Record Of The Week # 132

Steve Earle – Jerry Jeff

Earle has recorded and released tributes to Guy Clark and Townes Van Zandt and now he completes his ‘teachers’ with ten songs of his former friend and erstwhile employer, Jerry Jeff Walker. Earle played a concert celebrating Walker’s life and then took the Dukes to New York to record this album. Walker made a career purveying country outlaw music after starting out with the folk scene in New York. He eventually found his base in Texas. Whilst recording close up until his death in 2020 his main output was in the 70s. If his catalogue isn’t familiar to you then you’ll know his most commercially successful song: “Mr Bojangles”. This has been covered by everyone including Sammy Davis Jnr, Nina Simone, Bob Dylan and Robbie Williams.

With the Dukes Earle covers a selection of songs and does justice to Walker’s work providing a platform to his interesting lyrics and generally upbeat rhythms and melodies. There’s no dramatic reinterpretation and the Dukes play beautifully in the background and the attractive female harmonies provided by Eleanor Whitmore add sweetness to Earle’s occasionally grizzled tones. The album sets off with “Gettin’ By” where the message asserts that getting by is his stock in trade. The song has a driving rhythm with some heavy snare pounding, swooping fiddle, tasteful pedal steel and delightful harmonies. 

In fact Earle gives full rein to the band and there are many fine solos from the band that colour all the interpretations. Walker had a curiosity for the working man and “Charlie Dunn” recalls a cobbler of enormous skill grafting in the back of a shop whilst the boss is ‘up front, countin’ his gold’. The curation of songs by Earle kept me engaged throughout and showcased Walker’s ear for a tune. The selection embraces some of Walker’s most rowdy songs such as “I Makes Money (Money Don’t Make Me)” to the delicate love song “Little Bird”. Melodies are obviously outlaw but there are some cajun flavours and the album finishes with the blues “Old Road” where Earle’s ragged harmonica gives it a raw edge.

It wasn’t a random pick of an artist Earle revered. Earle spent time with Walker as his ‘designated driver’. Earle was starting out learning his trade and playing whenever he got an opportunity. Walker was important as Earle learned his trade. Ultimately it’s an interesting spin of using ‘tribute’ as an excuse to produce a faithful covers album with the relative ease that entails compared to composing original compositions. However, ultimately, it does nothing to dimish Earle and adds to Jerry Jeff Walker’s memory.

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