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R.I.P. Jerry Jeff Walker

Austin City Limits is saddened to learn of the death of Austin musical mainstay Jerry Jeff Walker, following complications of throat cancer. He was 78. 

To call Jerry Jeff Walker important to the Austin music scene is to nearly damn him with faint praise. Flush with royalties from the success of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s 1971 cover of his song “Mr. Bojangles,” the New Yorker moved to Austin in 1971, beating both Willie Nelson and Asleep at the Wheel to the punch. The former Ronald Crosby proceeded to catalyze the progressive country movement, a homegrown scene in clubs like Soap Creek Saloon and Armadillo World Headquarters that helped launch what we now call Austin music. Along with Michael Martin Murphey, B.W. Stevenson, Rusty Wier, Steven Fromholz, and other so-called cosmic cowboys, Walker pioneered a style of singing and songwriting that flavored its country with folk introspection and rock & roll energy, influencing everything from outlaw country to the Red Dirt music scene along the way. On albums like 1973’s Jerry Jeff Walker and ¡Viva Terlingua! and hits like “Up Against the Wall, Redneck Mother” (written by Ray Wylie Hubbard but made famous by Jerry Jeff), Walker and his pals used their rowdy yet laid back sound to bring together both sides of the Texas cultural divide, with hippies and rednecks, liberals and conservatives, finding common ground by virtue of their love for good tunes, good beer, and a good party. 

Naturally, Walker is one of the artists featured in The Improbable Rise of Redneck Rock, the late Jan Reid’s 1974 overview of Austin’s rising music scene. (Note: longtime ACL photographer Scott Newton provided the photos for the 2004 edition of the book after original photographer Melinda Wickman’s archives were lost.) That tome was a key inspiration in the early years of Austin City Limits, so naturally Walker was invited to appear on the program. He first appeared with his running buddies the Lost Gonzo Band during the 1976 debut season, in an episode that debuted the future ACL theme song “London Homesick Blues,” which first appeared on ¡Viva Terlingua! Walker came back to the stage in 1980, 1986, as part of the Austin City Limits reunion special featuring the cosmic cowboys from the early seasons, and 1988, a memorable show featuring a string section. Every show proved to a national audience what we here in Austin already knew: that Jerry Jeff Walker was, in his own words, “Contrary to Ordinary.” Our collective hat is off to you, Jerry Jeff – Austin music would not have been the same without you. 

Jerry Jeff Walker and the Lost Gonzo Band backstage at Austin City Limits, 1976