This is the story of two men – two visionaries – and how their lives have intersected, not only with each other but, also with those of us who can appreciate people who are unafraid to “buck the system” for a principle they believe in. Both are steadfast and unwavering in their commitment to doing the right thing and making things better.
The first, an upstate New Yorker named Ronald Crosby, became Jerry Jeff Walker in 1966, embarking on a fifty year (and counting) career of musical and personal highs and lows that can only be described as “legendary.” During his early busking days, Walker landed in a New Orleans jail cell with a down-on-his-luck drunken tap dancer known as Bojangles; Jerry Jeff turned the experience into one of the most recognized songs of the last half-century, “Mister Bojangles.” That experience and that song has colored Jerry Jeff’s career ever since. However, it was the decision to make Austin, Texas his home base that thrust Walker into the forefront of the outlaw country movement, along with Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson and Ray Benson’s Asleep At the Wheel. Suddenly, the wayward troubadour found himself on the major label treadmill, cranking out an album (or two) a year for MCA and, later, Elektra, throughout the ’70s and early ’80s. During this time, an angel named Susan came into his life, grounding and stabilizing the wild life Walker had led for most of his adult life. As the grind of being a major label recording artist began to take its toll, Jerry Jeff, with Susan’s blessing, walked away from the insanity in 1982. In 1986, Jerry Jeff and Susan Walker formed Tried and True Music, an independent label dedicated to releasing new music from Jerry Jeff, on their own terms. Always being a man who believed in causes and, looking for a way to give back, the couple eventually founded the Tried and True Foundation, which is a reflection of their commitment to the fostering of young musicians’ talents.
Those final few sentences lead us, quite naturally, to the second visionary: Filmmaker Patrick Tourville. Patrick was introduced to the music of Jerry Jeff Walker through his first MCA Records album and that record’s lead track, “Hill Country Rain.” A couple decades later, with Patrick already a well-respected commercial director, he was contacted by a large telecom conglomerate to produce a spot to sell their company to the Texas audience; as Tourville pitched his concepts to a room of suits, he found that he had a divided audience – half of the Board loved the idea, the other half weren’t completely sold. Eventually, the company’s president (an old friend of Patrick’s) suggested Patrick approach Jerry Jeff and ask him to appear in the commercial. Tourville contacted Susan (who has been Jerry Jeff’s manager for quite some time) with the proposal; when it came time to talk money, Patrick said that he knew the company had set aside a certain amount of funding to go to Walker; Susan countered with, “I think they have this to offer, so let’s meet in the middle and be finished.” From that short phone conversation, a friendship and a true kinship of hearts and minds developed. As Patrick became more involved with societal and political issues, he began seeking out projects that would truly uplift, rather than simply promote. The real Jerry Jeff Walker story is much deeper than a simple retelling of the career of a sometimes out-of-control singer/songwriter; at the heart of Jerry Jeff’s tale is a story of redemption and salvation, a story of a man wanting to do better and, above all else, a love story. These are the things that brought a well-respected filmmaker named Patrick Tourville to direct OK BUCKAROOS. The following interview was conducted via e-mail and fleshed out via several phone conversations with Patrick. But, first…
A REVIEW: OK BUCKAROOS
(PUBLIK PICTURES/TRIED AND TRUE MUSIC (121 minutes; Unrated); 2014)
OK BUCKAROOS is a straight-forward biographical sketch of one of the founding engineers of what has become known as “Outlaw Country,” Jerry Jeff Walker. Director Patrick Tourville, thankfully, doesn’t spend too much time dwelling on some of Jerry Jeff’s more widely publicized proclivities, highlighting the under-publicized family man and champion of the underdog aspects of his life that make him a much more interesting and uplifting subject... I mean, if you wanna see a musician self-explode, you can catch that any night of the week on ENTERTAINMENT TONIGHT or VH1’s BEHIND THE MUSIC. Along the way, however, we do get to see some of those wild stage performances and antics that Walker was so famous for, through archival footage from his Gonzo heyday. Through interviews with Jerry Jeff and his wife of 41 years, Susan, as well as friends and fellow musicians, we get a true vision of the creative and influential mark that Walker has left on popular American music.
