Steve Earle, Fresh Off Jerry Jeff Tribute, Deepens Songbook at Gruene Hall

Vagabond resilience & bristling resistance potently commune

Three of Steve Earle’s last four albums eulogize deep song tributaries: Guy Clark, Justin Townes Earle, and now Jerry Jeff Walker. Friday night, at a sold-out Gruene Hall, the San Antonio-raised folksinger ultimately proved his own twang the mightiest.

Steve Earle & the Dukes at Gruene Hall (Photo by Raoul Hernandez)

From Ella Fitzgerald to Willie Nelson, singular singers covering the songbooks of foundational songwriters remains commonplace, a right of passage, perhaps – necessary, even. Jazz divas luxuriated over Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, George & Ira Gershwin, while country outlaws doffed hats to Lefty Frizzell, Kris Kristofferson, and Ray Price. Nowadays, the 20th century’s greatest tunesmith, Bob Dylan, sings Sinatra.

Sparrow-borne in art brand Tony Fitzpatrick’s brilliant green LP cover, April’s Jerry Jeff brings Earle’s 22nd disc full circle to Austin. A lotería-styled map traces a path from its subject’s New York birthplace in Oneonta through Greenwich Village, Coconut Grove and Key West in Florida, and ends here, where Walker died on Oct. 23, 2020, at the age of 78. Live, Earle added a cast of characters: Fred Neil (“Everybody’s Talking”), Jimmy Buffett, and even Townes Van Zandt.

As recorded, Jerry Jeff brims with vagabond hooks – resilience, pluck. Firing up a two-hour barn burner at Gruene Hall, seven of its 10 tracks launched the set. Disc opener “Getting By” took the front position at the 144-year-old honky-tonk, whose 800-person capacity fluctuated during the pandemic. At least one person wore a mask.

From Ella Fitzgerald to Willie Nelson, singular singers covering the songbooks of foundational songwriters remains commonplace, a right of passage, perhaps – necessary, even.

“Charles Dunn” begins by namechecking ATX, and third tune “Wheel” rolled lushly country atop Eleanor Whitmore’s spellbinding fiddle. Earle’s quintet bookends between her and hubby Chris Masterson’s telepathic grounding, and pedal steel whisperer Ricky Ray Jackson. The frontman recounted venturing into the Alamo City club circuit at 14 armed with the music and resignation of Walker, who wrote signature hit “Mr. Bojangles” on TVZ’s couch after being asked to exit FLA.

“The miracle being that Townes had a couch,” laughed friend, protege, and acolyte Earle, 67.

Once the group tore through ripping triptych “Gypsy Songman,” “I Make Money (Money Don’t Make Me),” and “Mr. Bojangles” like a Celtic hoedown, the 28-song show never waned. Capping the JJW portion 30 minutes in, “Hill Country Rain” drizzled a CSNY four-part harmonies moment bordering on the giddy. That gave way to another high octane trio in “Someday,” “Guitar Town,” and “I Ain’t Ever Satisfied,” all OG stalwarts of the Earle hit parade.

“Goddang, yeehaw!” erupted an adjacent fanatic.”

You said it, cowboy. “Guitar Town” ain’t simply a Lone Star standard. It’s identity.

“The Galway Girl,” “Mystery Train Part II,” and “Copperhead Road,” also delivered biff/bam/pow all in a row and triggered the same effect: communal elation. Existence, resistance, survival, all bristle in Earle’s bar twang, although “You’re the Best Lover I Ever Had” rasped akin to Wimberley snake farmer Ray Wylie Hubbard. Environmental documentary, “It’s About Blood” from 2020 miner’s lament Ghosts of West Virginia stilled the summer night.

Admitting he penned “The Devil’s Right Hand” in said Austin satellite and RWH HQ holed up in a trailer full of weapons, Earle dedicated the first encore to gun control. Equally noteworthy, the 1988 composition held its own easily alongside the Grateful Dead’s “Casey Jones” and Band’s “Rag Mama Rag” to close out the set. Some day, the Steve Earle Songbook beckons the next generation of guitar townies.

Steve Earle & the Dukes set list, Gruene Hall, June 24,
“Getting By”
“Charlie Dunn”
“Gypsy Songman”
I Make Money (Money Don’t Make Me)”
“Mr. Bojangles”
“Hill Country Rain”
“Guitar Town”
“I Ain’t Ever Satisfied”
“Ben McCulloch”
“The Galway Girl”
“Mystery Train Part II”
“Copperhead Road”
“You’re the Best Lover I Ever Had”
“You’re Still Standin’ There”
“Sparkle & Shine”
“Transcendental Blues”
“The Week of Living Dangerously”
“It’s About Blood”
“The Firebreak Line”
“So You Wanna Be an Outlaw”
“Fixin’ to Die”
“The Devil’s Right Hand”
“City of Immigrants”
“Casey Jones”
“Rag Mama Rag”

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More Steve Earle
High, Low, and In Between
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Steve Earle, Steve Earle & the Dukes, Jerry Jeff Walker, Townes Van Zandt, Gruene Hall, Ricky Ray Jackson

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