[14 August 2014]
During the past ten years, I have seen Billy Joe Shaver perform at least a dozen times. I saw him play in a backyard, in bars, in benefits, in record stores and record label gigs, and larger public venues. I’ve seen him sing for drunken rowdies and serious scholars and to audiences with notables such as the actor Robert Duvall and the country Rhodes scholar Kris Kristofferson in the crowd. He always plays the same songs, with a few new ones finding their way over the years, and tells the same stories and jokes; including the uncomfortably racist one about Cowboy Troy and the size of a black man’s penis. (Someone really should tell Shaver not to keep telling that one—it’s not funny.) Shaver’s the real deal, as a record of his from the past is titled, a country music legend. But the question here is, can he still bring it on record?
Shaver has released a slew of discs, over 20 studio and live albums, not to mention compilation discs and packages. He’s got nothing to prove, and his in person performances reveal he still has a lot to give. This is Shaver’s first album of new material in six years. It’s short—10 songs and 32 minutes long—and at 74 years of age and being a musician whose repertoire doesn’t change much, he may not have another one in him.
As the album’s title suggests, Long in the Tooth shows Shaver’s self-aware of his aging. The songs offer the perspective of someone who has been there and done that, and can see the patterns of the past repeated in the present. Sometimes his focus is on the big picture, as on tracks such as “The Git Go” that starts in the Garden of Eden to illustrate how little has changed. Other tunes offer more of a close-up perspective on life, such as the love song “I’ll Love You as Much as I Can”. Shaver understands that romance remains the same as it ever was when it is real.
Shaver writes about the state of country music on “Hard to Be an Outlaw” with Willie Nelson. Shaver knows he’s out-of-place on contemporary country radio, but his complaining is tempered by a sense of humor—an attitude pervasive to the record as a whole. “What I used to do all night / It takes all night to do,” he sings on the title track to a Jew’s harp accompaniment (by the great harmonica player Mickey Rafael, who contributes on his regular appliance else on the disc).
Other great musicians contribute their chops to different songs, including Leon Russell on piano, Tony Joe White on electric guitar, Joel Guzman on accordion, and Stuart Duncan on fiddle. The Can’t Hardly Playboys who backup Shaver include the steel guitar maven Doug Dugmore, bassist Michael Rhodes on bass, Jedd Hughes on guitars, and Lynn Williams on drums. Shaver’s voice may not be as strong as it used to be, but it is still a wonderful, expressive instrument. The man warbles and slides around the words and delivers them with pizzazz. He always sounds like he’s singing right from the heart. Even when he’s joking, Shaver’s serious. In fact, he seems the most sincere when he sings about lighthearted topics—like the blues of “Last Call for Alcohol”.
Shaver may not have changed much over the last decade, and the slimness of this record suggests he’s not about to set the world on fire. He may be old and know it, but he’s still plugging away. He also understands that the world still needs Honky Tonk heroes like him.