BILLY JOE SHAVER
SCHUBAS, MAY 13
If there were a God, or better yet someone with a brain and a pair of ears in country radio, Billy Joe Shaver’s current single, “Georgia on a Fast Train,” would be this summer’s “Chattahoochee.” Like Alan Jackson’s big-selling ode to rural teendom of last year, Shaver’s song would blast out of every country fan’s car radio in heavy rotation, over and over and over again. Never mind that the album it’s on, Tramp on Your Street, came out last year; all good things get better with age.
But Shaver’s a bona fide outlaw, and country radio, if some recent hits are any indication, only likes Indian outlaws, self-described “wild ones,” and people who wish they were cowboys. Today’s outlaws are a far cry from the original outlaw movement of the 1970s, the progressive fraternity led by Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson of which Shaver was a founding member. This crew broke free from conservative Nashville sensibilities and created raw music coupled with highly personal lyrics, looking to rough-hewn Texas traditions for inspiration. Hippies were happening, too, and the outlaws took note. Primarily fueled by the personal and artistic idiosyncrasies of Waylon and Willie, the self-named and -proclaimed cult of personality exploded into mainstream consciousness with the 1976 album The Outlaws. There was no subtlety to their message–the cover is a stagy remake of an old-west wanted poster, the four desperadoes (Waylon, Willie, Tompall Glaser, and Jessi Colter) gazing out balefully. The men look like biker cowboys; Colter, Jennings’s wife, was a modern version of Gunsmoke’s Miss Kitty. The album was a fuck-you to Nashville that beat the establishment at its own game. A compilation of mostly previously released material, The Outlaws nevertheless became the first country record to go platinum, and it brought the term “outlaw movement” into common usage.
But it also displayed the outlaws’ growing self-absorption, and how their undiluted, passionate music making was sometimes overwhelmed by their mythmaking. The cover of Jennings’s 1973 Honky Tonk Heroes is nowhere near as contrived and therefore expresses much more honestly how organically subversive the outlaws were. Waylon’s the dark and gnarly center of a scurvy-looking crew with a taste for beer, cigarettes, and quite possibly more authoritative substances. Shaver was a key part of Jennings’s posse at the time: on the cover of Honky Tonk Heroes, Waylon’s the ego around whom the gang revolves, while Shaver looks like the kid who’s just happy to get asked into the game. But in fact he’d brought the ball: he wrote most of the songs on what became an acclaimed album.
After Honky Tonk Heroes, Shaver put out a string of albums that fell into commercial limbo while Waylon and Willie went on to the pantheon. But last year Shaver reemerged with Tramp on Your Street, released on the progressive Nashville label Praxis. Critics gushed and glowed, and Shaver deserved every word.
Country radio may be ignoring it, but Shaver’s road-warrior tactics–intensive touring and personal, gritty live shows–have kept the album alive. Backed by a young, ferocious trio that includes guitarist son Eddy, Shaver has challenged himself like few artists his age have the strength or inclination to do. Live at Schubas last Friday, Shaver and his band were a musical version of the old man and the sea. Eddy’s screaming, impatient Texas blues riffs and a propulsive rhythm section rocked the boat, while Billy Joe stood at the mike and sang like the self-actualized barroom poet he is.
Shaver, dressed in a Harley Davidson T-shirt, with a thick, plain cross hanging around his neck, has the masterful knack of never rushing his songs even when the band roars around him. He doesn’t have a lot of lung power; he works his homely voice within a small range, but it matches the intensity of the frequent musical blasts through an unself-conscious focus. The band ripped through the throbbing, raucous “The Hottest Thing in Town,” then shifted into the Tex-Mex groove of “Take a Chance on Romance.” There were Shaver chestnuts and tearjerkers, including the honky-tonk “Old Chunk of Coal” and the mournful, acoustic prayer “When the Fallen Angels Fly.”
With his graying mane and weathered face, Shaver often projects the weighty, bittersweet mien of Lyndon B. Johnson in his postpresidential exile; burdened by the sins of Vietnam, Johnson repaired home to Texas, the one place big enough to match the intensity of his melancholia. While Shaver’s guilt doesn’t include napalm sweeps or body counts, in his own way he’s a similar Lone Star lion in winter. Divorce, hard living, commercial career death–Shaver has been there, done it, and nailed it shut, and in the song “If I Give My Soul” he finds there’s no one left to confront but God: “Such a foolish fool / God ain’t known no greater sinner / I have come in search of Jesus / Hoping He will understand.”
Live, this brutal confession edged against a kick-ass acoustic guitar-driven stomp. The narrator of the song loses his family while he’s out “making music / Traveling with a devil’s band.” Dark, long-haired Eddy smoked onstage, his slit eyes and downturned mouth frozen somewhere between disdain and a pout; watching him became a weird, exquisitely too-close-for-comfort experience when Billy Joe sang, “If I give my soul / Will my son love me again?”
Sometimes a song can have the impact of a novel, and here it’s William Kennedy’s Ironweed, where the haunted Francis Phelan wanders through a sea of ghosts, traveling fearfully upstream toward the lost family. There’s an explosive tension in “If I Give My Soul,” and because Shaver touches truth so often in his songs it’s impossible not to read it as autobiography. If Naomi Judd has ever asked Wynonna such a question, it’s only been in private. That Shaver asks it out loud, after a lifetime of letting such relationships slip through the missing fingers of his right hand, is just about as outlaw as it gets.
But outlaws get no respect these days. On the other hand, the two most discriminating musical devotees of our time know a good thing when they hear it. Beavis and Butt-head recently fell under the thrashing spell of “Georgia on a Fast Train,” and their approving pronouncement “Hillbilly headbangin’!” was exactly right. It’s the best thing you never heard on your radio.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Basil Fairbanks Studio.