Jerry Jeff is the third and final of Steve Earle’s tributes to what he refers to as his “first-hand teachers, the heroes I was lucky enough to sit across the room from so I could listen and learn up close…” Jerry Jeff is, of course, Jerry Jeff Walker, best known for writing the perfect “Mr. Bojangles.” Walker inspired a raft of younger songwriters with his country troubadour’s approach to life; in addition to Earle, artists like Jimmy Buffett, Garth Brooks, and Todd Snider cite him as a major influence.
Walker was also known for championing the songs of his friends, and his shows would often relay heavily on songs written by the other Texas-based songwriters. What makes Jerry Jeff so compelling is that Earle forces the focus onto Walker’s songs, which sometimes got overshadowed by his larger-than-life persona. And the songs have never sounded better. No one ever accused Walker of being a great vocalist, but the same cannot be said of Steve Earle. Earle’s powerful singing carries Jerry Jeff.
The first two parts of Earle’s teacher trilogy were dedicated to Guy Clark and Townes Van Zandt, two of the most creative and distinctive songwriters to ever walk the streets of Austin. In each of those cases, Earle could have done another entire album with the great songs he did not include. That is less true with Jerry Jeff Walker. He was not the songwriter than Clark or Van Zandt were (who is?), but, at the same time, he’s usually underrated as a tunesmith. As Earle says, “There’s a tendency to think of Jerry Jeff around a relationship to one song, [referring to “Mr. Bojangles”] which was covered by everyone from Bob Dylan to Sammy Davis Jr. He was also such a great interpreter of other people’s songs. But my main purpose in recording this album was to remind people that he wrote a lot of fucking great songs.”
That’s certainly true of “Gypsy Song man” (So as I leave you now please remember me this time/I’m the man who sang the song for your nickels and your dimes/Today you saw me play as I stopped along the way/Gypsy Song man passing by”). It is a full-realized autobiography that you can’t help but tap your toes to.
Not surprisingly, many of Walker’s songs are about the life of troubadour, from “Old Road” (“Old road she keeps callin’ to me”) to “Getting’ By” (“I’ve been down that road once or twice before/Just gettin’ by on gettin’ bys my stock in trade/Living it day to day/Pickin’ up the pieces wherever they fall/Just letting it roll, letting the high times carry the low/I’m just living my life easy come, easy go”). The tug of the road, and the joy of travel, are constant themes in Walker’s songs.
Earle is backed here by his long-time band The Dukes. On stage Earle and the Dukes are often loud and forceful. Here they play with more finesse, adding light touches to the songs to turn them into something memorable. The guitar playing, in particular, is remarkable; Chis Masterson handles most of the lead duty, with Ricky Ray Jackson on pedal steel and dobro and Earle himself primarily playing his custom Martin acoustic (with some mandolin tossed in). It’s no surprise that the first half-dozen “thank yous” in the liner notes are to guitar makers or guitar stores! It is a treat to listen to them on “Hill Country Rain,” when the guitarists are given a chance to stretch out and play off one another.
Jerry Jeff was obviously a labor of love for Earle, but its more than that too. This album leaves Walker’s personality and personal story aside while Earle and his band make the case for Jerry Jeff Walker as a songwriter. And they succeed. Jerry Jeff is filled with great songs, expertly played, and sung with respect and passion.