An Ode to Billy Joe
If anybody in American music deserves the mantle of sainthood, it’s Billy Joe Shaver. He’s had a hard life. Even before he was born, Billy Joe’s father tried to kick his son to death while he was in his mother’s womb. Billy Joe’s mother later rejected him because he reminded her too much of her abusive husband. Billy Joe’s grandmother raised him with her welfare check as his only support. His education ended in the eighth grade. He served a short stint in the navy and worked a variety of itinerant jobs, including one at a sawmill where he cut off a few fingers, before getting into the music business. He was a rowdy drinker and a sinner of great magnitude. His honky tonkin’ days during the ‘70s and ‘80s with the likes of Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson, Kris Kristofferson, and other likely suspects have made him the stuff of legend. He put his wild ways on hold and tended to Brenda, his wife of many years who died of cancer. Then he started a band with his son Eddy, who later died of a drug overdose.
All the while, Billy Joe wrote some of the best songs in country music, not only recorded by himself, Jennings, Nelson, and Kristofferson, but by other luminaries such as Elvis Presley, The Allman Brothers, and Johnny Cash. You may not recognize Shaver’s name, but you probably have heard many of his compositions sung by others, such as “Honky Tonk Heroes”, “I’m Just an Old Chunk of Coal”, “Ride Me Down Easy”, “Georgia on a Fast Train”, and other outlaw country standards.
This disc documents the Texas version of a sainthood ceremony—an all-star tribute to the man in honor of his 65th birthday, held at the Paramount Theatre in Austin. The gathered guests tell stories and sing Billy Joe songs, or tunes inspired by his music. There’s no doubt that he deserves to be so honored. The documented show must have been a wonderful, heartfelt event. However, the importance of the disc as art instead of artifact—whether or not it’s worth listening to more than once for its musical value—is more dubious. Who really wants to hear the same story about the guest musician and Billy Joe again and again? As in the case with most tribute discs, doesn’t the original artist perform the song better than the person doing the honoring? The answer to these rhetorical questions is, unfortunately, that the disc has limited appeal.
That said, A Tribute to Billy Joe Shaver - Live does contain some fine performances by the cream of the next generation of Texas singer songwriters, including Guy Clark, Joe Ely, Bruce Robison, Kelly Willis, Jimmie Dale Gilmore, Robert Earl Keen, and Dale Watson, among others. They express their love for Billy Joe and offer songs in tribute. Clark’s plainspoken and earnest version of the family narrative “Randall Knife” and Gilmore’s (accompanied by his son Colin) touching rendition of Billie Joe’s homage to his part Native American wife, “Hearts-A-Bustin” are especially noteworthy. In addition, New Traditionalist Rodney Hayden offers a rousing take on “Black Rose”, and Texas troubadour Cory Morrow performs a lively “Live Forever”.
Keen and Todd Snider tell the best stories, which is no surprise as they write great story songs. They depict Billy Joe as a gruff personality with a playful spirit. Keen tells of the first time he met Billy Joe at a bar in Austin. Keen shyly went up and introduced himself to the man, telling him that Billy Joe was his favorite songwriter. Billy Joe responded by saying that he was also “a mean sunavabitch”. Keen tried to skulk away to another beer joint, feeling scared, only to have Billy Joe follow him and join him in a night of drinking.
It may be his party, but Billy Joe’s not the kind of musician who’s willing to sit down and have someone else sing his praises. He gets up and performs four songs at his own tribute concert, which includes starting off the festivities with “Georgia on a Fast Train” and concluding the show with “Tramp on Your Street”. As always, Billy Joe barrels through his material with verve, gusto, and—most of all—heart.