[19 July 2012]
Like that more famous self-proclaimed Jewboy Kinky Friedman, I too claim Billy Joe Shaver as my spiritual advisor. While Friedman and Shaver are good Texas buddies, I get my inspiration solely from Shaver’s music. I did meet the man once after a show. He ended his performance with the line, “And if you don’t love Jesus, you can go to Hell.” So I went up to him and said, “I don’t love Jesus, and I am probably going to Hell, but I love your music.” He glared at me for a minute, spied the Star of David hanging around my neck, and grabbed my head in a headlock and said. “You’re Jewish? That’s okay. I believe in all religions and their gods. Judaism, Buddhism. Islam. Whatever. I just believe in a higher power and so I believe in them all just to be safe.” Then he started to cackle.
So while Shaver writes and performs songs like “You Can’t Beat Jesus Christ” during his live shows, such as the one recorded here, his religious beliefs are inclusive and appeal to our better angels. On compositions such as “Old Chunk of Coal”, “Try and Try Again”, and “Live Forever”, Shaver preaches the importance of trying to be a better human being for one’s own sake. Sure, it may be the way to personal salvation, but the emphasis is on the personal rather than salvation for the glory of a higher power. When he sings these songs here in Texas, it’s like attending a church service in a bar. Not a bad place for a preacher to be if looking for sinners.
Shaver’s individual trials and tribulations have been well documented (check out Luciana Pedraza’s excellent movie Portrait of Billy Joe for details). His father tried to kill Billy when he was still in the womb, and then his father abandoned the family. Shaver dropped out of school in the eighth grade so he could pick cotton, then lost two fingers in a machine accident. His two-time wife (married, divorced, remarried) died of cancer. Then his son Eddy died of a heroin overdose. And then Shaver had a heart attack on stage while performing. These are only some of the low points. To say he’s had a hard life is like calling the Pacific Ocean a large body of salt water. Duh.
Yet he still has a great sense of humor, especially about himself. His songs and repartee make frequent references to sex and situations from the side of the underdog on tracks like “That‘s What She Said Last Night.” He freely admits to being lazy and no account, unable to satisfy his woman but trying to love all women all the time anyway, and such. He laughs at himself, including on one of the two new songs from this live show, “Wacko from Waco”. He’s the title character, and the song makes reference to a recent infamous incident in which Shaver shot a man who was threatening Shaver with a knife outside a bar. Shaver was found innocent in a Texas courtroom, which is no easy feat. Incidentally, the CD contains both live and studio (with Willie Nelson joining in) versions of this song as well as the other new track, “The Git Go”.
Live at Billy Bob’s does a wonderful job of showcasing Shaver’s charismatic stage presence and providing a run down of the man’s best songs. We go from the churning “Georgia on a Fast Train” to the hot country funk of “Ride Me Down Easy” to the spoken word poetry of “Star in My Heart” to the drunken pleasures of “Thunderbird” without ever missing a beat. He’s his own Texas revue, giving the audience a little bit of everything and always having them hankering for more.
The CD also comes packaged with a DVD of the show, but you don’t need to see Shaver to feel his power. The man who invented the term honky tonk hero clearly is one. You can hear it in its voice. He may believe Texas is the closest thing to heaven, and America is the best country in the world, but he’s not wrong about much. And as long as he’s in the Lone Star state of the USA, he may be damn right!