. I think it’s a pretty well-written song. I always wanted to do kind of a doo-wop song. And the guys in the band were all standing around me when I was writing it, throwing in lines here and there, so we all did it as a co-write. There’s only been two that I’ve written that way that I can think of. We did that one and “Gonzo Compadres.” We just sat up late one night, drank some wine and kept writing down funny little lines.
Next year marks the 20th anniversary of Tried & True. In that time, have you ever felt any urge to go back to another label?
Not for me. In fact, a record company once called us about eight years or so ago. They were starting like a minor version of their label — Columbia Records or somebody was going to start a subsidiary label to put people they couldn’t really categorize … heck, if they didn’t have “outlaw,” they wouldn’t know what the hell to call us. But somebody who’s not Alan Jackson or Tim McGraw is something else, that kind of stuff. So they said, “We’re basing it kind of around the idea of you — like, you’re the person we’re thinking of. But to tell you the truth, we can’t think of any reason why you’d want to do it, because you’re already doing it. But we thought we’d talk to you anyway.”
That’s a nice pitch.
[Laughs] See, if they can’t bring anything to the table, then there’s not much sense in us going there. We’ve already got distribution: we’re in Wal-Marts, we’re in all the stores. We’re selling records to our fans through the Internet and mail order. And I’m not going to get video played anywhere, and that’s the only thing that they’d want to do. I mean, that they could do that I can’t do. I’m not going to make some $100,000 video.
Have you ever done a video with Tried & True?
At the very beginning we did a couple. We did “She Knows Her Daddy Sings,” and we did … I think we had a couple others, because we taped some shows and put them around, but mostly, no.
Next March will also be the 20th anniversary of your big Birthday Bash festivities in and around Austin. Do you recall any one year of that getting particularly out of control, or do they all kind of run like clockwork?
Well they never run like clockwork! But it was pretty wild when we had Todd Snider and Ramblin’ Jack Elliot and Jack Ingram all on the same stage.
That must have taken all night.
[Laugh] Yeah. Between Todd and Ramblin’ Jack it was pretty long. Todd had never seen Jack play. And Jack did that “912 Greens” song which we love, and he does it only for me — that’s the long finger-picking thing he does about his trip to New Orleans. So then Todd gets up and does his thing about going down to find Luckenbach, and stops at that little bar by the road, gets a gig. It was a pretty fun night. And we’re all fans of each other’s, so it was pretty much a love fest.
All three of you have that knack for making the stories about the songs just as involved and entertaining as the songs themselves.
Well, it kind of makes you lie, because you’re gonna tell it a little differently every time. Like I’ve heard Jack do “912 Greens” for I don’t know how many years; it’s maybe 20 years since I’ve first heard it. And he told some parts of it that I’ve never heard before. You know, it’s about a pretty long road trip, so there’s probably lots of little details.
Do your stories change much?
Oh, they change all the time. They get more elaborate. Because I’ve told them before, and I don’t like to always tell the same thing. Like, the other night, we played the Wortham Theater in Houston. What happened was, we went to see an opera there. It turned out that Susan Graham, who was the lead singer in the opera, was from Middleton, Texas, and she had gone to Texas Tech when she was younger and was a big fan of mine. And she wanted me to come and see an opera. So while we were there waiting after the opera to say thank you to her, we were back stage, and we asked one of the Wortham people what else was in the building. He said, “Back here we have a little 1,000 seat concert hall.” Susan said, “We can do a concert there.” So, we do our show there, and I’m telling the audience how we got there, because it was all white-gloved waiters in tuxedos, seating my crowd! And they even allowed my crowd to be the first crowd to take beer and wine to their seats. So I told my crowd, “Don’t let it get out, because this opera crowd, if they ever get beer and wine in here, they’ll tear this joint up!” Which made everybody roar and laugh. And then I did a song about my wife’s love of candles and flowers. Kind of a little classy thing.
So do you have anything special planned for next year’s Birthday Bash?
I think this year I’m going to play acoustically on the Paramount Theater stage with my band, with a few select local players, like maybe Alvin Crow or Lloyd Maines or Paul Glasse. So it’ll be like Jerry Jeff does Alison Krauss and Union Station. Like my version of that, which I don’t get to do very often. If I go solo, I play with just an acoustic guitar and a harmonica. If I play with a band, we usually plug in, because it’s some kind of function where they want to dance and make noise. So the two don’t get to mix very often, where I get to be with a band and we can set up acoustically. And the Paramount’s good for that. So that’ll be my birthday treat. It’ll be different for everybody, and different for me too.
You’ve also got your Christmas show coming up at Gruene Hall in December. What happens at those? Do you dress up and sing carols all night or something?
No, we just do the regular stuff. A lot of people bring Santa Claus hats and red scarves and stuff. We just do a regular show, but I mix in a few Christmas songs, like “I’ll Be Home for Christmas,” “Jingle Bells,” “Rudolph.” What else? “I’m Dreaming of a White Christmas,” that one. About four or five songs, whatever we can remember. It’s usually the third verse of a Christmas song no one can remember. After that, in the last week of January and the first week of February we have our Belize getaway, and then the birthday stuff in March. And the rest of the stuff is just corporate outings and a few places that we’ve always played that we still play. If any place is a big hassle, we just don’t do it. The corporate stuff is usually pretty nice, because they’re usually organized by people who start out as my fans who now own or run things. So those are never a hassle. The shows start at a decent hour and people are having dinner or drinking wine, so they’re in a good mood. I mean, at this point in my career, it’s somebody else’s turn to go out and play late at night at bars and stuff.
Your last studio album was 2003’s Jerry Jeff Jazz, which was a bunch of standards that seemed perfectly suited for a more mellow crowd like that. Have you been writing or thinking of recording anything since then?
I’m pretty close to making another record. I don’t know what it’s going to be yet, but there’s a lot of odds and ends laying around. I wrote an anniversary song for my mom and dad, and I wrote one for my daughter’s wedding; she’s getting married on Nov. 17, and I’m gonna go record the song this morning so we can put it in everybody’s packages. And I also wrote kind of a wild, controversial kind of protest song called “The Right Has Kidnapped Jesus and They’ll Never Give Him Back.” Which is about all these preachers going on TV and preaching from the senate, opening all the White House meetings with a Bible in their hand. How did this happen? We started this country with the separation of church and state, because people left Europe because a king or priest had always kept you under their thumb there. So that’s the general idea of that song, but I don’t know where I’ll put it yet.
“The Right Has Kidnapped Jesus and They’ll Never Give Him Back” kind of sounds like an old Kinky Friedman song. Speaking of whom … are you on the Kinky for Governor bandwagon yet?
You know, I haven’t been informed yet. But this weekend I’m going out to hear more about what he’s got to say at some golf tournament out at Willie World. I think I’m just going to go ride around in a cart all day with Kinky, because I don’t play golf anymore.