By Barry Gilbert
Of the Post-Dispatch

August 31,2002

A Texas Hill Country wind blew through St. Louis on Thursday night, bringing troubadour Jerry Jeff Walker to The Sheldon and an enthusiastic - rowdy, even - capacity crowd.

Thirty-five years on the road have polished Walker's stage skills, and a devoted following has allowed him to explore both sides of his personality - the country outlaw and the folk balladeer - and earn equally rapt attention.

That Walker, 60, best known as the writer and original singer of "Mr. Bojangles," is pretty much a self-invented persona just makes the story more remarkable. Born Ronald Clyde Crosby in Oneonta, N.Y., he had a hit single called "Wind" under his belt as a member of the psychedelic and Byrds-ian Circus Maximus long before he landed in Austin, Texas, in 1971.

Whether Willie and Waylon's outlaw country movement found him or vice versa matters little; it was a match made in honky tonk heaven.

Walker, still relatively lean and wearing his trademark cowboy hat, and his band opened with "Contrary to Ordinary" from 1978, a title that sums up well Walker's life and career of independence. He turned his back on the big record labels 15 years ago, formed Tried and True Music, and never looked back.

"Contrary" was followed by the "Pickup Truck Song" and set a pattern for the nearly 2 1/2-hour show. Walker alternated ballads and rockers, backing off the gas a bit before flooring it. Soon he had people jumping out of their seats.

"Mr. Bojangles" appeared early in the first half of the show, and it was perhaps the only jarring note of the night as Walker gave it a jazzy read, complete with scat singing. It was a radical change from Walker's recording, as well as from the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band's hit version.

But Walker's most recent CD, 2000's "Gonzo Stew," took center stage, as did several songs about or dedicated to his wife, Susan, including "Woman in Texas." The recent "Candles and Cut Flowers," of which Walker said, "I try to keep my soft side goin' the best I can," contains such heartfelt lines as: "She is the kind of woman every woman wants to be like, and every man like me can't live without."

Walker has always had a keen ear for songs by other Texas writers and the ability to make them totally his own. These were well represented, including back-to-back Chris Wall standouts "Trashy Women," a rave-up that was a hit for Confederate Railroad, and the deeply moody and moving "I Feel Like Hank Williams Tonight" (the music, not the man).

Walker's rowdy side, which hit its peak with the ragged but electrifying "A Man Must Carry On" double live LP from 1977, came out on Ray Wylie Hubbard's "Up Against the Wall, Redneck Mother," in which "Missourah" subbed for "Mother" in the midsong spell-along, and Gary P. Nunn's "London Homesick Blues" (aka "I Wanna Go Home With the Armadillo" and the theme of PBS' "Austin City Limits").

The audience was on its feet for Walker's encore, which included the beautiful "Every Drop of Water" ("shapes the stone") and the rowdy "I'm Takin' It As It Comes."

Walker was solidly supported by his latest edition of Gonzos, including longtime bassist Bob Livingtson and drummer Steve Samuel. Guitarist Tommy Nash, who was alternately delicate and muscular as the songs demanded, earned several ovations.