Interspersed with those manic snippets (and later, more laid back, elder statesman performances) of Jerry Jeff onstage, with friends such as Bob Livingstone and Gary P Nunn and the Lost Gonzo Band or with legends like Willie Nelson, are also intimate solo acoustic performances – reminiscences, really – from the man himself, giving new depth and insight into the song and the songwriter. Archival interviews with Walker, Guy Clark, Jimmy Buffett and Kris Kristofferson and new musings and stories from singer/songwriters influenced by Jerry Jeff like Todd Snider and Bruce Robison and from old friends like Ray Wylie Hubbard (who wrote that song about the “Redneck Mother”). The eagle-eyed will recognize David Bromberg, iconic Austin musician Joe Ely and others among the mass of humanity onstage with Jerry Jeff and, variably, the Interchangeable Dance Band or the Lost Gonzo Band from some of those early live clips.
Patrick Tourville has gone above and beyond with OK BUCKAROOS, digging deep and hitting the right nerves to bring out the story and the man behind some of the greatest American music written in the past fifty-plus years. Being a fan of Jerry Jeff Walker since my brother played RIDIN’ HIGH for me back in 1975, this film has certainly given me a new appreciation for his music and for who he has become over those passing years. OK BUCKAROOS should be required viewing for anyone interested in music or a career in music; the film offers valuable life and business lessons from a man who has looked at life from the bottom of the pile and from the top of the heap. As a cautionary tale or as a redemptive love story, the documentary works on enough levels to keep even non-fans interested. By the way, there are several bonus music-only videos (“Mister Bojangles,” “Hill Country Rain” and others), from live shows in 1982 and 2009… they’re great additions to the package. OK BUCKAROOS is available here and at all the usual locations.
THE MULE: Patrick, thanks for taking the time to answer a few questions about the Jerry Jeff Walker documentary, OK BUCKAROOS. Despite some moderate successes in the ’70s, Jerry Jeff Walker isn’t exactly a household name. So, how did you come to direct and co-write a documentary about the man? What initially drew you to the project?
PATRICK: I won’t guess at your age, but assume your location. If you were “of age” in the early seventies and living in Texas, Jerry Jeff was huge. So, my household included Jerry Jeff, along with my Rolling Stones and my sister’s Beatles; so, it’s one of those “you had to be there” stories. However, something “household wise” was happening or all the fat cats from LA would not have descended on the Austin scene, en masse.
I was lucky. There are two songs that are seminal in my early (transistor) radio experience: “ …Satisfaction” and “Hill Country Rain.”
THE MULE: While Jerry Jeff certainly isn’t a recluse, he is a man who doesn’t go out of his way to draw attention to himself. How was he convinced that his was a story that needed to be told? And, equally as important, how did you convince him that you were the person to tell that story?
PATRICK: Susan… PERIOD! I had done some commercial work with the Walkers years earlier. Then, I found myself with five cameras and a crane on July 4th, 2009, at Dell Diamond for a Kellie Pickler show. JJ was on that stage and I kept rolling. The rest is history… Thanks to Susan for trusting me with the family… LOL.
THE MULE: As you researched your subject and interviewed him, his family, his friends and bandmates, were you surprised by anything you learned or by anything you were told?
PATRICK: Yes… what a truly decent, loving and hard core family man he is. And, with his incredible wife, Susan, they beat the rock and roll odds… they are still together. Do you know how cool that is?!!!
THE MULE: He’s very much a “songwriter’s songwriter,” as exemplified by the number of great songwriters who appear in OK BUCKAROOS, extolling his virtues. After filming the documentary, what insights into, not only Jerry Jeff’s music, but his psyche, as well, did you glean from the experience? In your opinion, what do you think makes him and, really, all great troubadours tick?
PATRICK: When I interviewed Bruce Robison for the film, off camera he told me that without Susan, JJ would still be playing in a bus station for tips. I related the story to JJ and his response was, “He is right and I would have no problem with that.” Need I say more?
THE MULE: At any time, did you find yourself second guessing your decision to make OK BUCKAROOS? If so, why and what kept you going?
PATRICK: OMG… Yes! It was the rear end of the process that did me in… the business, the licensing, the marketing. For all filmmakers out there: Do not take refuge in the creative process… find rest in the creative process, but don’t expect that bliss to translate into commercial success.
THE MULE: Let’s delve into your history and background a bit. How did you get into the movie and documentary game?
PATRICK: Go to my website, publikpictures.com. It’s all there.
THE MULE: OK BUCKAROOS is your first feature. What advice can you give to first time documentarians or film-makers in general?
PATRICK: Do your film with enough passion to sustain what will be huge waves of opposition to your “dream.” I think it’s called a tsunami… LOL… of questioning, doubt and otherwise negative influence on your story.
