Roped in by a Hard-Swearing Wife Named Sue, Jerry Jeff Walker, the Outlaw, Hollers but Walks the Line
Soon after exchanging pleasant howdy-dos with a first-time visitor to their country home outside Austin, Texas, Jerry Jeff and Sue Walker suddenly fall to cursing each other out, loudly and for no immediately obvious reason. After a time, Jerry Jeff yells an obscenity, gets out of his chair and stalks from the room, slamming the door hard. Moments later, he's back, scowling. Sue shouts an obscenity at him, and then she storms out, slamming the door even harder. Then she returns, smiling, and the two of them fall into an embrace.
Welcome to marital bliss, Walker-style.
"We have a lot of door slamming around here," Sue explains cheerfully, between smooches. "We're both hot-tempered, but we never let anything fester. We just duke it out."
She's right about that. A "gypsy songman" best known for his classic ballad Mr. Bojangles, Jerry Jeff Walker, 45, is one of the all-time hard-boozing, dope-dabbling bad boys of country music. Susan, 38, a college girl and ex-Texas politico, is a raven-haired beauty with a barroom vocabulary, a "no-bullshit brain" as a friend puts it, and a volatile temper of her own. They fight all the time, over anything and everything, and they don't give a hoot who's at ringside.
Yet in 10 years of wedded furor, the battling Walkers have proved inseparable, and they now have formed a second partnership. Since 1984, Sue has assumed the awesome task of managing, if that's the word, Jerry Jeff, and the startling result has been a new, generally saner and far freer working life for him.
Sick of restrictive contractual conditions proposed by record companies panting after the latest trend—"They make me feel like I just made a porn movie," he says—Jerry Jeff last year produced the album Gypsy Songman on his own, and Sue organized its distribution to select record outlets as well as a 10,000-member fan club. He has dumped the large, leeching entourage, which in the wild days numbered up to 50, and he has given up whiskey. With his costs way lower, he has cut down from 250 shows a year to 60, mostly in the smaller, friendlier venues he likes and can now afford. "I like to get personal with my audiences," he explains, contentedly. "I can sit there now and pick and sing and talk to them. That's satisfying, very satisfying. I work for a week, take two weeks off and make more money than ever before. And I get to spend time with Susan and the kids and play golf."
"Jerry Jeff doesn't sit in an office and write songs with a little rhyme book like some people do," his manager says of his liberation from the demands of the commercial music world. "He goes out and lives his life and looks at how other people are living and chronicles it in song. He writes about real people. I loved Jerry Jeff from the very beginning and always respected him as an artist. He's truthful. He's not an ugly person, like so many you meet in this business. And in a way, that's been his weakness."
It surely wasn't his only one. There was a time, not so long ago, when Jerry Jeff would begin the day with a quart of whiskey and then pick himself up with a toot or two of cocaine. Since 1965, when he spent a night in a New Orleans drunk tank with a bojangles man, or street dancer, who tried to cheer him up with a dazzling display of tap, he has built a cult following by singing about such encounters.
Riding hard and fast through the '70s, creating an outlaw reputation that rivaled those of his pals Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson, Jerry Jeff packed beer halls and cow palaces across the land playing "cowjazz," his mix of "bluegrass, science fiction, Country and Western, gospel and rock." And folks loved to wonder what outrageous thing Jerry Jeff would do next. "Maybe he'd throw a coffee table through a hotel window," Sue says, "or sweep his hat through an aquarium to catch fish." Or he might tumble through the drums again, or maybe he'd come on in his bathing suit and wiggle his fanny at the audience while drunkenly slurring his songs. Greeted with hisses and catcalls on a bad night, he would be surprisingly frank. "I don't blame you all for booing like that," he'd say. "If I'd paid good money to see this, I would have shot me by now." Increasingly, he just might not show up at all.
Susan Streit met up with this wild and wayward troubador in 1972. She had worked as a legislative aide at the State Capitol in Austin after graduating from the University of Texas in 1970. A cultural gadabout herself, she rented a rambling city house, which soon became a hangout for such Texas literary lions as Larry McMurtry, Larry L. King, Peter Gent, Gary Cartwright and Bud Shrake as well as country music strays. One night, hanging out with Waylon and Willie at the house, Jerry Jeff ran into Sue as she emerged from the bathroom after a shower with a towel wrapped around her head. Startled, they both stopped in their tracks.
"You look...holy!" Jerry Jeff blurted out.
Two years later they were married in Luckenbach, Texas, a storied country music refuge. "I guess I felt that in every marriage there has to be one asshole," Sue says, "and I'd know who it was." She became a "groupie with a marriage license," but with musicians, roadies and hangers-on to support, Jerry Jeff had to tour constantly just to break even. "It was sad," Sue recalls. "Jerry Jeff has a lot of strange ways, I know, but he has a big heart, and he doesn't particularly like to tell people off or fire them." Instead, he vented his steam on hotel windows and aquariums.
After four years of that, Sue made an announcement: She was going to stay put on their five-acre spread outside Austin and start a family. In April 1978 she gave birth to Jessie Jane and in August 1981 to Django Cody. But Jerry Jeff's career was skidding downhill. In 1982 he lost his recording contract, and the Internal Revenue Service gave him the news that he owed a few back taxes. Eventually settling with the IRS for $150,000, Jerry Jeff took Sue's advice and dumped his entire entourage, including musicians.
"For a while it seems kind of nice to have all these little servants around all the time, wanting to run get you anything you want," Sue says. "But they end up sucking a lot of zest for life out of you. I didn't want that bunch of people around my house, around my children. And I told Jerry Jeff I was going to get a box of hand grenades and toss one out the window now and then just in case anybody tried to sneak back."
More important, Jerry Jeff decided to clean up his personal act. On Super Bowl Sunday 1984, he vowed to stay off hard booze and drugs until the next Super Bowl—and he has renewed his pledge every year since. Eschewing "expensive head-shrinking cures," he has become a compulsive jogger and golfer, with a handicap of 12 to 14.
Is this any way to run a good ole country singer? Seems to be. One evening recently, Jerry Jeff showed up at an open-air concert in Austin and joined the local boys for two hours, just for fun. His singing and playing were as rich and freewheeling as they ever were. Later, as they drove into their driveway, Jerry Jeff popped a cassette into the tape deck and happily turned up the volume. It was a new song he has dedicated to Sue, Last Night I Fell in Love Again. Sue reached over and turned it down. "Goddamn, Jerry Jeff," she said, "I've heard this 300 times already!" Cursing, Jerry Jeff got out, slammed the door and headed into the house in a huff. Moments later, Jerry Jeff and Sue were wrapped tightly together on their big leather couch, French kissing like a pair of love-starved adolescents, while a visitor waited for the next round to begin.
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