Billy Joe Shaver is a legendary figure in country music… kind of. Historians know about him, and so do the singers who have lined up to duet with him on this record: John Anderson, Tanya Tucker, Marty Stuart, and even, thanks to technology and necrophilia, the late John R. Cash.
But if you don’t know all the legends, like the time Shaver pulled a gun on Waylon Jennings to demand that he record the album that turned into Honky Tonk Heroes, or the time earlier this year when he shot a guy in the face for disrespecting him, then you might wonder what the big deal is. After all, Shaver is 68 years old, and his voice is pretty much gone. Truth to tell, he was never really much of a singer in the first place, which is why he is best known as a songwriter.
And his songs are about as far away from the radio hits of today as country music can be. This record is about 90% honky-tonk gospel, and there are no references here to good ol’ frat parties in golden times gone past, kids with cancer, or career girls livin’ on Spaghetti-Os. So there are a lot of people in Nashville hoping that this record stays in its place.
Which doesn’t mean that Billy Joe Shaver is gonna just roll over and die. Here, he is feisty, spunky, and energetic, spitting out Jesus songs with a real chip on their shoulder. His duet with Anderson, “Get Thee Behind Me Satan”, is a bluesy romp full of anger and outrage at the evil angel that would dare tempt him into sinning against his savior. Their second duet, “Jesus Is the Only One Who Loves Us”, is slower, more atmospheric, and less successful, despite great lines about “the Sunday mornin’ wino shufflin’ down the street”. And “When I Get My Wings” is a hushed waltz that explodes into Sunday mornin’ glory.
Some songs are surprisingly ambitious. The epic title track folds fake Native American sounds into a Dylan-y folk song that acknowledges the advantages of technology to bring the world together, although I think producer John Carter Cash needs to check himself the next time he lets a four-minute song expand itself to seven minutes. But most of the songs are knees-up dancey things, or self-consciously retro numbers like “The Greatest Man Alive”, which is one of the only non-religious songs here, and my favorite.
Despite great numbers like this one, though, ultimately this collection falls short. I didn’t know why for a while. Was it the perfect storm of bad singing that marks “No Earthly Good”, Shaver’s duet with Kris Kristofferson? Was it the deathly-slow tempo that marks “Most Precious” and “You’ll Always Be My Best Friend”? And then I figured it out, so I’ll tell you exactly where this record lost me: on its best song.
“If You Don’t Love Jesus” is a rollicking Texas honky-tonk two-steppin’ sort of thing, full of piss and vinegar. On it, Billy Joe Shaver turns in the best country vocal performance of the year, which is pretty impressive for an old dude who can’t really sing anymore. He spits and he hollers and testifies and challenges listeners to watch out for his “Holy Ghost power” if they try to kick his ass. It’s a lot of rowdy fun, and it’s clearly the liveliest, hilarious, great thing here, fueled by Paco Shipp’s amazing harmonica solo.
It’s a cool song on a lot of levels, and I’ll probably put it on some mix tapes here and there. But where I jump off the train is when Shaver reveals that he doesn’t care one little bit about me or anyone who doesn’t think exactly like him: “If you don’t love Jesus, go to hell / Take your rotten rags of righteousness and stuff ‘em up yourself”. This is such a common Texas thing (read the newspaper sometime), which I’ve admired it in the past. But it’s only fun and funny until you realize that this very intolerant (and in my opinion un-Christian) attitude is 100% shared by the fake Texans that have been running the White House, and that it has led the United States of America into the darkest times I can remember. When you’re sure you have Jesus on your side and that everyone else doesn’t count, you can…
Actually, you know what? Never mind all that. This is just a good ol’ country record about God, which would be a lot more successful if it didn’t slow down too much sometimes.
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// Notes from the Road
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