Jerry Jeff Walker :: Driftin’ Way Of Life

It kind of amazes me that nobody seems to know the man behind one of the world’s most well-known songs. Not that this is too uncommon, it’s just that Jerry Jeff Walker’s music is so damn good for the heart it’s a mystery why he never became a household name.

Walker wasn’t technically native to Texas, hailing from Oneonta, New York, but he knew he was home when he landed in Austin. Before this album’s release, JJW was a member of Circus Maximus who worked the Greenwich Village scene and released two psychedelic/folk-rock records more than worthy of investigation. His next official release yielded a song that would give the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band a top ten hit and become one of the most recorded tunes of all time, “Mr. Bojangles.

In his 4 decade career Walker has released a lot of albums, but before the boozy, gonzo years to come and outlaw country sound he would help to define in mid-70s Austin, one album stands out above the rest: a gorgeous folk-country gem the equal of any Dylan or 60s troubadour piece, 1969’s Driftin’ Way Of Life.

Unlike most of his later records, all the songs herein are Walker’s, and among the first he ever wrote. Any JJW record has to come out swinging, and the title track kicks it off accordingly. “Driftin’ Way Of Life,” is a kicking little number that sets a stage for something much sweeter. “Morning Song To Sally” is a lovely little lovesick gem from the depths of Jerry’s soft side. “Ramblin Scramblin‘” is more of a snicker than a laugh, but works along side the old-fashioned “Gertrude,” haunting road ode “Old Road” with just voice and harmonica, and the psyched up “North Cumberland Blues.” Only thing better than a ballad like “No Roots In Ramblin‘” is the album’s closer, which somehow gets the whole story straight in just a few lines, “Dust On My Boots.”

If you do the math right, and cross check it with his 1999 biography, Gypsy Songman (highly recommended read), you find Jerry really was drifting – all over the States from NYC to New Orleans, writing these songs and performing them night after night. High on the success of “Bojangles” this record was a contractual obligation to Vanguard but recorded right in the prime. Jerry: “After so many years of hitchhiking and nights spent on the streets or on borrowed couches, my existence had become a warm Manhattan apartment, a vintage Corvette in an expensive parking garage, whiskey and music all night, enough money and enough fame to keep it going endlessly.” The years of roaming gives the album’s theme credence and a taste of Driftin’ might be all it takes to inspire you to ditch the doldrums and get out on the road. Don’t pick up that book if you are wishing to hold a steady job.

The group sounds like classic Nashville, a good solid band trading backgrounds between the verses. “The album had a real strong country feel. There was no question that in 1969 my music had taken a definite turn, and it was an extremely comfortable sound for me. I felt like I was headed home.” Some notable touches include the tasteful electric piano and swirling steel on “Shell Game” and flatpicking from the underappreciated David Bromberg. According to Jerry he was “the reason man created stringed instruments. David touched them with a lover’s fingers and they moaned that true love right back at him. Wood and wire and flesh spoke.”

JJW’s deep, familiar voice is like a drug. When you hear it cut through the shuffle you can’t help but smile: Jerry you old scamp. He sings to you like an old friend. A one-of-a-kind songman, one of my personal favorites; bits of story, sadness, humor, irreverence, experience, straight up fun, and just some damn pretty songs. Get Driftin. words/ b. mcgrath

MP3: Jerry Jeff Walker :: Shell Game

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19 thoughts on “Jerry Jeff Walker :: Driftin’ Way Of Life

  1. We Texans are extremely familiar with Jerry Jeff’s work. Though I really like his older stuff like Driftin’ Way of Life, the seminal Viva Terlingua is his finest hour for me. In a close second is the double-LP A Man Must Carry On and his album of (mostly) outlaw-country covers Ridin’ High. These albums are some that my folks passed down to me, and I’m so glad they did. Great post, Mr. McGrath…

  2. Jerry Jeff has always been a household name down in Corpus Christi, TX…my parents have had him playing since I was a baby

  3. As a native Texan, JJW is birthright. Yet another reason to be happy you’re a Texan…

    Too bad “It’s A Good Night For Singin” is out of print – that was a great album as well.

