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Running His Own Show : 'Gonzo Country' Performer Jerry Jeff Walker Finds Great Rewards in Taking Control of His Career

August 24, 1994|BUDDY SEIGAL | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

You'll almost never see an interview with a musician over 40 in which, at some point, the subject doesn't take a few well-aimed shots at the music industry's powers-that-be. There seems to be a pervading sense of victimization, impotence and, ultimately, resignation to some dark conspiracy against veteran recording artists who, fairly or not, feel exploited and abused by the people behind the scenes.

Jerry Jeff Walker has been among the most vocal critics of the bigwigs on music row. "The only way to make any money these days," he said in 1991, "is to earn enough that, after they get done (messing with) you, there's still a little bit left over." But instead of just bemoaning his circumstances, Walker, at 52, has taken an old axiom to heart:

"If you want something done right, do it yourself."

The grizzled singer/songwriter--who plays tonight at the Coach House in San Juan Capistrano--has taken the reins of his own career in hand, instead of yielding them to people he doesn't trust. Along with his wife, Susan, he has established Tried and True Music to control virtually every aspect of his business affairs.

"We own our own airplane, we're our own travel agent, our own booking agent, our own record company, our own PR firm, our own accounting firm, our own publishing firm," Walker said Monday from his home office in Austin, Tex. "We're a little million-dollar cottage industry.

"It gives a lot of percentages back to us that we can work with, and we're busy all the time. You have to figure out ways to do things on your own. I do my own thing, and I don't pay much attention to what anyone else is doing."

He has released five albums on the Tried and True label, most recently "Viva Luckenbach" a few months ago. "The album is real Texas-y," he drawled. "It turned out real good; I'm real happy with it. There's a song on there called 'Keep Texas Beautiful' that's about changing times. They say in a few years, Texas will be right next to California in terms of its population. I don't know how many (doggone) people there are in this world, but it looks like they're all gonna be down here soon."

Walker started out on the New York folk scene in the '60s and made his first real dent when the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band scored a Top 10 hit with his "Mr. Bojangles" in 1970. He has released 25 albums that have sold in relatively small but steady quantities to his devoted, sometimes near-obsessive fans.

"Taking over our own business and running it ourselves has tied us even more to our fans," he noted. "We've got more than 40,000 names on our mail-out newsletter, so the fans pick up on (concert) dates way in advance. The clubs will call and say, 'I've already sold 100 tickets and I haven't even advertised yet.'

"Our audience is really upbeat," he added. "Likes to have a good time. They're not introverted or shy."

That's something of an understatement: Walker's fans tend to be a boozy, sometimes rowdy lot of fun-seekers, following the lead of their notorious idol. There is a rare and special closeness between the man and the fans, a relationship he seals by actually throwing parties for his roving band of admirers.

"We have fan outings where we go to New Orleans for a weekend. Then we go to Belize for a couple weeks every January and take over a resort. We go snorkeling, scuba diving, eat lots of fish, get drunk, sleep under the stars and play music. We've got a bumper sticker that says, 'You Got to Belize.' "

*

Walker's music is hard to define. Such songs as "Up Against the Wall, Redneck Mother" and "L.A. Freeway" blend strains of honky-tonk, folk and rock in ways that blur categorical lines. So, in keeping with his do-it-ourselves credo, Walker and his fans have come up with a term of their own to describe it: "Gonzo Country."

"Gonzo means taking an unknown thing to an unknown place for a known purpose," he explained, laughing. "But sometimes we're lost in an unknown place for no known purpose."

* Jerry Jeff Walker sings tonight at the Coach House, 33157 Camino Capistrano, San Juan Capistrano. Diamondback opens at 8. $19.50. (714) 496-8930.

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