The surge of popularity experienced by country vet Billy Joe Shaver in the last few years was fueled by a pair of high-octane honky-tonk records for Zoo, both branded by the searing lead-guitar work of his son Eddy. His superb new album Highway of Life (Justice), however, finds him revisiting the looser, more acoustic setting of his earliest work. Shaver remains best known as a songwriter and a crucial figure among country’s outlaw movement–that coterie of hard-living Texans like Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson, and Kris Kristofferson that enjoyed great popularity in the early 70s. (He wrote nearly every tune on Jennings’s landmark Honky Tonk Heroes.) But though he cut a handful of albums over the next two decades, it wasn’t until the 90s that he achieved much success on his own. Now he’s followed Jennings, Kristofferson, and Nelson to record for Houston’s Justice label, which has sought to return these rough-and-tumble poets to their natural habitat. As satisfying as Eddy’s guitar work was, it tended to overshadow his dad’s modestly gorgeous, frail, raspy lilt. The new album gives Billy Joe room to breathe, and though he’s in good voice on the more raucous tunes–from the hard blues “Blue Blue Blues” to the downright hooky “Comin’ On Strong”–it’s on the spare ballads that he really soars. The album’s loose concept is a hard life led on the road, and Shaver imbues these tunes with remarkable sadness, regret, and weariness. People bandy the phrase “country blues” about pretty loosely, but if it ever applied to anyone it’s Billy Joe Shaver. He’s played Chicago frequently in recent years, but this pair of shows stands out because he’ll be accompanied only by Eddy. Friday and Saturday, 8 PM, Pop’s on Chicago, 2053 W. Chicago; 312-633-0828. PETER MARGASAK

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Billy Joe and Eddy Shaver photo by Thunder Image Group.