Today, the world knows Steve Earle as a first-rate songwriter and musician. He became a household name in 1988 when he released “Copperhead Road” and hasn’t stopped making great tunes since then. Additionally, Earle’s songs have been covered by iconic artists in country music and beyond. That long list includes The Highwaymen, Vince Gill, Bob Seger, and Percy Sledge to name a few. However, no artist forms in a vacuum. Everyone has heroes, influences, and friends that help shape them. With his latest album, Jerry Jeff, Steve Earle is paying tribute to one man who held all of those roles in his life.
Jerry Jeff Walker passed away in October of 2020 from throat cancer and left behind an incredible musical legacy. Walker was many things, including a Texas icon, a major player in the Outlaw Country Movement, and a vastly underrated songwriter. In the album’s liner notes, Steve Earle discussed what Walker meant to him. “There was a time in my life when I wanted to be Jerry Jeff Walker more than anything in this world,” he wrote. “Looking back, it must have been more than obvious that, having yet to find a voice or persona of my own, I was emulating my hero; the Jerry Jeff we had all come to know and love…”
This is the third in a trilogy of tribute albums from Steve Earle. The first, Townes, a tribute to Townes Van Zandt came out in 2009. He released the next in the series, Guy, a tribute to Guy Clark in 2019. About this trilogy, Earle wrote, “The records were recorded and released in the order in which they left this world, but make no mistake – it was Jerry Jeff Walker who came first.”
Steve Earle Conjured a Loving Tribute with This Album
At 67 years old with 22 albums under his belt, Steve Earle is far removed from the teenager who emulated Jerry Jeff Walker. However, his respect for the songs and admiration of the man who wrote them is as clear as day.
Some of my favorite moments on this album are the ones in which Steve Earle shows his age in his vocal delivery. On “Mr. Bojangles” “Little Bird” and “My Old Man” there’s a weariness to his gravelly voice that fits the material like a glove. On the other side of that coin, Earle’s vocals are spry in the album opener “Gettin’ By.” You can almost hear the smile on his face on that one.
I don’t think Steve Earle could’ve picked better Walker-penned tunes for this album. Of course fan favorites like “Getting’ By” and “Mr. Bojangles” are there, but he also included some deep cuts like “Wheel” and “Old Road.” This 10-song collection truly showcases Walker’s strength as a songwriter. For those who aren’t familiar with him, it’s a great introduction. For those who haven’t put on a Jerry Jeff album in a while, it’s a reminder of just how damn good his music is.
Standout Songs from Jerry Jeff
This actually wasn’t as hard as it usually is. Steve Earle did stellar interpretations of some of my favorite Jerry Jeff Walker tunes on this album and made others catch my ear differently and demand reevaluation. Make no mistake though, this is a record you’re going to want to put on and absorb in its entirety.
“Gettin’ By” from Viva Terlingua (1973)
Steve Earle picked the perfect tune to open this album and I’m not just saying that because it’s my favorite Jerry Jeff Walker song. The opening line of the song lets the listener know just what they’re going to get for the next half-hour or so. “Hi buckaroos, Steve Earle again, tryin’ my best to be Jerry Jeff Walker once more.”
Throughout the song, Earle makes subtle changes to the lyrics to make the song his own without changing the easy-living vibe of the original.
“I Makes Money (Money Don’t Make Me)” from Mr. Bojangles (1968)
I like “Mr. Bojangles” as much as the next guy. It’s a classic and Steve Earle did a great rendition of it on this album. However, if I have to pick one song from Walker’s 1968 album, it’s going to be this one. The same goes for this record.
The uptempo arrangement packed with fiddle and mandolin serves as a great backdrop to this anthem of fierce independence. Earle’s weathered but defiant vocals lend truth to lines like, “Live and let live, you know it’s plain enough / There ain’t a dollar in the world will make me change my stuff.”
“Old Road” from Driftin’ Way of Life (1969)
Steve Earle closed this album just as well as he opened it. In “Old Road” Earle’s backing band, The Dukes, take a back seat and let Steve and his harmonica handle the work. Earle’s vocals really shine here. A weariness that other songs hinted at is on full display alongside lonesome-sounding harmonica riffs. The lyrics about the call of the road feel like a farewell as much as the opening line felt like an introduction.
I enjoy the original but it was never on my list of favorite Jerry Jeff Walker songs. I don’t know if it’s the roughshod way Earle plows through the harmonica solos or the truckload of gravel in his voice that does it for me here. Whatever it was, it gave me chills and left me wanting more.
Final Verdict on the New Steve Earle Album
My expectations were high going into this album and Steve Earle didn’t disappoint. It was a fitting tribute to Walker. More than that, it was a reminder of his strength as a songwriter. It’s a damn good album and a loving tribute to one of country music’s underappreciated heroes. Whether you’re familiar with Jerry Jeff’s work or not, this is a must-hear record.