Steve Earle’s getting good at these tributes to friends and mentors. Jerry Jeff is his third, following Townes and Guy. (Yes, of course there has also been J.T., but that paean to his prematurely deceased son was a force of necessity rather than choice, one which we reviewed here.) The latest tribute has more in common with the first two, and is maybe a bit of a surprise, not least as there is no recorded Bluebird Café gig to legitimize the link.
Indeed, those uncertain why Earle might be drawn to the works of Jerry Jeff Walker, seemingly less of a maverick, might need to think again. The outlaw-country icon is way more than just the “Mr. Bojangles” hitmaker, and that song, wonderful as it is, may not be the best marker of his styles, as he gravitated from Greenwich Village folkie to grizzled Austin veteran. (More about that song here.)
Walker, who died back in 2020, did cross paths with Earle a number of times. Once Walker invited him down to play a song for Neil. Not knowing who Neil was, Earle complied, and was delighted to find himself about to play a song for Neil Young. He was then appalled that Walker insisted he play a David Olney song, rather than one of his own. Ouch! But it goes further, Earle telling Vulture that “Mr. Bojangles” had been a (very) early stage favorite of his, it being performed at the specific request of his high school teacher for a school show.
Earle is older and mellower now, and arguably this set of Walker songs suits him a little better than his reputation(s) would predict. Plus, for those champing at the bit for some new Earle compositions, there is a promise that this is his last in his run of tributes. For them, good; for us here at Cover Me, maybe less so.
Credited to Steve Earle and the Dukes (an important point, as will become apparent), Jerry Jeff kickstarts with “Getting By.” The original is a classic road song that bears comparison with Willie Nelson’s “On The Road Again” as a signature song par excellence. Earle changes the narrator to himself; it might be easy to think it an Earle composition about Walker, but it’s not, and it sets the tone perfectly. There’s a Byrdsy syncopation that updates the slightly more pedestrian (as was the style of the day) original. Earle has never drawled better and the Dukes are on fire, vocally and instrumentally, with a glorious fiddle/guitar interplay in the middle from that husband/wife/Duke/Duchess team, the Mastersons.
“Gypsy Songman” is a rollicking Cajun stomp, with fiddle (again) and accordion to the fore. “Little Bird” is more of a plaintive lament, high plains drifting steel over an acoustic shuffle. If all these songs sound like trademark Steve Earle, well, maybe that itself is a good indicator how much he owes Walker for his writing. Eleanor Whitmore (Mrs. Masterson) adds more dreamy backing vocals.
Earle doesn’t tackle “I Makes Money (Money Don’t Make Me)” with anything more than with a broad grin. It’s neither a big or clever a song, and Earle and the band play it straight and simple. A saloon bar hoedown, it would be a hoot live, toward the end of the evening. Lovely mandolin and dobro.
Of course “Mr. Bojangles” has to be here. Hardcore purists protest it isn’t Walker’s best song, but, as it’s far and away his best-known song, I would have felt shortchanged without it. It’s a respectful version; Earle plays little with the cadence, his voice as croaky as the character in the song is scuffed. Erring a bare whisker away from sentimentality, it succeeds and would have earned a place in that Five Good Covers piece, had it been around then. The band cook, playing with the tight looseness of individuals well used to playing together.
“Hill Country Rain” has a tough job following that, but with the rhythm section providing foot-to-the-floor propulsion, it is a grower, capturing you before well before it ends. The Jerry Jeff original is considerably more laid back, and the extra diesel proving beneficial to this version. Jeff Hill’s bass and Brad Pemberton’s drums, show how vital they are to the overall feel of the Dukes. Lovers of Crosby, Stills, and Nash may particularly enjoy the doo doo doo doos, being as far removed from the vocal purity that band could offer. That contrast making me beam with joy, so perfect is the shambolic unison here. The song ends with a coda of steel and fiddle, with Ms. Whitmore showing off her exemplary chops once more, keeping Ricky Ray Jackson, on the steel, at his best as they trade licks.
“Charlie Dunn” is the first song that doesn’t cut the mustard, being a bit too much of a by-numbers rendition. Then again, the original is a bit cheesy too, but it works better by trying less hard. Thankfully, “My Old Man” is a return to form, if again another song that is capable of drifting into mawkishness. Jackson’s dobro and Whitmore’s fiddle give enough trad credibility to make Earle’s delivery sincere. A word also for the guitar picking–possible Earle’s, possibly Chris Masterson, probably both.
“Wheel” is then a bit weird, at least as it starts, all peyote and skewed perspectives, before settling down. Mind you, the original is a bit JJW’s bad trip, a musing on death, too, so the flavor is probably intentional. Earle then blows that mood aside with the closing track, “Old Road.” It’s now a bluesy holler, just one man’s voice and harmonica. A surprising and pleasing way to close proceedings; Walker’s rendition is a country campfire song, and Earle’s transition of it to his old friend the blues works well.
All in all, Jerry Jeff is a good record, at times a very good record. In fact, I’ll stand on Bob Dylan’s coffee table in my cowboy boots and say that the first half (a.k.a. “side 1,” if you’re over 40) is as good as any Earle has made over his decades-long career. As a tribute, too, it is top-notch. If it makes you want to investigate Jerry Jeff Walker’s back catalog a tad deeper, I dare say Earle will think his job done. I’m certainly investing in some of Walker’s deeper cuts, and will happily play those and then play these again. As stated, the feel is very much of a band album, and the Dukes excel, especially Chris Masterson, on all manner of guitars and mandolins, and his wife, Eleanor Whitmore, on classy fiddle and more mandolins. (Even more mandolins come from Earle himself, by the way.)
Jerry Jeff tracklisting: