Progressive Country Meets The Phone Forest

Have you ever wondered what’s going through James Taylor’s mind while he’s performing “Fire and Rain” for the eleven-thousandth time? I figure he’s making out tomorrow’s grocery list, or maybe outlining the next chapter of his autobiography. Or here’s a thought: maybe he’s working on another song. I bet he could do it.

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Jerry Jeff Walker, from a distance

I’ve never seen James Taylor, but I saw Jerry Jeff Walker the other day. Where I live, Jerry Jeff Walker is an iconic figure. I’m not exactly sure how far you’d have to walk in a straight line from Austin before you met someone who hasn’t heard of him. For those of you beyond that distance, Jerry Jeff wrote the song “Mr Bojangles” in the late 60s, though you probably remember hearing someone else perform it. But the essential Walker is surely the album Viva Terlingua, recorded in the summer of 1973.

Saying that may be a disservice. I have no idea whether it’s Walker’s best album. But Terlingua stands out as a tribute to that weirdly bicultural moment in the 1970s when Texas hippies and Texas rednecks reached an unexpected détente and sat down to listen to music together. There are many country music albums that have never, ever been listened to by a stoned person; this is not one of them. Or to put it another way: in the 70s if you had a lot of country music records in your collection, you might not know who Jerry Jeff Walker was. If you owned just one country music record, it was probably Viva Terlingua.

What drew people to the album was its sheer happiness. It’s almost a concept album about enjoying the simple things, not letting anything get you down, partying with your friends. And also drinking, of course, though listening to “Sangria Wine” releases enough endorphins into your brain that it’s a virtual alcohol substitute. Surviving reviews of the album nearly all remark on its anti-depressant qualities – which is quite something when you notice that three of the album’s nine songs are brooding reflections on death, alcoholism, and death. Apparently a reckless approach to life needs to be balanced with a few philosophical moments. But somehow “Desperados Waiting For A Train,” “Backslider’s Wine,” and “Wheel” never put a damper on any party that I can remember.

Walker’s music was labeled Progressive Country. If you’re familiar with the other “progressive” music of the same era, you might sit down to your first hearing of Viva Terlingua expecting a twangy version of Jethro Tull or Emerson, Lake and Palmer. Such a thing did actually exist – see the Dixie Dregs – but you won’t find it here. It’s true that the songs on Terlingua aren’t standard-issue country music built on Nashville-approved templates. There are shades of rock, a pinch of reggae on “Sangria Wine,” the bridge of “Get It Out” which contains a few more chords than would be allowed in real country music. But that’s about it. It only took a little progress to make country music progressive. The Progressive label really has more to do with the rebellion against the Nashville establishment that brought Walker, Willie Nelson, and a lot of other performers to Austin in the early 70s, fleeing an entrenched star system and a ritual approach to musical arrangement.

Walker had a particular dislike of recording studios, feeling that perfectionism, over-production, and compiling multiple takes sucked the life out of what should be a joyful and spontaneous act. That’s why Terlingua was recorded in Luckenbach, Texas, a town so small it scarcely existed, where there was obviously no recording studio and occasionally no electricity. Walker’s label, MCA, sent a mobile rig to capture the rough-edged performance. Part of it – some say all of it – was taped before a sizeable audience at the “live recording concert” on the night of August 18, 1973. But even the parts that were probably recorded during the previous week were more or less “live” – the place was not a closed set, and people who were there remember wandering in, hanging out with the Lost Gonzo Band and singing along at rehearsals. I don’t know if Viva Terlingua is art or only something close, but it’s as real as anything can be, a documentary not a work of fiction.

Which brings me back to last week’s music festival in Valentine, Texas. There were several bands ranging from good to exceptional, and the crowd seemed to appreciate them all, but as night fell it was clear that everyone had really come to see Jerry Jeff. When he appeared, there was a stampede toward the stage, and a forest of arms went up in the air, each holding a phone. Everybody wanted some video of the great man – a lot of video, apparently, since the cell phone forest stayed in place throughout the whole performance. Selfies, with the Great Man framed helplessly in the background, were taken by the gigabyte. The same thing happens in big-city museums: if you’ve attempted to get near any really well-known painting or sculpture lately, you know what it’s like to be separated from your objective by a force-field of electronic narcissism. You might expect things to be different in Valentine, a town so small that its music festival multiplies its population by a factor of 20 or 30. Nope.

It had been 42 years since Viva Terlingua was recorded in Luckenbach, and I suppose Jerry Jeff, who’s now 72, has performed these songs thousands of times since then, enough that he might now be passing the evening working out a shopping list, or just thinking his own thoughts. But this is the guy who wanted music to be a spontaneous act of human nature, who mistrusted any intrusion into the creative process more technological than a guitar pick. He played “Gettin’ By,” “Up Against The Wall, Redneck Mother,” and “London Homesick Blues” for the array of electric eyes that people were sticking in his face. I have no idea whether it bothered him, but I hope he noticed that outside the circle of phones there was another circle of folks just laying back and enjoying the music. We could have been annoyed – the cell phone forest made it hard to see Jerry Jeff from where we were sitting. But we let it slide, and we had a good time anyway. We knew how to do that, because we’d learned from the master.

 

For what is probably the current state of the art in Viva Terlingua scholarship see this article by Travis D. Stimeling in the Journal of Texas Music History, January 2008.

 

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