Jerry Jeff Walker's island getaway
As the sun sets on the glassy Caribbean, Richard Cardoza leans on the rail at Wet Willy's, a thatched-hut bar at the end of a pier on Ambergris Caye, an island off the coast of Belize. The Californian, his beer ensconced in a zippered Koozie, sports a long white beard and a fishing cap. Around him people are gathering in the bar – most over 45, displaying more than a few ponytails, beer bellies, and straw cowboy hats – drawn here by a chance to spend a few nights listening to legendary Austin singer-songwriter Jerry Jeff Walker.
"That," says Cardoza, pointing to plastic chairs grouped around a small makeshift stage. "That's why we're here."
This is the first night of Camp Belize, one of the weeklong communal events staged by Walker and his manager/wife, Susan, on Ambergris, where they own a house. Best known as author of the classic "Mr. Bojangles," Walker usually plays three shows at Wet Willy's in the course of a week. Laminates routinely sell out months ahead of time, snatched up by fans eager to hear Walker, who rarely tours these days. Many make the pilgrimage to Wet Willy's year after year.
Despite years of notoriously bad behavior – People magazine called him "one of the all-time hard-boozing, dope-dabbling bad boys of country music" – Walker retains a loyal and committed fan base, who mark moments of their lives by the first time they heard his versions of "L.A. Freeway" or "Up Against the Wall Redneck Mother."
"It's a community of people," says Brenda Kuhl of Phoenix, as she orders a $6 rum punch. "It's like [Jimmy] Buffett, but different."
Yet Walker remains an elusive figure. He's noticeably absent from the "meet and greet" on Sunday night, when attendees gather for the first time to sing karaoke and drink heavily. They've been told he only will be available for pictures and autographs on the last night.
When Walker arrives, he quickly takes a seat on a large pillow set up on the plywood stage. Dressed in black shorts, black shirt, white running shoes, and a straw cowboy hat, he asks for a windscreen to help with the warm wind kicking up from the water. He doesn't seem too bothered when it doesn't materialize.
"It's not like it's going to ruin anyone's hairdo," he says to the sunburned crowd.
A few minutes later, with little preamble, he breaks into his signature song, the tale of a light-footed street dancer.
"I knew a man Bojangles, and he'd dance for you, in worn out shoes."
When the song's over, he lets the applause fill the Belize night for a moment. "That's an abbreviated version, but that's what we do here," he says with a relaxed smile. "I just kind of wander around and play what crosses my mind."
The next day Walker lounges on the veranda of the house he and Susan built on Ambergris 12 years ago. "When we came here, that was my vision, that I'd run a boat dock just like [Wet Willy's] and it would be Jerry's Joint," he says.
At 65, Walker moves stiffly. A few weeks later, he'll undergo back surgery, forcing the cancellation of several fall shows, which explains the pillows onstage. He plays only a limited schedule of concerts these days, including his annual birthday gig in Austin (which next year will morph into his 1st Annual Retirement Bash) and a few private parties. Wearing an orange T-shirt, no shoes, and black sunglasses, but minus his signature cowboy hat, he looks very much like the retirees who flock to Belize.
Although the Walkers live in their Clarksville home in Austin full time, Jerry Jeff's infatuation with Belize is no secret; he recorded 1998's Cowboy Boots & Bathin' Suits on Ambergris as an ode to island life. The couple settled in Belize, in part, as a response to old pal Jimmy Buffett's infatuation with St. Barts, which they found too remote and geared toward the yacht scene.
"We said we're going to find something within two hours of Texas, run by Texans," relates Walker.
Located off the north coast of jungle-covered Belize, Ambergris is popular with Texans, thanks in large part to its proximity to the second-largest barrier reef in the world. Although well-known as a fantasy land for divers and fishermen, the island remains relatively free of spring-break-level resort tourism. Parts of the north end of Ambergris, where most of the new resorts are sprouting up, are still accessible only by boat.
