“Live Forever”, the opening song on Billy Joe Shaver’s new album, begins with a prophetic warning: “I’m gonna live forever/ I’m gonna cross that river/ I’m gonna kiss tomorrow now.” Shortly after, Shaver defiantly proclaims, “You’re gonna miss me when I’m gone.” Those familiar with Shaver’s career and legacy see the profound symbolism in these lyrics and, perhaps with a hint of sadness, realize their accuracy. Shaver is one of those rare artists who actually deserves the title of “artist”; he’s a man who sings not to earn money or accolades, but to chase away the demons that accompany a life of bad breaks and unspeakable loss.
Just five years ago, he lost both his wife and mother in the span of a month, only to lose his son shortly after to drug addiction. Then Shaver nearly died himself from heart failure after collapsing on stage on 4 July 2001. And if all this sounds tragic, it was just a year in the life of a man whose life has been filled with similar tales of tragedy. There’s no need or space to list them all here—just know that the man has been where most of us would not want to tread.
So when Shaver, referring to his body of work, says he’s going to live forever, it means something. And when he says that he’ll be missed when he’s gone, perhaps he realizes that a talent such as his cannot be appreciated by the present, but only revealed by the clarity of history. Still, while Shaver is not a household name, the artists he has written for are: Elvis Presley, Bob Dylan, Johnny Cash, the Allman Brothers, Waylon Jennings, Kris Kristofferson… Any person with the slightest knowledge of music is familiar with Shaver’s work, which spans from old-school country to country-rock to blues to downright honky tonk. On The Real Deal, his newest album, Shaver again shows his impressive range by tapping into the various influences of his career.
While Shaver’s music is versatile, the subject matter of his songs has always been rooted in the old country tradition. Classic topics abound: wrong living, heartbreak and regret, and religion. When Shaver sings about these topics, however, the words have credence. Like Woody Guthrie, another great American poet, Billy Joe has been there, and his voice resonates with God-like authority. Indeed, Shaver’s age serves as an asset, lending his songs a stoic wisdom only attained through years of dealing with the letdowns of life.
Take, for instance, “It Just Ain’t There for Me No More”, in which he bravely accepts the failure of a relationship: “It just ain’t there for me no more/ Not the way it was before/ Just like a wall without a door…” Shaver’s voice, while thick and rich, sounds battered and scarred, which underscores the theme of dissolved love. Then there’s “There’s No Fool Like an Old Fool”, where he concedes that his judgment hasn’t always been up to par: “There’s no fool like an old fool/ I’m living proof of that/ For years my head has been/ Just a place to hang my hat.” In both these songs, Shaver addresses loss and regret, but not with the paralyzing preoccupation of a young man. Rather, these songs somehow sound uplifting, sung by a man who knows that time always compensates for what it takes.
Musically, The Real Deal explores the various strains of country, from the mainstream pop sensibilities of “If the Trailer’s Rockin’ Don’t Come Knockin’” to the spare folk of “Valentine” to the front-porch fiddle sway of “You Ought to Be with Me When I’m Alone”. Shaver has defied neat categorization because of his ability to move around within country and rock, sounding equally at ease probing the softer side of the former and the rowdy tendencies of the latter. Whatever the genre or subgenre, however, Shaver always sounds… well, like the real deal. Even when he teams up with the mega-mainstream Big and Rich on “Live Forever”, the result respects—rather than exploits—the conventions of country.
Overall, The Real Deal is testament to the versatility and virtuoso of Billy Joe Shaver. Inspired and impassioned, it’s a joyous celebration of the transcendent power of music. At this point in his career, Shaver is past chasing fame. Instead, these songs represent what sustains a man who has survived life’s toughest blows. Like Dylan after his flirtation with death, Shaver sounds reborn, happy to find solace in chords and melodies, and happy to forget the specific by offering it to the universal. Well into his 60s, Shaver is making music like a man who feels invincible.