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L. Kent Wolgamott: Remembering Jerry Jeff Walker and Billy Joe Shaver
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L. Kent Wolgamott: Remembering Jerry Jeff Walker and Billy Joe Shaver

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In 1973, Jerry Jeff Walker introduced the cosmic cowboy sound of Austin, Texas, to the wider world with his breakthrough album “Viva Terlingua!” and its songs “Desperados Waiting for a Train,” “Backslider’s Wine,” “Up Against the Wall Redneck Mother” and “London Homesick Blues.”

A few months earlier, Waylon Jennings laid the foundation for what came to be called outlaw country when he put out “Honky Tonk Heroes,” an album packed full of songs by Billy Joe Shaver.

Walker died last Friday at age 78 after a long battle with throat cancer. Tuesday, Shaver died at 81 after a massive stroke.

In the space of a week, we lost a pair of Texas characters who, in their own ways, pioneered progressive country more than four decades ago.

Walker was, by far, the better known of the pair, having most famously written “Mr. Bojangles,” the story of a street dancer he met in a New Orleans drunk tank in the 1960s. The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band made it a hit in 1971 and it’s been recorded dozens of times since.

By then, Walker, who was born Ronald Clyde Crosby in upstate New York, had gone AWOL from the National Guard, busked across the South and become part of the Greenwich Village folk scene before settling in Austin in the early 1970s.

There he took songs from his Texas running buddies — Guy Clark, Michael Martin Murphey, Ray Wylie Hubbard and Gary P. Nunn wrote the “Viva Terlingua!” tunes — and put them on records and played rowdy shows first in Texas, then around the country.

Walker, who sobered up in the ’80s, also was a pioneer in another way. With his wife, Susan, he put together Tried and True Music, recording and distributing his records on his own label, years before that became a widespread practice.

Walker made multiple Lincoln appearances over the decades, from Pershing Auditorium to the Rococo Theatre to most memorably an outdoor soiree at the long-gone Arrow Airport, the most odiferous show I’ve ever seen (or smelled). It was across the road from the city dump in the summer heat. Walker, by the way, remembered that show, mentioning it every time we talked.

I don’t recall ever seeing Shaver anywhere around Lincoln, but I ran across him a few times in Texas, at shows and, on a couple of occasions, hanging out with Kinky Friedman.

You may not have heard of Shaver, but Bob Dylan sure did, singing “I’m listening to Billy Joe Shaver and I’m reading James Joyce” in 2009’s “I Feel A Change Comin’ On.”

So did Kris Kristofferson, Johnny Cash, John Anderson, Elvis Presley and Willie Nelson, who called Shaver “our greatest living songwriter.”

They, and dozens of others, recorded songs Shaver had written, classics like “Georgia on a Fast Train,” “Old Five and Dimers Like Me,” “Black Rose,” “Freedom’s Child” and “Live Forever.”

The cantankerous, funny, humble Shaver was such an outlaw and outlandish character that he landed an episode in Mike Judges’ “Tales from the Tour Bus,” a Cinemax-animated documentary series that told the stories of George Jones and Tammy Wynette, Johnny Paycheck, Jerry Lee Lewis, Blaze Foley and Jennings.

That ought to tell you that Shaver’s story is too wild and dramatic to fully recount here.

But here’s a start: he lost two fingers and part of a third in a sawmill accident, then taught himself to play guitar. He threatened to beat up Jennings if he didn’t listen to the songs that wound up on “Honky Tonk Heroes,” married and divorced two different women three times, and lost his guitar-playing son Eddy to a drug overdose in the same year that his wife and mother died.

In 2007, at age 68, he shot a guy in the face in a Lorena, Texas, saloon. After he was acquitted on aggravated assault charges, he demanded his bullet back from inside the victim, then wrote about the incident in “Wacko from Waco,” channeling his life into a song as he did for decades.

Shaver was making albums full of great songs through 2014’s “Long in the Tooth” and still playing shows last year.

His music, like his signature song says, will “Live Forever.” As will Walker’s. Nor will they be forgotten by anyone who encountered them or saw their shows.

Reach the writer at 402-473-7244 or kwolgamott@journalstar.com. On Twitter @KentWolgamott  

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Entertainment reporter/columnist

L. Kent Wolgamott, the recipient of the 2018 Mayor’s Arts Award, has written about arts and entertainment for Lincoln newspapers since 1985, reviewing thousands of movies and concerts and hundreds of art exhibitions.

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