Billy Joe Shaver, photo by Jim McGuire
The history of country music is full of greats who use two first names. There's Gary P. Nunn and David Allan Coe, Jerry Jeff Walker and Willis Alan Ramsey, Ray Wylie Hubbard and even (ahem) Billy Ray Cyrus—but none of these mofos are as bad as Texas outlaw pioneer Billy Joe Shaver. And I bet they'd tell you that themselves, if you got a chance to ask 'em.
Hell, Billy Joe wrote the most memorable of the classic outlaw country songs (like “Old Five and Dimers Like Me” and “Honky Tonk Heroes”), everyone from Willie Nelson to Chris Ledoux to Patty Loveless has cut his tunes. Bob Dylan even gave him a shout out in “I Feel a Change Comin' On” (from 2009's Together Through Life).
All of his success, however, hasn't turned the man complacent; he's still writing as much as ever, claiming in a recent conversation with the Current that he's never experienced writer's block because “There's just too much to talk about.” Shaver adds, “I have the opposite problem, there's just not enough time to write about everything.” This defiance of the traditional writerly struggle is due in part, no doubt, to the fact that Shaver sees writing as “The cheapest form of therapy you can get.” Chuckling, he continues, “And lord knows I still need it.”
Now, more than forty years, twenty albums, and infinite literal and figurative miles after his landmark album Old Five and Dimers Like Me, Shaver has made an album called Long in the Tooth that he thinks is the best he's ever done. He's listening to the album, in fact, when I call him up on a Sunday afternoon. “I keep on trying to find something wrong with it,” he slyly remarks, “but I can't seem to find anything.”
Due out on August 5, just eleven days before his 75th birthday, Long in the Tooth just might be that good. The album's lead single, “Hard To Be An Outlaw” featuring Willie Nelson, is a stomping and seething song of aging and of railing against the country status quo. Other early album highlights include the clever commentary on class and creativity “Checkers and Chess,” the snarling country rocker and title track, and the heartbreakingly beautiful late-life love song “I'll Love You As Much As I Can.” As a songwriter and a performer, Shaver, remarkably, gives the impression of a man at his peak powers, not in his twilight years.
Try as I might to get the man to "constructively criticize" contemporary country music, Shaver takes the high road, insisting that “These things seem to run in cycles.” Rather than agree with so many who bemoan the decidedly poppy, superficial and non-traditionalist nature of contemporary country music, he seems to think that we are due a natural and cyclical sea change; one that takes the mainstream of the genre back a little closer to its roots. Here's hoping that he's right.
Shaver, who tells me that he plans to play most of Long in the Tooth at Floore's on Friday (along with assorted greats from his behemoth back catalog), comes off as a man who has answered too many questions from the media in his day and now prefers to let his expressive, mostly autobiographical songwriting speak for itself. Seeing him live is an absolute must for any fan of country music and for anyone looking to understand the magic of one of the genre's truest practitioners.
Near the end of our brief conversation, and in true fan mode, I ask Shaver what he thinks about being mentioned by Bob Dylan in a song. “I think it's wonderful,” he gushes, “He's really a hero of mine.” After surprising me with the fact that he and Dylan have never actually met face-to-face, Shaver tells me that, like so many other things, like so many songs unwritten, a meeting with the American bard is something he'd still like to get done. “It'd be nice to talk to him sometime,” he muses, “you know, before I check out.”
Billy Joe Shaver feat Crooks
7pm Fri, July 25
Floore’s Country Store
14492 Old Bandera Rd, Helotes, TX
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