Billy Joe Shaver: Billy and the Kid

Zeth Lundy

Billy Joe Shaver

Billy and the Kid

Label: Compadre
US Release Date: 2004-08-24
UK Release Date: 2004-08-16

"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.


The Best Indie Rock of 2017

Photo courtesy of Matador Records

The indie rock genre is wide and unwieldy, but the musicians selected here share an awareness of one's place on the cultural-historical timeline.

Indie rock may be one of the most fluid and intangible terms currently imposed upon musicians. It holds no real indication of what the music will sound like and many of the artists aren't even independent. But more than a sonic indicator, indie rock represents a spirit. It's a spirit found where folk songsters and punk rockers come together to dialogue about what they're fed up with in mainstream culture. In so doing they uplift each other and celebrate each other's unique qualities.

With that in mind, our list of 2017's best indie rock albums ranges from melancholy to upbeat, defiant to uplifting, serious to seriously goofy. As always, it's hard to pick the best ten albums that represent the year, especially in such a broad category. Artists like King Gizzard & the Lizard Wizard had a heck of a year, putting out four albums. Although they might fit nicer in progressive rock than here. Artists like Father John Misty don't quite fit the indie rock mold in our estimation. Foxygen, Mackenzie Keefe, Broken Social Scene, Sorority Noise, Sheer Mag... this list of excellent bands that had worthy cuts this year goes on. But ultimately, here are the ten we deemed most worthy of recognition in 2017.

Keep reading... Show less

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.

60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

Keep reading... Show less

The Best Country Music of 2017

still from Midland "Drinkin' Problem" video

There are many fine country musicians making music that is relevant and affecting in these troubled times. Here are ten of our favorites.

Year to year, country music as a genre sometimes seems to roll on without paying that much attention to what's going on in the world (with the exception of bro-country singers trying to adopt the latest hip-hop slang). That can feel like a problem in a year when 58 people are killed and 546 are injured by gun violence at a country-music concert – a public-relations issue for a genre that sees many of its stars outright celebrating the NRA. Then again, these days mainstream country stars don't seem to do all that well when they try to pivot quickly to comment on current events – take Keith Urban's muddled-at-best 2017 single "Female", as but one easy example.

Keep reading... Show less

It's ironic that by injecting a shot of cynicism into this glorified soap opera, Johnson provides the most satisfying explanation yet for the significance of The Force.

Despite J.J. Abrams successfully resuscitating the Star Wars franchise with 2015's Star Wars: The Force Awakens, many fans were still left yearning for something new. It was comforting to see old familiar faces from a galaxy far, far away, but casual fans were unlikely to tolerate another greatest hits collection from a franchise already plagued by compositional overlap (to put it kindly).

Keep reading... Show less

Yeah Yeah Yeahs played a few US shows to support the expanded reissue of their debut Fever to Tell.

Although they played a gig last year for an after-party for a Mick Rock doc, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs hadn't played a proper NYC show in four years before their Kings Theatre gig on November 7th, 2017. It was the last of only a handful of gigs, and the only one on the East coast.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 Popmatters.com. All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.