When I was really young, probably 13, I discovered hitchhiking. It was 1968, and I lived in a little town called Schertz outside of San Antonio, and I started becoming more and more interested in things that happened in the relatively big city. We weren’t afraid to hitchhike; it was a valid means of transportation that got me to shows.
It was very liberating to be willing to hitchhike. I was emulating the singer Jerry Jeff Walker, because that’s the way he toured in 1968, ’69, when he first started coming through Texas, before he moved to Austin. He wrote “Mr. Bojangles” when he was couchsurfing at Townes Van Zandt’s apartment in Houston, which was above a coffee house called Sand Mountain. His whole thing was about hitchhiking and traveling; his tombstone says “Gypsy Songman” on it.
I knew a lot about Jerry Jeff Walker and kind of wanted to be him. My drama teacher in high school gave me a copy of “Mr. Bojangles,” and I sang it in a play. A little later, in March of 1973, I got word that Jerry Jeff was celebrating his birthday by playing Castle Creek, which was the main folk club in Austin. I was around 18 and had just gotten a construction job. I was in the middle of my second week, and I knew they wouldn’t let me off, so I just worked till Friday and then quit. I got the paycheck for the first week—the second check I never got—and cashed it at a liquor store and had somebody drop me off on Interstate 35. I stuck out my thumb, and at 7:30 or 8 o’clock I was standing in front of Castle Creek.
I got one of the last tickets, and I went next door and ate at the Texas Chili Parlor, which is still there, and then when the doors opened I went back to the club and hung out and saw the set. I was just coming out of the bathroom, right next to the dressing rooms, and I overheard John Inmon, who was the guitar player in Jerry Jeff’s band, telling a girl where the party was going to be. I didn’t have a car, but I’d met a girl there, and I lied to her and told her we were invited, because she had a car, and so we went to this party.
I kept my hat down over my eyes at the party—my paranoia was telling me that Jerry Jeff was just about to figure out I wasn’t supposed to be there— but Townes walked in and saved me, because suddenly all eyes were on him. He came in with this beautiful girl on his arm, and he was wearing this light-colored buckskin jacket with fringe and beading that Jerry Jeff had just given him off of his back for his birthday. (Jerry Jeff was famous for giving away jackets and hats and breaking guitars for no reason in those days.) When Townes came in, people kept trying to give him a guitar, but he never would play a song—that disappointed me a little bit. Where he didn’t disappoint is he started a dice game, and he lost every dime that he had, and the jacket. And I thought, Wow, my hero.
The girl who drove me to the party let me sleep on her couch that night, and the next day she drove me out to the Interstate. I had become pretty fascinated with Townes and was curious where he was going next. And she said, “Oh, I know where Townes is. When he comes back from Colorado, he heads for Houston.” So I said, “Take me over to Ben White Boulevard,” and I hitchhiked east. That was the beginning of me moving to Houston.
The thing I learned from hitchhiking—and Guy Clark refined it for me because he was so good at story songs—is how important detail is in storytelling. When somebody picks you up hitchhiking, they’re only picking you up for one reason: to keep them awake. So you tell stories, and they tell you stories. There’s an oral tradition in Texas. And I got a good close look at a lot of places that I wouldn’t have otherwise. You’ve got to hitch a long time to get out of Texas.
Jerry Jeff, the latest album from Steve Earle & The Dukes, is available for streaming and download now, with vinyl and CDs due out from New West Records on August 26.