Waylon Jennings recorded nine of Billy Joe Shaver’s songs for his 1973 album Honky Tonk Heroe
s. It was the opening salvo of country music’s outlaw movement. Three years later Shaver declined a featured role on Wanted: The Outlaws
, the best-selling record that gave the movement its name. Since then his songs have been recorded by Elvis, Bob Dylan, Willie Nelson, and George Jones. He’s remained active as an artist, releasing a dozen albums on a half-dozen labels. Yet Shaver deserves greater recognition. A new CD/ DVD recording of twenty songs performed in concert—plus two studio versions—provides an excellent overview of his lifetime of work, as a songwriter and a performer.
Shaver’s songs are straightforward expressions of personality, contrasting with the literary style favored by contemporaries like Kris Kristofferson and Tom T. Hall. That forthrightness may explain why Shaver’s work isn’t more appreciated. It seems so easy. A description of his hardscrabble youth: “I got a good Christian raisin’ and an eighth grade education” (from “Georgia on a Fast Train”) recounts facts from his past while placing the singer squarely in the middle of country tradition. In performance he shares his born-again beliefs, “You Can’t Beat Jesus Christ,” along with details of a recent bar-room dust-up, “Wacko from Waco,” and never seems calculating. In his 2005 autobiography Billie Joe Shaver: Honky Tonk Hero
, he shares his approach to songwriting: “To me, the song is poetry. That’s all it is. It’s the way I describe the world around me, make sense of it.”
Not that there isn’t poetry in the songs. There is and plenty of it:
I’ve spent a lifetime making up my mind to be
More than the measure of what I thought others could see
Good luck and fast bucks are too few and too far between
There’s Cadillac buyers and old five and dimers like me
(From “Old Five and Dimers like Me”)
Shaver clearly has a wonderful gift for pay-off lines. Here’s another example from a song dedicated to the memory of his son Eddy, the victim of a drug overdose, and to those with loved ones struggling with substance abuse:
I pulled the thorn out of your side when I walked away
I took the rock out of your shoe on that very day
I pray, you’ll forgive me for not leaving sooner
(From “Star in my Heart”)
Shaver has survived more misfortune than most. His father and mother were absent for most of his early years. As a young man he lost portions of three fingers in a sawmill accident. His cherished wife Brenda—whom he married three times and divorced twice—and his only son Eddy both died within a short span of time. During one particular crisis he was inspired to write the song “I’m Just an Old Chunk of Coal (But I’m Going to be a Diamond Someday),” a hit for John Anderson. Many of Shaver’s songs exhibit the same plucky attitude toward survival. Highly respected by his peers since the 1970’s, personal reflections by fellow Texans Willie Nelson and Pat Green are interspersed with Shaver’s songs during the video portion of the package.
Recorded live at Billy Bob’s Texas in Fort Worth in September of 2011, Shaver is backed by a three-piece band of musicians half his age, playing hard-hitting country rock arrangements that seem entirely fitting. His years of work with Eddy, an outstanding lead guitar player, continue to shape the way Shaver presents his music today. He is in fine voice throughout the show and his interaction with the enthusiastic audience at Billy Bob’s is relaxed and natural. Most of the songs on the new collection have been previously released as studio recordings. Two are new—the previously mentioned “Wacko from Waco” (written with Willie Nelson) and “The Git Go” (with Nash-Texan Gary Nicholson)—and are included as live and studio versions.
Billy Joe Shaver contributions to modern country music are undeniable. Old fans and new listeners alike will appreciate these spirited performances as an original outlaw sings some of his greatest songs.