Jerry Jeff Walker

Jerry Jeff Walker

Fred introduced me to Jerry Jeff Walker — by that, I mean that Fred sent me home, from the Lone Star State, with two purple CDs, one of which shimmered with a track called “Sangria Wine.” I labeled the discs “Tx Country 1” and “Tx Country 2,” and I don’t remember which one held Walker’s tune.

When friends come for Saturday night

It’s nice to make up some Sangria wine

It’s organic and it comes from the vine

It’s also legal and it gets you so high

Oh, yeah? Do you think, back in the early ’70s, when Walker penned those lines, he was on to something? (Organic appeal and natural highs? Legal, too? The kind of endorsement that plays well in Trader Joe’s and your local headshop. Sage advice, off-the-cuff cool.) Walker passed away Friday — from throat cancer, aged 78 — but his music will keep pointing the way and conjuring smiles, especially for journalists and storytellers. He is, after all, a guidepost.

Being introduced to music (and stories)

Let’s circle back to Fred — as a tour guide himself, Jerry Jeff would insist on it. There are people who befriend you and, graciously, clue you in to all the art you’ve been missing for far too long. Fred did this for me, back in the Summer of 2005. I was in Dallas for an internship, and my boss had a roommate — that’d be Fred — a proud Texas A&M grad who sensed I needed an education. So, that summer, I studied Texas country music. Charlie Robison. Jack Ingram. Robert Earl Keen. Even some acts out of Oklahoma. But I listened to one song, again and again, about the sauce I should’ve been sipping in lieu of low-brow beer.

In Texas on a Saturday night

Everclear is added to the wine sometimes

Some nachos, burritos and tacos

Who knows how it usually goes, it goes

It does, and it finishes smooth. “Sangria Wine” appears on 1973’s “¡Viva Terlingua!,” which Walker recorded live at a tiny dancehall in Luckenbach, Texas. “Walker didn’t care for stuffy recording studios,” Texas Monthly’s John T. Davis noted, and in Luckenbach, to calibrate the acoustics, he and the crew (who would become his Long Gonzo Band) used hay bales as sound baffles. If you’re reading this as a journalist, you’re nodding your head and grinning and appreciating how much Walker prized sense of place — authenticity — in his storytelling. He transports us inside a Hill Country dancehall where glasses clink, conversations carry and hollers hoot. Sometimes the crowd even sings along. The din doesn’t drown out the music; it’s just how the story has to sound. If you’re feeling a bit cooped up these days, slip “¡Viva Terlingua!” onto the platter and take a few turns around your living room. Then join in when the revelers belt out “London Homesick Blues.”

That song, about a forlorn Texan fighting frigid climes and longing for Lone Star bars, was actually written by Gary P. Nunn. And it’s Nunn, not Walker, who takes the lead on the album’s last track. One thing that makes ¡Viva Terlingua! so special is its collection of Texas gems. Walker, remembered widely for penning “Mr. Bojangles”—covered by the likes of Bob Dylan and Sammy Davis Jr.—is credited by many a critic for ushering in the Cosmic Cowboy and Outlaw Country movements, which eventually blended into today’s Americana music. He did so by holding up his fellow songwriters’ works. Joining Nunn’s valentine on “¡Viva Terlingua!” is Guy Clark’s “Desperados Waiting on a Train,” the story of a youngster watching his hero—his friend—fade. It’s slow, mournful, a departure from the tunes — “Sangria Wine” and Walker’s “Gettin’ By”—it falls between. Still, gripping. As are tracks by Ray Wylie Hubbard and Michael Murphy, in their respective styles. Storytellers should ponder the album’s structure, pacing, and emotional depth; they should also appreciate Walker’s ear, instinct and improvisation. That Gary P. Nunn song? Walker and the band had never rehearsed it, according to Texas Monthly’s Secret History of Texas Music. Walker had heard Nunn playing it earlier in the day and asked him to sing it live. The band had to run through it twice to capture a full recording. In 1977, it became the theme to Austin City Limits.

Metaphors that endure and inspire

Today, “London Homesick Blues” endures as a Texas standard; watch Brenda Greene Mitchell’s and Sam Wainwright Douglas’s 2016 documentary “Honky Tonk Heaven: The Legend of the Broken Spoke” to see Nunn — kerchief hugging his neck, purple sunglasses tinting his face—share the song from the Spoke’s world-famous, low-ceilinged stage. Also, watch the film for the interviews — James Hand, soft-spoken and sincere, seems to tear up, and Joe Nick Patoski offers raw, tender takes. Particularly, though, look for Walker, near the beginning — three or so minutes in — who describes the Austin joint as “a neighborhood place that feels down home and comfortable, and like an old slipper.” Anytime I’m searching for a metaphor, I hear that line in my head. “An old slipper” — elegant but not pretentious, treasured yet not maudlin. Warm. Familiar. Home.

“Sangria Wine” is a drinking song. (Whoa-oh-oh-oh-oh I love sangria wine!) Hell, it’s even a recipe.

Start with some wine

Get some apples and brandy and sugar just fine

Old friends always show up on time

That’s why you add sparkling burgundy wine

Really, though, “Sangria Wine” is about hanging out. So, on Saturday, when I learned Walker had died, I turned off the football game, unsheathed “¡Viva Terlingua!” and slipped away to Luckenbach for a bit. I thought about all the people out there who were doing the same. And I toasted old friends — Jerry Jeff, an adopted Texan; Fred, a native son — who’ve taken me to places I might never have gone. Here’s to y’all, and to you, and to all of us tripping some more real soon.

Wade Livingston is an occasional freelance writer based in Savannah, Georgia. He’s previously worked as a reporter at the Island Packet and Beaufort Gazette (Bluffton, South Carolina), the Charleston (West Virginia) Gazette-Mail and the Columbia Missourian.

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