April 26th, 2009 | Interviews

michael c. hsiung

Stream: Jerry Jeff Walker “Hairy Ass Hillbillies”


(available on many collections)

Jerry Jeff Walker was the heat-seeking missile who tore up Luckenbach on Viva Terlingua and once got in a dust-up with Willie Nelson on stage. He has covered several Texas classics and written some of his own, too. He speaks now from Nashville. This interview by Chris Ziegler.

Are you one of those guys who can write a one-liner down on a bar napkin and come up with a song the next morning?
Maybe—I don’t remember how I wrote ‘em all. The pieces of paper and stuff—I wrote one the other day. I just started strumming the guitar and wrote a song called ‘One True Love.’ It was just kind of a little idea I had about it and it came out pretty good.
One of those fall-out-of-the-sky songs you hear about?
I guess. It was three people sitting at the bar having a conversation—I kind of knew what I wanted everybody to talk about. I’ll keep the line if I think it’s interesting and use it somewhere in a song. I like to tell stories. Like the point of the song is one true love but it’s a story of three people sitting at a bar. This guy is sitting in the bar and he’s counting the stars or neon signs and there’s nobody there ‘til a lady sits down, orders a wine, and then he said, ‘I’m watching her there in the back bar mirror / when her eyes caught mine / I gave her a wink and she laughed / she laughed at that / we started talking about life.’ And then her boyfriend shows up and she has to go to the bathroom to powder her nose and he begins to tell me how ‘she’s a great girl but she’s got unrealistic sights / she wants a prince, she said. She thinks prince charming should be a knight in tight jeans, and he said I just wished she wanted me and I’d give her what I could.’ And then I said something about how life—love doesn’t always go the way you like. And the chorus comes easy ‘one true love, that’s all we’re dreaming of.’ But the story telling was the first thing—instead of ‘I miss you, boo-hoo.’
Can I ask how ‘One True Love’ ends or is that giving it away?
I had it pretty funky to begin with—I had him kind of salty. From a folk background it is telling a story.
I read you used to go to the dentist with the Holy Modal Rounders.
Pete Stampfel was the guy—we were sitting next to each other in dental chairs at a free dental college in New York City. He was getting a cavity filled. You could get a cavity filled for five bucks there but you had to let students work on you. And then after we got up out of the chair I guess we were so high on nitrous oxide we started talking and walking down the street and he came to my house—or apartment—for a while. We had a great afternoon.
As a writer, what draws you to a song?
When I hear a song it’s because there is an emotional immediacy—you’re not trying to cover it up with a bunch of gooky stuff and I think one guy on a guitar, if it’s gonna be a song at all, its gonna hold up pretty well that way. I like songs where—love songs are kind of tricky and they can all be true for a certain reason, you know.
What’s an example of a song that’s not true?
It seems like there is a lot of play on words. I can’t really explain one of ‘em. Well the bad ones, I don’t know—I don’t really want to say. I saw a reviewer once that went to a Kenny Rogers show and he said, ‘I heard sixteen or seventeen love songs and I left with a distinct feeling he knew nothing about love.’ They used to call that ‘I love to love to love to be loved,’ you know. But then there can be a pop one that cuts right through and you say, ‘That was a good one.’ The thing that probably makes them the sweetest is when they’re more like folk songs—like three chords, real simple but heartfelt, its fun to sing, people can sing it, it doesn’t take a great range to sing it—where certain songs have to be sung to you. I always try to please myself—I figure I try to get it as good as I could get it for me and then whoever got it would get the right message. I didn’t want to write songs for the wrong people. I had enough trouble with the wrong people as it is.
What do you think is your own natural kind of writing? What’s the most basic thing that’s gonna come out of you?
I have a clipboard and typing paper—no lines—and a guitar and I just play whatever comes to mind. Sometimes I play old songs, sometimes I play new songs, sometimes I just say stuff. You can’t say stuff all the time that makes sense. I mean—you throw out something and you go, ‘Oh yeah, there’s that line.’ ‘What was that line I thought about the other day?’ And you put it in. I just finished a love song the other day for my wife called ‘We Could Be What True Love Is All About’. It’s kind of like sticking it together through thick and thin and how we’ve come to love and trust each other and that could be what true love is all about. Somebody said you don’t write down stuff to write down what you know—you write down stuff to discover. You start out with a line or two and you think, ‘Where the hell am I going?’ When I started that love song I said, ‘By now you should have left me / cause I don’t know why you stayed by me this long.’ I was kind of questioning myself—why would you stick with me, you know? ‘By now you should have packed up and moved on / but I know that you believe that things in life work out / and that could be what true love is all about.’ You know—sticking together. Then it gets to be sticky. How can you say it simply without sounding too grandiose and still come to touch people wisely? I remember when I played it for my fans, one of the guys came over and said, ‘Wow, man—you were like going to a marriage counselor there, thanks.’ I dedicated it to him and his wife cause he’s an old pilot and he likes to play guitar and run around. He used to fly for Southwest Airlines so they come down when I’m doing my thing.
How simple is too simple?
You don’t want it to be so grandiose. There’s a way its kind of like street poetry and there’s earthy folk poetry and then there’s kind of ‘You Are The Wind Beneath My Wings’ or ‘Fly Me To the Moon’—you know all that kind of stuff. I was fooling around the other day with that song ‘Moon River’ that was in Breakfast At Tiffany’s. Johnny Mercer wrote the lyrics but it just has this neat little—it’s kind of a dreamy ghostly pleasant feeling thing of being out on a moonlit night, so it got me started writing another song about being out at night. We have these beautiful moonlit nights in Belize and if your wife’s with you, her hair will be all curly from the air. We take showers in the rainwater and walk along the beach and it would be like daylight almost. But that’s a case as a song where you can get too over the top with it—but that’s all right.
I read that at Spring High School in Texas they were studying your lyrics in English class.
I used to go play for my son’s class when he was in high school—not a whole lot but a few times. The kids pay more attention when it’s not something out of a dusty old textbook. I’ve heard them teaching Bob Dylan’s lyrics—like the song ‘Blowin’ In The Wind’ and asking what does it mean? Just to get ‘em interested. I was telling them about the sixties, I think—it was a social studies class. I talked to them about going to rallies and protesting the war. I’ve played everything there is. I’ve played the White House, Carnegie Hall a couple times, state fairs—I played the Us Festival. We just played Red Rocks with Willie during the Democratic Convention. Then there’s little stuff—I played in front of 85 people in Oxford, England. They were standing shoulder to shoulder in this little pub. A lot of them even less than that. You’ve gotta work everything differently—you’ve got to try to find things that they like. One time I played in Alaska in Point Barrow, which is the farthest north anyone had ever done a concert. I was three hundred miles from the Arctic Circle. We flew in and then we took a car to the end of the road so we could say it was the farthest north. I was playing for a bunch of Eskimos and drillers. I thought of this song ‘Hands On the Wheel,’ which is a Billy Callery song that he wrote at my house one time. And there’s a line in there that relates to them and I thought they’ll get that one. And then we ate at the farthest north Mexican restaurant.
How was it?
It was cold.