Walker's house, Casa Gonzo, is on the south end of the island, near Victoria House, a colonial-style high-end resort. Designed by Austin architect Dick Clark, the musician's home features broad, open-air rooms, outdoors showers, high ceilings with mahogany beams, and tile floors. A small lawn surrounded by palm trees stretches to the water and a private pier.
"To hear those palm fronds, it's so peaceful," nods Susan, who likes to take a boat out fishing in the morning before it gets too hot.
She and Jerry Jeff were married in 1974 and have two children, Jessie Jane, 29, who works as an aide to Gen. Wesley Clark, and Django, 26, who's making a name for himself in his father's chosen field. Susan, who once worked as a legislative aide for flamboyant politician Charlie Wilson (read Charlie Wilson's War, soon to be, as they say, a major motion picture starring Tom Hanks), is widely credited with pulling Walker through his toughest times, both personally and financially. She runs their Tried & True Music label, which they formed in 1986, after Walker tired of the commercial record companies. ("They make me feel like I just made a porn movie," he told a reporter at the time.)
Although Walker's legacy remains tied to "Bojangles," his influence goes far beyond his signature hit. To many, he's a mythical singer-songwriter, a Zelig-like character who appears at inspired moments throughout American music over the last 40 years. Born in New York as Ronald Clyde Crosby, his rambling bio includes stints in Greenwich Village folks clubs of the Bob Dylan and Jack Elliott era, playing island music in Key West with a young Buffett, and mentoring a generation of Texas "outlaw" country musicians, including Pat Green, Jack Ingram, and Robert Earl Keen.
Walker brought a folk-rock sensibility to country music at a time when younger audiences were eager to move away from the Grand Ole Opry and Nashville twang. He created his own form of free-flowing, literate country music, sometimes called "cowjazz," combining folk, rock, bluegrass, and maybe a little gospel. Along with Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings, Walker gave country music a new vibe, making it OK for pot-smoking hippies to listen to country.
Over that course, Walker developed an unparalleled reputation for carousing and occasional surliness. At one point, his daily regimen included a fifth of whiskey, a quarter ounce of cocaine, and a bit of speed, he once told a reporter. "There are those who will never perform with him again," another writer noted in Walker's heyday. "There are those who will never talk to him again. And there are those who will never pay to see one of his concerts again."
In 1980, CountryStyle magazine wrote: "He has been in more fights than Muhammad Ali, but nobody can recall him ever having won one. He seems hellbent on touring every drunk tank on this planet, but he's still just the lovable black sheep of the family." He was also one of country music's highest-paid performers, the article noted. "I'm a brat," Walker told the magazine. "I know it now. I have been a spoiled brat all my life."
His fans often bore the brunt of his moods. At the height of his popularity, he was famous for slurred, rambling shows. He might moon an audience or walk off stage if they were too insistent that he play their favorite songs. He's always bristled at the idea of rote, regimented, predictable concerts, the curse of playing shows where the audience knows your songs by heart.
"I used to like playing more than I do now," Walker says as he lounges in Belize. "It got to be an obligation."
In many ways, the intimate Camp Belize shows are a throwback to his early days, when he was the wandering troubadour, just a singer with a guitar. At Wet Willy's, "they'll let me do what I want to do," Walker acknowledges. "I always tell them, 'Just let it happen.'"
The Moon Is Still Over Her Shoulder
Gillsa Miller apparently hasn't heard that Walker doesn't take requests. In Wet Willy's before the singer appears, the middle-aged Venezuelan tells a fellow camper she wants Walker to play her favorite song, "Last Night I Fell in Love With You Again." It was her wedding song.
"Each and every time I hear the song, I become very emotional," she says.
Gillsa and her husband, Karl, live in Sacramento and have been following Walker since the Seventies, and they've seen him in concert half a dozen times. They came to Ambergris specifically to see Walker perform, paying $150 each for the weeklong pass. Attendees make their own arrangements for flights and hotels.
"I've got a tattoo of Jerry Jeff on my back," motions Karl, although it turns out he's kidding.
Across the bar, Jason Catchings and his wife, Christie, from Houston, are on their honeymoon. "I've been a Jerry Jeff fan since college," he says. Christie, however, acknowledges she only recently started listening to Walker. "I'm new to Texas," she explains. They both thought it would be fun to hang out with Walker's fans. "Jerry Jeff's following is a bunch of good people," Jason says.
