Half-century later, 'Viva Terlingua' stands the test of time at Wittliff Collections exhibit
A new exhibit at the Wittliff Collections at Texas State University takes you back to a time and place where one music artist managed to lasso the heart of what makes Texas…Texas. And that artist wasn’t a Texan.
In the first song on the album, Jerry Jeff Walker introduces himself as Scamp Walker. He hearkens back to a time when calling him a scamp might not be far off the mark.
The song was recorded on Aug. 18, 1973. He wasn’t in a plush, West Coast studio. He’s singing in a sweltering 100-degree barn in downtown Luckenbach, Texas.
According to curator Hector Saldaña, Jerry Jeff’s description isn’t exaggerating, and his Viva Terlingua: The Big Bang of Texas Music caught Walker at perhaps his best.
“People have to understand he was very much a Ramblin’ Jack Elliott sort of singer, a cross between a cowboy and a sensitive Bob Dylan singer songwriter,” Saldaña said.
This record was called Viva Terlingua, which those who know Texas music the best, consider at or near the top of quintessentially Texas music. People likeJoe Nick Patoski, Texas music author and raconteur.
“If you want to understand what happened in Austin, going back to the early 1970s, this album, Viva Terlingua, is your great explainer.”
Patoski knows Texas music like few others. He’s written major books on Selena, Stevie Ray and Willie.
While Willie Nelson was a very successful Nashville songwriter. Saldana says the Willie we know today wasn’t that big of a deal in ’73.
“No one would really would have guessed that Willie Nelson would become this cultural pop icon phenomenon,” Saldaña said.
On the other hand, Jerry Jeff Walker had carved out an interesting career.
“Who was this person prior to 1973? Well, it was quite a decade that he had before that,” Saldaña said. “And in that late sixties period, he writes Mr. Bojangles.
While Bojangles was never a hit for Walker, the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s version was a top ten hit. But Walker seemed to have wearied about that time of being the hitch-hiking troubadour.
Patoski said that at a critical time he crossed paths with someone who became an unlikely friend: an old man named Hondo Crouch, who lived in Luckenbach.
“It all started there and you’ve gotta understand at that time Luckenbach was truly a ghost town. It was a little bitty settlement that had been abandoned and the guy that Jerry Jeff idolized — Hondo Crouch, who was a great character — he found Luckenbach, bought it and started hanging out there,” he said.
Then Saldaña said Jerry Jeff had an idea: why not bring a remote recording truck to Luckenbach to record his next album live?
“They went out there to record, rehearse, hang out, you know, get high. They used bales of hay for the sound baffles,” he said.
Despite the fact that Luckenbach is 400+ miles from Terlingua, it found a place in the album’s title.
“To me, what makes Viva Terlingua so great is that he really hit his voice on that record,” he said. “I think he found his voice and he found his comrades in arms with The Lost Gonzo Band.”
The Lost Gonzo Band gave him the groove and back-up vocals that would elevate the quirky grouping of songs written by Jerry Jeff, and some of his favorite singers. Saldana said one song in particular has its roots in Walker’s past. Its haunting feel is reflected in the music and lyrics.
“The song at its heart is about Jerry Jeff's grandfather, who died when he was a teenager. He witnessed that death. It was a farm accident where a cart rolled on top of his grandfather,” he said.
The song The Wheel was the last song on the album to be cut, and its music and lyrics are haunting.
Walker wrote five of the album’s 9 songs, only two on the album were successfully recorded live in front of the Luckenbach audience. Most of the album is country, but country with a rock-n-roll edge to it. Patoski says this was largely uncharted territory that only the zeitgeist of Austin and the Hill Country allowed.
“They were making up a new kind of music, a new kind of sound in Austin,” Patoski said. “And it was loose. It was rocking and raucous. It was unlike any kind of country rock that had come out of L.A. People like Linda Ronstadt, Flying Burrito Brothers, Eagles. This was not that.”
Previous to Viva Terlingua, Texas had lost a lot of good musicians who moved to Nashville or LA to find work that paid more than in Texas. But Patoski said with this album, that trend reversed.
“What Jerry Jeff started with Viva Terlingua was kinda change that migration. People quit leaving Texas and they started coming to Texas.”
Viva Terlingua’s signaling, ‘you come to Austin and do your own thing, and maybe get away with it.’”
When Hector Saldana decided to do the exhibit on the 50-year anniversary of the album’s recording, he knew he had a responsibility to put those who visit there into the heart of it. The exhibit does so through handwritten lyrics, guitars, ukuleles, pianos, clothing and pictures. Saldaña said that also there is that intangible slice of humanity that made it all happen, as conveyed through previously unheard outtakes.
“One of the things that really makes this exhibit work is the discovery of about 75 minutes of outtakes, rehearsals, them just clowning around,” he said. “That really does give you some insight into that chemistry that existed between Jerry Jeff Walker and the Lost Gonzo Band.”
The night of the recording was not a black tie event. In fact, the barn where they recorded had no air conditioning. Hay bales were stacked around the drums to mitigate their volume for recording. These were not the luxury recording facilities of the best studios. But Patoski says somehow it all came together, and maybe all these decades since, gotten better.
“It's held up over time. And to me, you want to hear what Austin sounded like back then? This this captures it better than any single recording that I can think of,” he said.
One last crazy fact: the song that became a hit wasn’t even sung by Jerry Jeff.
Gonzo band member Gary P. Nunn’s London Homesick Blues became a standard, and was used for the Austin City Limits theme song for the next 3 decades. Viva Terlingua itself is still the gold standard for Texas singer/songwriter albums. Ironically, Saldaña said, it took a northeasterner to make it happen.
“How crazy is it that this New York guy made the Texas record, the quintessential record out of all of them, and did it in Texas at Luckenbach years before we were singing about, Let's go to Luckenbach, Texas…”
The Wittliff Collections is on the top floor of the Alkek Library at Texas State University in San Marcos, and they’re open various hours 7 days a week.