THE MULE: Do you prefer to work on documentaries like this or would you like to try your hand at a more traditional scripted movie? Are there any other people that you would be interested in helming a documentary about?
PATRICK: Good question. Yes and yes. Film-making came to me as an inspiration very young. I won my first national film award at age seventeen and got some money from PBS to remake it. I think everybody at that age wants to make the Great American Movie, which is, you know… America. It was worth it, though. Ultimately, I became a very successful commercial director, made a lot of money, doing what I do, from a craft standpoint but… at the same time, evolved emotionally, spiritually and politically and, the more that I looked at my successful commercial work, the more I realized it was about real stories, it was about real people as opposed to displaying shrimp on a grill or milk being poured on a peach or Tide being poured into a washing machine. So, when I decided to leave the marketing world, documentaries just felt like a natural thing to do; I just wanted to talk about stories… That’s not to say that I would not – given the right circumstances – engage in a narrative feature and all that entails but, right now, I’m very comfortable in a documentary format. I mean, a narrative? I would still be tempted to cut to archive footage.
The last part of the question is… For whatever reason, I have a rich history in music. I did a lot of music videos with those early southern California rockers… a lot of those guys are friends of mine: Jackson Browne and Little Feat and Joe Walsh. So, music just seems to keep following me around and, so, would I want to do another music documentary? Yeah… Maybe. Based on the experience with Jerry Jeff, I’d rather do some other socially important or politically important things. I am in sort of a holding pattern, developing a film on Eugene McDaniels, who was a black pop artist in the late ’60s who performed a song called “A Hundred Pounds of Clay.” He became this sort of pop icon, as a black man with a huge white female audience. Long story short, by the time the ’60s had ended, he was a full-blown radical and had written a song called “Compared To What” that Les McCann recorded; it’s a Vietnam… sort of an anti-Vietnam rant. He passed away, unexpectedly, a few years ago. Eugene is considered by many – including the Roots’ Questlove – to be the Godfather of Hip-Hop… his was a soulful spirit that went from light to dark and found his way back to the light. So, we’re working with maybe developing a film there. That embraces both things. It’s a music thing, it’s a political thing. I’m also working on a project that will take me to Senegal to explore the Hip-Hop scene there so, I guess I’m stuck with music. That’s the bottom line… I’m stuck with music.
I was a big fan of Godard – Jean-Luc Godard – who sort of pushed that envelop to its limit in terms of authorship and aesthetics and, basically, said, “you don’t need to put your name on the film, you just need to help change the world.” I’m sorta stuck in that.
THE MULE: When can we expect to see finished product for these projects?
PATRICK: I don’t know about finished product. Eugene McDaniels is on the back burner; Senegal and its music scene is on the front burner. I’m supposed to leave for West Africa on the 22nd of this month (May) for ten days… I don’t know, man. What can I say? Here’s the answer to that: If you’re doing this stuff, you never know. You never know when you can expect finished product. You know it’s a year from now… if then. That’s the problem with making a documentary. I do believe in the written word; I do not approach anything without scripting. Obviously, with a documentary, the script gets written at the final edit, in terms of something that you would turn in as a script; but, you have to start with writers, you have to start with a structure, you have to start with three acts and, you have to define those acts and you have to determine what scenes are relevant and salient to those acts. You have to figure out classic Greek storytelling. But, as you get into it and you research it and, then, you’ve got people telling you what you should do, ’cause they heard things… it evolves. But, at the end of the day, if you wrote the written word right, you’ll be happy to see that it’s pretty close to what you originally wrote down.
It doesn’t always happen that way, but if you don’t go in with a preconceived notion, you’re in trouble… you’re in big trouble. You have to have scaffolding in place, you have to have a structure in place, you have to know… I’ll tell you what, you don’t shoot anything unless you know what the log line is; you gotta know in the elevator pitch what this is about. So, as you’re discovering and you’re getting influenced and you have people telling you, “What about this? What about that?,” you’ve got that structure to fall back on. You’ve got to have that. That’s my most important recommendation to any… ANY filmmaker. You know, cinema verite, I get it… you’re gonna follow someone around for three years or four years… that’s cool but, if you’re trying to do a narrative piece, via the documentary platform, don’t think that you don’t have to have something written down before you turn on the cameras.
THE MULE: Thanks for spending a little bit of time with the Mule. And, thanks for telling Jerry Jeff Walker’s story.