Saturday, February 18, 2006
A Pendant of Jerry Jeff
I remember my introduction to Jerry Jeff Walker. It was in some sort of crash pad in Fort Worth, Texas, attached to a club called The Mad Hatter. It was the early 90s, but there was an eight-track player with two Jerry Jeff tapes -- Ridin' High and Viva Turlingua. We listened to them several times over the course of the evening. I fell in love with "Red Neck Mothers," "London Homesick Blues" and "Backslider's Wine." All great songs. It was one of those times when the music fits the scene, the mood and the moment. The night got better because the owner of the club had boxes of records that he'd found at a flea market from Ornette Coleman's short-lived record label. He gave me a couple unusual albums. I got lucky.
Since then I've grown a little suspicious of Jerry Jeff. There's something too Jimmy Buffett-like about him. I suspect that he never quite got over the fact that he wasn't Kris Kristofferson or Willie Nelson. I once got into a semi-drunken conversation about country music with Seymour Stein. I mentioned Jerry Jeff, who Stein, a serious country songwriting encyclopedia, dismissed with a look of disgust and contempt. Still, I've always loved the craggy cowboy simplicity of "Nightrider's Lament" from Ridin' High. As it turns out, Jerry Jeff didn't write this one. He did't write "Red Neck Mothers" or "London Homesick Blues" either. And I've heard that there's dispute about whether he penned "Mr. Bojangles."
At any rate, maybe it takes some genius like Nina Simone to salvage a tune like "Mr. Bojangles." When Jerry Jeff and the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band do it, there's no real getting around the hint of racism or at least laughing derision at the down-and-out subject of the song. But Nina had an immense capacity to inject pathos into even the most surprising places, and she gives the song some surprising dignity. This is from her Here Comes the Sun record, on which covers "Just Like a Woman" and "Angel of the Morning," among others. I can't fully recommend the record, and it should be noted that while she could wring tears from all kinds of material, Simone was also known for crassly covering whatever was put in front of her (I had high hopes for her cover of Hall and Oates "Rich Girl" on her Baltimore record, but it too disappoints.)