Of all the three-name Texas singer-songwriters, Jerry Jeff Walker has always mystified me. His progressive country recordings are mostly spotty and artistically self-destructive, hobbled by giddiness and a booze-addled delivery. The notorious ¡Viva Terlingua! and Jerry Jeff Walker sound dated today, essential only to students of the hipneck revolution.
But before the Lost Gonzo chaos and just after experiments with the Circus Maximus band, Walker cut two heartfelt solo albums: Mr. Bojangles and Driftin’ Way Of Life. The latter, on Vanguard, is a country-folk classic, owing much to the contributions by David Bromberg, Charlie McCoy, Norbert Putnam, Harold Rugg, Kenneth Buttrey and Pete Wade. Bromberg, Wade and Rugg in particular weave their guitar parts with a looseness that finds transcendence. This collection presents all their work with Walker on Driftin’ Way Of Life, plus two demos stripped to touching essentials: “Mr. Bojangles” (a classic pop ballad covered by Sammy Davis Jr. and dozens of others, but Walker’s own singing here is a revelation), and Paul Seibel’s “Louise”, featuring harmony by the late Nicolette Larson.
While it’s good to hear it all in 20-bit clarity, the collection is, finally, superfluous. Driftin’ remains in stores, and the previously out-of-print Circus Maximus tunes are so unfocused and poorly written that their deletion can hardly be lamented. In his notes, Randy Poe argues that “Jerry Jeff’s songs [and harmony vocals] were a precursor to the latter-day Byrds and a number of other country-flavored rock bands of the decade that followed.” That’s dubious, for the earliest Vanguard cuts have more in common with pre-Sweetheart Byrds and facile San Fran jams than they do ur-country-rock.
Country touches more deeply on Driftin’ Way Of Life, but more importantly, Walker’s songwriting sparkles. “Morning Song To Sally” (smartly covered by Nanci Griffith on Other Voices, Other Rooms), “Fading Lady” and “Dust On My Boots” are languorous dreamsongs that have worn the decades well. If someone told you Townes Van Zandt had written them, you’d have no doubt.