Two Shots of Jerry Jeff
Jerry Jeff Walker is no slouch when it comes to singing county and western songs. The question is, is Jerry Jeff really country? (He was hatched in Oneonata, New York.) And should this matter if we're all wallerin' around in a melting pot anyway? And if it doesn't matter, why is Jerry Jeff so hell-bent on passing himself off as a genuine cowboy star?
Whining in his own defense, Jerry Jeff goes on about growing up drunk and driving big American road hogs, as if that was all it took. Fact is those Williams boys (Hank & Tennessee) don't mean a lot to him, and he was no more washed in the blood, or raised on the meter of King James, than a jawless hagfish. Billy Joe Shaver, who is so country some of his fingers are missing, once dismissed Jerry Jeff as a "one-song son of a bitch."
The thing is, it's hard to be sure which song he meant, though Shaver was probably citing "Mr. Bojangles," which is about Bill Robinson, a great hoofer, famous nationwide during his good years. Of course, Shaver might have meant "London Homesick Blues," which Jerry Jeff covered. Or, Shaver could have been giving Jerry Jeff credit for "Up Against the Wall, Redneck Mother," which is authentic enough that, sung very loudly by a pack of very drunk Texans in one of New York City's urine-soaked subways or, say, the Rainbow Room, it can drive actual New Yorkers to public displays of disgust and yet scare them enough that they won't have the Texans thrown out (if they are in, say, the Rainbow Room). Composing such powerful lyrics should, I think, count for something. His drinking and phlegm-spewing habits, which are fully disgusting, are not fitting subjects for discussion, but nonetheless should also count for further kicker points.
Moreover, Jerry Jeff has written and sung some painfully stupid songs, just horrible caterwauling dreck that he belts out proud as punch -- much in the tradition of the normally respectable Don Williams, who recorded "I Believe in You." ("I believe in mom and dad" was one of the lines, warbled to a rinky-dink squeezebox dirge.)
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The experts at Texas Monthly have hooted gleefully about ol' Jerry Jeff's new album, which only makes things more confusing. Jerry Jeff's latest is entitled Viva Luckenbach! and this, his 24th album, is described as "a fresh evocation of the spirit of storytelling and community that has marked Jerry Jeff's career for over a quarter century." That's crap and hooey. Calling a 1994 release Viva Luckenbach! is a painfully stupid notion and we can only hope it was the company's idea. (That company would be Rykodisc, and recording with them makes Jerry Jeff a lablemate to Bob Mould's new band, Sugar. Mould is certainly not country, although I once saw him play a stunning, all-acoustic set at McCabe's Guitar Bar, the whole two hours of which inspired the kind of eerie quiet that real spooky country music sometimes can.)
This is not to say that Viva Terlingua (1973) was an artistic benchmark -- at least half of that classic sucks. But it was an album whose time had come. A gazillion copies were sold, many in the late lamented 8-track format, and drunks nationwide sang along loudly. But that was then, this is now, and there's little to recommend on the new release. Jerry Jeff though, is the same as he ever was, which means he is not going on-stage to push some new CD, and going to see a Jerry Jeff show is still a crap shoot. He's moody, you know, and you can only hope you'll catch him on a good night. On a good night, he's benevolent and indestructible and, in his own bleary way, radiant and inspiring. You get two shots. Take your choice.
-- Edith Sorenson
Jerry Jeff Walker plays Tuesday and Wednesday, December 27 and 28, at Rockefeller's. Tickets cost $17.50, $22.50 and $27.50. Call 869-8427 for info.