Old Five and Dimers
Honky-tonk roadhouse records don't usually have the word masterpiece attached to them. But then again, not every country singer is a cult hero like Billy Joe Shaver. He's the stuff of legend, an old-school singer/songwriter with a knack for crafting painfully gorgeous songs about beautiful losers and struggling souls. Now, on the heels of personal tragedies, Shaver is celebrating the release of a new record and preparing for a difficult tour, almost entirely on his own.
Long acknowledged as one of country's most insightful and honest songwriters, Billy Joe Shaver has been covered by dozens of artists from The Allmann Brothers, Johnny Cash and Willie Nelson to David Allan Coe, Bob Dylan, Waylon Jennings, and Tom T. Hall, just to name a few. Even the King himself managed to record some Shaver tunes, six to be exact.
An original honky-tonk hero, Shaver had a huge hand in starting the Outlaw Country movement in the early '70s with songs like "Willy the Wandering Gypsy and Me." As a fountainhead for a new musical direction, his homespun melodies and rough-hewn voice carried emotionally resonant vignettes straight to the heart of listeners everywhere. Real life flowed from Shaver's heart and hands as his raw lyrics painted perfect musical portraits.
But it hasn't been easy for Shaver. Most of the inspiration for his best songs came from real life woes. He's dealt with more than his fair share of hard times, including an accident in a lumber mill in which his right hand got caught in a saw, severing off parts of two fingers and mangling several more. A serious infection almost cost him his arm and his life.
Stubborn and persistent, this old chunk of coal struggled back. For years to come, Shaver would stare down a deep, dark, truthful mirror, cranking out brilliant tunes of love and loss, not knowing that the toughest obstacles lay directly ahead.
No stranger to heartache, the year 1999 was especially rough on Shaver, as he saw the passing of his wife and lifelong love Brenda as she lost a hard fought battle with cancer. That same year, Shaver's mother passed away. Then, just as this new year was approaching, Shaver was dealt a striking blow with the unexpected loss of his son and guitarist, Eddy Shaver.
And like all the years before, Billy Joe found comfort and release through his songs.
Rolling on, Shaver continues in much the same way he has for the past thirty years, polishing musical gems and delivering them with an anguished and graceful Texas growl.
On his first extensive tour since Eddy's death, Billy Joe Shaver is proudly promoting the last record he made with his son. A bittersweet piece of work, The Earth Rolls On is a stirring collection of Shaver originals that tackle all types of relationships, especially the father-son kind.
"I wrote 'Star In My Heart' for Eddy when he was in a drug treatment program," Shaver explains. "I think it's one of the greatest songs I ever wrote. When I would sing it in a club, he'd get up and leave, because it made him cry."
"There's a lot of life in these songs, a lot of confession and brutal honesty," Shaver continues. "The truth sometimes winds up hurting the one who tells it."
The song "Hearts A Bustin'" is a lovely number written with Brenda in mind.
"We were divorced twice, married three times," Shaver points out. "I was with her the last three years of her life. I got to wait on her like she waited on me when we were young. ["Hearts A Bustin"] is a sad song, but it's a good one. I knew when I wrote it that it was gonna be a goodbye song, some day, some way."
But The Earth Rolls On isn't all sad and gloomy. The buoyant "Love Is So Sweet" is sure to put a smile on your face while "Leavin' Amarillo" plays like a middle finger to a certain Texas town where Shaver never quite managed to get along with the local club owners.
In addition, The Earth Rolls On features the only recorded Shaver duet, "Blood Is Thicker than Water." And throughout the album, Eddy Shaver's innate artistry and fierce guitar abilities helped to fuel the fire in Billy Joe's songs, lending them a certain amount of spirit and vigor.
"[Eddy] breathed life into a lot of my songs," Shaver says quietly. "I sure am gonna miss him."
Hanging onto the twang with a tough and tender sensibility, Shaver is facing this tour without much of a family to lean on. His Christian values have been quite a relief in recent years as Shaver has attracted a diverse number of followers. With a sparse, poetic style that's all his own, Shaver speaks the simple truths and sets them to music with unforgettable words. If art is the tool man uses to express himself, Billy Joe Shaver has created some of the most beautiful art you'll ever hear.
Billy Joe Shaver plays Lynagh's on Friday, June 29, at 9:30pm with Jason White. Tickets are $8 advance and $10 at the door.
HOME | THIS ISSUE | ACE ARCHIVES