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Steve Earle & The Dukes are ragged and true on Jerry Jeff Walker tribute

Songwriter and survivor Steve Earle pays dues to departed outlaw Jerry Jeff Walker

Steve Earle & The Dukes: Jerry Jeff cover art
(Image: © New Westq)

Steve Earle has gifted us a series of tribute albums, hailing Townes Van Zandt, Guy Clarke and, tragically, his late son Justin Townes Earle. His idea of a homage is true to the original artist but also ragged in that singular, Steve manner. 

Jerry Jeff Walker (1942-2020) was a New York troubadour who worked the Greenwich Village scene before installing himself in Austin, Texas. He recorded his best-travelled song, Mr. Bojangles, in 1968; Nina Simone, Sammy Davis Jr and others have accented the emotions of the song. 

Steve Earle’s message is that the Jerry Jeff songbook amounts to more than this. So he delves into lesser-known parts, like Wheel, a 1973 song about tragic, rural cycles, and he sings Old Road, as a sparse holler, akin to the original. 

Other songs celebrate the ‘gonzo country’ aims of Jerry Jeff, but Mr Bojangles and his worn-out shoes is still best in show.

Stuart Bailie is a journalist and broadcaster based in Belfast. He is the editor of the quarterly Dig With It magazine, and his work has appeared in NME, Mojo, Uncut, Q, The Times, The Sunday Times, The Mirror, The Irish Times, Classic Rock and Hot Press. He was Assistant Editor of NME from 1992 to 1996 and is the author of Philip Lynott: The Ballad of the Thin Man, Trouble Songs: Music and Conflict In Northern Ireland, and 75 Van Songs: Into the Van Morrison Songbook.