Where There's Smoke, You Know There's Fire
“God only knows why I’m still livin’,” Billy Joe Shaver sings in Billy and the Kid‘s weightless “Window Rock”, and you can’t help but agree with him.
Shaver, an unjustly overlooked name in country music for the last three decades, has unwittingly taken on the contemporary incarnation of Job since tragedy became a staple in his life back in 1999. That year ushered in the loss of his wife and mother, both succumbing to cancer a mere three months apart. Not even one year later, Shaver’s son (and frequent musical collaborator) Eddy was found dead of a heroin overdose. As if this wasn’t enough pain for one person to endure, Shaver himself would fall victim to a heart attack while performing onstage on 4 July 2001.
Where most people would understandably throw up their hands in grief and resignation, Shaver has admirably soldiered on, finding relief (and release) in his music. In what seems to be a symbolic closing of a harrowing chapter in his life, Shaver has decided to revisit a solo album his son Eddy had been working on at the time of his death. Eddy had only partially completed the songs represented on the new Billy and the Kid in 1996, when he found himself sidetracked by touring and recording as the hard rock/country outfit Shaver with his father. Shaver went back to the original tapes with producer Tony Colton, added vocals and new lyrics where necessary, in hopes that he could complete Eddy’s vision—or, at the very least, record with his son for one last time.
Billy and the Kid is a Southern-fried hard rock record; while it does represent the unbridled musical passion of Eddy’s brief life, it is a jarring departure for Shaver. The album’s opening (and incidentally, best) track, however, is not at all indicative of songs to come: “Fame”, a newly recorded song by Shaver himself, is slow and sobering. Accompanied only by his acoustic guitar, Shaver’s gold-flaked, shattered voice twitches like a stick quivering firmly in the mud: “Desire, that all consuming fire / Is racing through my veins / Like lightning through a wire”. Shaver’s weathered, weary voice is at once reverential and silencing, an instrument of life and death, encouragement and defeat, hospitable and forewarning. He’s recorded in stunning proximity, as if he was sitting in the corner of the listener’s living room; it brings to mind Johnny Cash’s final recordings with Rick Rubin from recent years.
“Fame” is such a formidable, promising opener that the remaining 10 tracks on Billy and the Kid feel like a gradual deflation of expectations. The backing tracks—all recorded by Eddy and Colton with David Cochran on bass and Greg Morrow on drums—are soaked in bluesy Texan hard rock and don’t possess the particular nuances that fit a voice like Shaver’s. Nevertheless, Shaver makes a go at it, squeezing his twangy inflections and road-ravaged bawls in the crevices of Eddy’s cavernous rock. If there’s a theme to the album, it’s that of rebirth through inescapable destruction; Shaver explores this idea in the recurring motif of fire. In “Lighting a Torch”, Shaver sings over the bottom-heavy thunder, “You can’t drown it out with water / You can’t kill it with the wind / Every time I try it just flares up again / Lighting a torch with a brand new flame”. The rough and melodic “Drown in Love” muses on the difficulty of reconstruction after emotional devastation: “With a flame you start a fire / With a tear you start a flood”. And even Eddy equates living in New York City to a “baptism of fire” in the song of the same name.
The mid-tempo, subdued “Window Rock” is the record’s most effective fusing of father and son: Shaver lays down a haunting, unguarded vocal over Eddy’s reverbed, spacey guitar embellishments. “Shifters of shapes trade their blankets / Laced with secrets from the past,” Shaver intones over the hypnotic, almost mystical backing track, “When you walk in their presence / Every breath may be your last.” This song hits the mark with a subtle delicacy missing from the record’s other raucous numbers.
It’s no secret that Eddy was a virtuoso guitar slinger, and his fiery playing is all over this record: he shoots sparks like a young Stevie Ray Vaughan in “Baptism of Fire”, is skittish and restrained like Mark Knopfler in “Eagle on the Ground”, and effortlessly carries the burden of solely accompanying his own Gregg Allman-esque voice in the seven-minute closer “Necessary Evil”. He’s not as strong lyrically or vocally as his father; in fact, it seems that perhaps lyrics were simply a means for Eddy to get himself to the guitar solo.
While Shaver does make an endearing effort to finalize his son’s unfinished career, Billy and the Kid doesn’t really add up to an unconditional triumph. It’s an apparent contradiction in terms that manifests itself as a contradiction in execution. While Eddy was a fantastic guitarist, Shaver Sr. has always been a more competent and interesting songwriter. As good as it is to hear Shaver lending a voice to his son’s unpublished passions, any album of his original tunes (so tantalizingly taunted at with “Fame”) is ultimately the preferable choice to this alternative.