Cardoza calls them "fellow travelers," characterized generally as people who are "laid back" and "enjoy life." Tonight many are still showing the wear and tear of the previous night's karaoke session. Several are glowing bright red after a day of snorkeling in Belize's famous clear waters. For most, this is their first visit to Camp Belize events, which are usually populated by dedicated regulars. Camp Belize typically is staged twice a year, in January and February, but they added this third week in June after a quick sellout in February.
"I see some different faces," announces Walker as he scans the audience from the stage.
He usually plays Monday, Wednesday, and Saturday nights during the week, although the schedule is dependent on the Caribbean's weather. Attendees are encouraged to check a bulletin board at Wet Willy's for updates on when he plays.
On this night, he warns the crowd that his voice might not be in the best shape. "I'm kind of husky tonight," he says. As he begins to "wander" though his set, the sky becomes star-lit and the last of the fishing boats head in for the night. Walker appears relaxed, friendly, and unhurried, even when someone calls out for "Redneck Mother."
"I came down here to get away from that shit," he grouses.
For the next hour, he bounces all over his musical map. "The Moon Is Still Over Her Shoulder" is an ode to Belize, while he introduces "The Anniversary Song" as a tune he wrote for his parents' 60th anniversary but never recorded. When he starts singing, "I like my women a tad on the trashy side," couples start dancing in the aisles. As the set progresses, his voice seems to grow stronger.
"I'll be yodeling yet," he chuckles.
He ends on a sentimental note, a touching ballad called "Candles and Cut Flowers," which he dedicates to Susan, followed by "Sangria Wine," from his 1973 classic, Viva Terlingua. And then he's gone, out to the boat that will whisk him down the coast.
The crowd's left buzzing about the song list, the tunes he played, and the ones he didn't. "I wish he would have played longer," Jason Catchings says on the water taxi back to his resort. Then he starts listing all the obscure songs Walker played during the set. "I never thought I'd hear him play some of that stuff," he says as his new wife huddles next to him.
On the veranda of Casa Gonzo, Walker says he felt a "different energy" from the crowd, a twist from the usual Camp Belize audiences.
"What I liked was that there were a lot of people who hadn't heard the stories before," he says. The crowd was also smaller than normal, more manageable, "more like what the original shows were," he adds.
Camp Belize began as a show for a few couples at Victoria House but quickly outgrew the resort's bar. For several years, the Walkers organized treasure hunts and other events, but they decided it was getting out of control. The crowds were getting too big, moving away from the personal shows he prefers. So now the crowd is limited to 275 people, although Susan says, "by the time we get to the people who whine, it's usually closer to 300." Once on the island, they're left to their own inspiration outside the evening shows.
"I tell them, 'I've brought you to a special place. Now have fun,'" she explains.
For the next Camp Belize in January, Walker's cutting back to two shows during the week. "When I'm here with the fans, I'm always playing, and I'm busy," he says. "On my days off, I just regroup."
The Walkers don't spend much time in Belize these days Jerry Jeff's back problems have made travelling difficult. He speaks nostalgically of their early years on the island when they first built the house, bumping around Ambergris' dirt roads in a pickup truck they named Stinker. (Stinker died an ignominious death, its parts used in Camp Belize treasure hunts.) Many nights were spent in a local pub known as BC's Beach Bar; a couple owns the bar, but it's understood that it's "basically Charlene's," hence the name, he explains.
"That's the part I miss," says Walker. "I like to spend time with the locals, meandering around."
The noon heat begins to bake the back porch, and a few minutes later Walker disappears. As visitors leave, he stretches out on a bed in the back room, strumming his guitar and singing a song of moonbeams and flowers.
Camp Belize sponsors two retreats in 2008, Jan. 20-27 and Feb. 24-March 2. Visit www.jerryjeff.com for full details.
Margaret Moser, Fri., June 23, 2006
Jerry Renshaw, Fri., Dec. 31, 1999
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