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Finding Success on His Own Terms

Pop music: Jerry Jeff Walker is revered for his country sound and business acumen. He handles bookings, publishing and publicity through his own label.

September 27, 1997|BUDDY SEIGAL | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

How many veteran country performers have complained that the biz's powers-that-be ignore artists over 40?

Not Jerry Jeff Walker, who plays the Crazy Horse Steak House on Monday with his band, the Gonzo Compadres. He has succeeded on his own terms.

Walker and his wife, Susan, formed Tried & True Music in 1986 as an all-purpose business dedicated to furthering his music. The company not only serves as a record label and fan club base but also handles Walker's bookings, publishing and publicity. A genuine maverick, Walker is revered by his peers as much for his dogged independence as his quirky, sweaty brand of country-folk-rock.

"I started this because people had always asked me to make records for them, and nobody was asking me anymore," Walker said in a recent phone interview from Tried & True's Austin, Texas, headquarters. "When it got to the point where I had to ask them, they wanted to review me and they wanted to advise me and tell me what I had to do to get on the radio and all that. I said, 'Hmmm. I don't know, let me get back to you on that.' So I figured, why can't I just make them myself and sell them at shows?"

Eleven years and nine albums later, Walker's notion has blossomed into a propitious venture. Through live performances, a fan club newsletter and an Internet Web site, he sells about 30,000 to 40,000 units of each, by his own figures. Those figures might not excite a major label, but they add up to a fun and profitable career.

The trick, Walker said, has been communicating with fans.

"If you're not compiling fans' names at shows, you're wasting your time. Say you make five records with a record company. If you knew all the people that were buying your records, you'd have the information you need to make it on your own. Get those names at the live shows. People who will buy a ticket and get a baby-sitter and park the car and sit in the front row, they're pretty die-hard fans."

Walker's renegade attitude seems to be taking hold in radio as well. His most recent album, "Scamp," was a hit on the Americana format, making the 1996 release among the most successful titles on the Tried & True label.

"It was Top 10 on the Americana [format] in January, February and March," Walker said. "It was also No. 1 on their charts for about six weeks. The Americana format takes great pride in playing stuff other folks won't touch, and now they're starting to cause some disturbance. One of the biggest radio stations in Dallas is Americana format."

Walker, 55, is about the last guy anyone would have pegged as a businessman. A boozy past and a spotty pre-Tried & True recording history fomented a reputation as the original Gonzo country artist, a guy out for a good time more than a career.

A member of psychedelic rockers Circus Maximus in the '60s, Walker went solo in 1968 and hit immediately with the song "Mr. Bojangles," later a hit for the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band. He flirted with mainstream acceptance in the '70s, before free-form FM radio disappeared and Walker's albums stopped getting airplay.

Known as a raucous performer who always gives his fans a good show, Walker has forged a considerable cult following.

"That's the biggest thing I think I have going for me out there," he said. "I know I have a crowd of upbeat people. When I walk out there, I know I'm going out to a roomful of people well-prepared to have a good time. That's a bonus. I just assume it's going to be a good time, and then I go out there and play and have as much fun as I can. We don't look at clocks, we don't look at watches. We just do it."

* Jerry Jeff Walker appears Monday at the Crazy Horse Steak House, 1580 Brookhollow Ave., Santa Ana. 7 p.m. and 10 p.m. $24.50. (714) 849-1512.

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