Jerry Jeff Walker concert flyer from the 1970s
Still searching, I pressed him about those famous, almost mythical, times in the 70’s, when outlaw country music exploded and seemed to speak to a whole generation of folks who wanted to follow the whine of their own steel guitar. I told him I felt there was a sense, in his music and performances from the 70s, that he was either running from or chasing something. I wanted to know which it was, and whether or not he’d been successful. He partially eluded my question, but, in his answer, revealed that perhaps it was all just a lot simpler than I wanted to make it.
“Well… Because we were doing it ourselves, we felt there was no real boundary to it. Whatever we liked is what we recorded. Fun stuff and then real serious stuff all mixed in together. But we didn’t have to audition for anybody or pass any inspections, we just played. Maybe the boundary itself is what we were pushing and chasing. Everyone wanted to tell us we couldn’t make a living doing it our way, but we knew we could. We got on a roll and when you’re on your roll you push it as far as you can take it."
In his songs, particularly from those heady 70s days, you can hear this same peculiar and nonchalant confidence, this belief in the inherent truth and worthiness of one's innermost proclivities and ambitions. The stories he's told, again and again, with his best songs, are tales of grit, of sorrow, of bravado, of celebrating the everyday, of trusting oneself—they're yawning yarns of yearning and the eternal chase. I wanted to know how he always knew what to do and who to write about. He told me:
“Looking at the older people as a younger man, I was always trying to figure out who was happy and why. Because I always wanted to be someone who was that way—who had the twinkle in their eye, who told good stories, who was… happy on their own plane and for their own reasons.”
His attitude reminded me of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s heroically simple Transcendentalist decree that “Society everywhere is in conspiracy against the manhood of every one of its members ... Whoso would be a man, must be a nonconformist ... Nothing is at last sacred but the integrity of your own mind.” And as our interview neared its end, I found myself realizing that the grand quest for closure and truth and solace and perfection on which I had ostensibly embarked, was a mere mirage, warping my innocent grief into a wall of illogical and misdirected expectation. My father never did a thing but live simply, day to day, in a patient and easy state of permanent going with the flow. He found himself, and thus his happiness, in the love of his family and his earnest desire to help us—or anyone who needed it really—pick up the pieces wherever they fell. It’s no use looking for a program or being programmed, it’s best just to simply be.
With these thoughts in mind, I already knew how Jerry Jeff would end up answering my last question of the afternoon, but I asked it anyway. “How do you want to be remembered? What do you want to be your legacy?” I wondered. He paused, obviously a bit bored with the question and probably itching to go back to his day, and explained:
“Well… I don’t know. I don’t think I care about that. It’ll always just be someone else’s slant, so it don’t have much to do with me. I tried to write a good one, when I was writing about whatever it was I was writing about, and tried to be true to how I saw it. I never knew the rules so I just did what I wanted. It’s my personal love of picking and the songs I’ve written and projected onto the audience that matters, I guess.”
I suppose, after all, when you go looking for a window into the past or a crystal ball, you wind up with a mirror. When you go looking for a path to follow, you wind up learning to navigate yourself. And if my dad taught me one thing, it's the same thing we can all learn from the music of Jerry Jeff Walker: the struggle for happiness ain't a struggle at all, because it's not that big, but more like doodling yourself on top of eternity for a little while, chasing the boundary where it retreats for you.
Jerry Jeff Walker
, Sold Out, 9pm Fri-Sat, Dec 12-13, Gruene Hall, 1281 Gruene, New Braunfels, TX, (830) 606-1281, gruenehall.com.