  4. Great post. Growing up in Texas of course I knew all about the Viva Terlingua material, and while that stuff is great, it’s popularity masks some of the quality of his songwriting that you can find on albums like this. Good stuff.

  5. Yes, JJW is from Oneonta, NY; a classmate of an old friend of mine who identified him as Ron Colby.

  6. Helluva tribute my friend.
    My dad used to throw on Jerry Jeff Walker records when I was little; my brothers and I danced around the living room in our underoos more than a few times to those albums, and they’ll always be a part of my soul.
    If you haven’t had a chance, Live at Gruene Hall is a great one too.
    Thanks again!

  7. cool post. i love this site. it’s fun to see attention given to african music, elvis, and jerry jeff walker all in close proximity. i love jerry jeff too, though it took me a long time to come around to him. i thought for a long time, based on an appearance he made on The Texas Connection in the early 90s with Jimmy Buffet, that I only just happened to catch when I was a teenager, that he was a god-awful cheeseball. That and the fact that Texas frat boys worship him. But once I started listening to his records I realized I’d found a new favorite. I devoured them all – it was so sad to run out of music by him, because there’s so much good stuff that it seemd like it’d go on forever. I loved just discovering one great record after another. He was a great songwriter, of course. But his covers rule too. I only realized recently that Jesse Winchester wrote Mississippi You’re On My Mind, from Ridin’ High (the knowledge that Winchester was stuck in the snows of Canada at the time and pining for home definitely gave that song new meaning for me). JJW’s version of Rodney Crowell’s Song for the Life is my favorite version of that song, to mention another of his great covers. The footage of him with the Lost Gonzo band at Willie Nelson’s birthday party concert is amazing. I made my brother a cdr of my favorite JJW songs for xmas a few years ago and I realized I couldn’t even fit close to all of the songs I think are great on one disc. I can say unequivocally, that, to quote the Michael Bolton-loving efficency expert in the movie Office Space, when it comes to Jerry Jeff Walker, “I celebrate the man’s entire catalog.”

  8. The main reason JJW did not become a “household name” is because he turned his back to the Nashville establishment. And the Texans are very correct–he is extremely popular and to know his songs is a rite of passage in Texas and much of the South (most people in honky tonks throughout Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and the good parts of Florida definitely know him well still). And don’t go trashing NY now either–upstate New York is more “country” than most of Georgia.

    Great post though. Everyone should listen to his songs and everyone should go see him live. It’s amazing to see him perform–he’s got more energy than most performers half his age. Great post.

  9. viva luckenbach is my personal favorite. i’m pretty sure JJW was the entertainment at my high school Junior Symphony Ball.

    i wish he’d tour more seriously. you see him around texas, but only at Southern Junction dinner/show type places and Choctaw Bingo casinos.

    I know he didn’t write it, but his version of Guy Clark’s Desparados Waiting For A Train DEFINES “Texas Country”.

  10. I agree that Jerry Jeff Walker has a place in many Texans, including me. But I think the single most defining Texas song is The Road Goes on Forever by Robert Earl Keen, any live version is incredible.

  11. Does anybody know how someone could learn to play the harmonica solo in “Old Road?”

  12. Jerry Jeff is the singer-songwriter of my lifetime. Sorry to see the comment about playing with Buffett, because they are very similar, and have proven that throughout the years. “It’s A Good Night For Singing” is my personal favorite, but doesn’t matter, I love em all. Jerry Jeff’s voice has been a constant for over 40 years for me, and I’ll be damned if he didn’t give me the best concert in a lifetime of going to concerts….in a small venue in Davenport, Iowa in 1982,,,,,,two weeks before my first daughter was born. The man was born to wander……and entertain.

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