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Music Review: Jerry Jeff Walker Jerry Jeff Walker

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He was born in Oklahoma/His wife's name is Betty-Lou Thelma Liz

It took me a while to warm up to country music although I'm sure a lot of that had to do with timing more then anything else. When I first started to seriously listen to pop music in the '70s, Country was going through its very heavy "Rhinestone phase" while trying to appeal to the popular music crowd at the same time.

As a kid I remember Glen Campbell having a variety show, Hee Haw was still a staple, and in Canada every Friday night for the longest time was the The Tommy Hunter Show. Tommy's show was probably the worst of the lot as far as I was concerned: big hair, rhinestones, and stiletto boots – and you should have seen what the women were dressed like!

Okay so that's cruel and unfair, but to be honest I almost couldn't tell any of the songs or people apart. It seemed like Country music on television at that time was a never-ending procession of cowboy hats, slow mournful dirges about broken hearts, and people talking about Jesus all the time. There's nothing wrong with any of that I suppose, but it wasn't my idea of entertainment at the time, or now either.

You know he loves to drink that Lone Star beer/Chases it down with that Wild Turkey Liquor

My first inkling that there might be something more to Country music than what I had been seeing on television was my older brother's record collection. In amongst the Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Jimi Hendrix, Bob Dylan, and The Band albums were mixed in stuff by Kris Kristofferson, Hank Williams, The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band and one album recorded live in Luckenbach Texas by this guy named Jerry Jeff Walker.
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When I listened to the Kristofferson records, I didn't notice that much difference between him and some of the folk music to which I liked to listen. I was surprised to see that he was referred to as a Country musician. This made me wonder about what was on that really country looking album by Jerry Jeff Walker.

He's got a '57 GMC pickup truck, with a gun rack and I'd rather step in shit than smoke it bumper sticker

Well what I heard on that record just blew me away. Side one was mostly studio music and featured one of my favorite songs of Jerry Jeff's to this day "Desperados." It was only years later that I found out he had also written the song "Mr. Bojangles", which had been a hit for him on the pop charts. The thing was that alongside of those country folk songs, he was also playing music that sounded suspiciously like Rock and Roll, but with a hearty country twang.

Now as part of their Vanguard Visionaries series Vanguard Records has released Jerry Jeff Walker with ten songs reflecting all aspects of his repertoire. Although he only released two albums originally with Vanguard, the material on them provides examples of every type of music that he has recorded over the course of his career. From the more typical folk/country sound of "Morning Song To Sally" to the highly unexpected "Lost Sea Shanty" with its very San Francisco Bay area sound, complete with jangling guitar, pop vocal harmonies, and incessant tambourine.

He's not responsible for what he's doing, his mother made him what he is

I'm quite sure how I feel about that song, but it doesn't seem to have played a big part in his career. Thankfully, the disc gets back onto more recognizable ground soon enough and you start to hear the country boy in his voice start coming through. "No Roots In Ramblin'" is a definite precursor to later material like. But, it's on "North Cumberland Blues" that we hear the Country/Rock sound that would become his signature.
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There's the obvious comparison that can be made with Gram Parsons and The Flying Burritos, but Jerry seemed to have a lighter attitude towards the music then Gram ever did. Than again perhaps he wasn't carrying the personal baggage that Parsons lugged around with him until it ended his life. Walker's influence seems to have been overshadowed by Parson's glamorous death, which was unfair for both of them.

Perhaps people held Jerry Jeff's commercial success against him, as if somehow scoring a hit with "Mr. Bojangles" (included on this disc and still a great song as far as am I concerned) excluded him from exerting an influence on the music that followed in his wake. But listening to the diversity of sound and the quality of the music that's on Jerry Jeff Walker it's hard to see how anyone could make that case.

However, that doesn't stop me from feeling that Jerry Jeff Walker gets unfairly overlooked and often forgotten about when people talk about the various influences on popular music today. He paved the way for people like Hank Williams Jr., and most of the Country/Rock bands that have played since that time. He may not have been the first to do things, but he was the one who provided the valuable transition between the pioneers and people like Charlie Daniels.

Besides, without Jerry Jeff we would have never met:

"It's up against the wall you Redneck Mothers/Mothers who have raised their sons so well/He's thirty-five and drinking in a honky-tonk/ Just kicking hippies asses and raising hell/ M is for mother/O is for the oil she gave me for my hair/T is for T-bird/H is for Haggard/E is for the eggs she serves me for breakfast/and R is for `Redneck.'" "Redneck Mothers" by Jerry Jeff Walker

Jerry Jeff Walker is a unique figure in the annals of popular music in that he has successfully managed to have a career while playing music that never was easy to drop into any category. He was too Rock-and-Roll for Country purists and who ever heard of a pedal steel guitar in Rock music. The thing is that there turned out to be a huge audience for that type of music and he's never looked back since.

Like any true visionary he's carved out his own path to success and it suits him just fine, and it's given music fans all over something to be grateful for. The songs on Jerry Jeff Walker in the Vanguard Visionary series will give you a good enough indication of what type of music he plays today that if for some reason its the first of his albums you buy, I can pretty much guarantee it won't be the last.

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About Richard Marcus

Richard Marcus is the author of two books commissioned by Ulysses Press, "What Will Happen In Eragon IV?" (2009) and "The Unofficial Heroes Of Olympus Companion". Aside from Blogcritics his work has appeared around the world in publications like the German edition of Rolling Stone Magazine and the multilingual web site Qantara.de. He has been writing for Blogcritics.org since 2005 and has published around 1900 articles at the site.