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Jerry Jeff Walker, ‘gonzo’ icon in Texas country music, dies at 78

Jerry Jeff Walker in 2005
Country singer Jerry Jeff Walker, shown at Willie Nelson’s ranch outside Austin, Texas, in 2005, has died at 78.
(Jack Plunkett / Associated Press)

Jerry Jeff Walker, the Texas country singer and songwriter who wrote the pop song “Mr. Bojangles” and helped build a new era in the Austin music scene of the 1970s, has died at age 78.

Walker died Friday at the Dell Seton Medical Center at the University of Texas after battling cancer, family spokesman John T. Davis told the Associated Press. “He was at home until an hour before his passing,” Susan Walker, the singer’s wife, told the Austin American-Statesman. “He went very peacefully, which we were extremely grateful for.”

Walker emerged from New York’s Greenwich Village folk scene of the 1960s, and was a founding member of the band Circus Maximus. He later moved to Texas, and in 1972 scored a hit with his version of the Guy Clark song “L.A. Freeway.”

With the Lost Gonzo Band, Walker recorded a 1973 album live in Texas called “Viva Terlingua” that became a classic of the country-rock scene. In Austin, he associated with the likes of Willie Nelson and Clark, morphing the local country scene along the way.

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In all, Walker released nearly 40 albums from 1967 to 2018.

Throughout that time, his particular sound was hard to define, spurring adherents to describe it as “gonzo country.” In a 1994 interview with The Times, he explained the term with a laugh: “Gonzo means taking an unknown thing to an unknown place for a known purpose. But sometimes we’re lost in an unknown place for no known purpose.”

A grizzled voice and figure in his later years, Walker became known for starting his own record label, Tried and True, and fomenting younger voices in the American folk traditions.

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The songwriter was diagnosed with throat cancer in 2017, undergoing chemotherapy and radiation, he told the Austin newspaper. “I guess I took my singing for granted, and now I don’t,” he told the newspaper.

That same year, Walker donated more than 100 boxes of his music archives to the Wittliff Collections at Texas State University in San Marcos, including tapes, photographs, handwritten lyrics and artifacts.

“Other than Willie [Nelson], Jerry Jeff is the most important musician to happen to Austin, Texas, I would have to say,” Ray Benson, leader of the band Asleep at the Wheel, told the American-Statesman. “He really brought that folk singer-songwriter form to its height in Texas. And for that, he’ll be eternal, because there’s all these kids today who write songs in that mode.”

Walker’s survivors include his wife, Susan; son, Django, who is also a musician; and daughter, Jessie Jane.

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The Associated Press contributed to this story.


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