Billy Joe Shaver: The Real Deal

Michael Franco

Having survived unthinkable loss and near death, Billy Joe Shaver sounds wise, confident, and doggedly upbeat -- even when he's singing a heartbreaking tune. Who else could title his album The Real Deal?"

Billy Joe Shaver

The Real Deal

Label: Compadre
US Release Date: 2005-09-20
UK Release Date: Available as import
iTunes affiliate
Amazon affiliate

"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.


So far J. J. Abrams and Rian Johnson resemble children at play, remaking the films they fell in love with. As an audience, however, we desire a fuller experience.

As recently as the lackluster episodes I-III of the Star Wars saga, the embossed gold logo followed by scrolling prologue text was cause for excitement. In the approach to the release of any of the then new prequel installments, the Twentieth Century Fox fanfare, followed by the Lucas Film logo, teased one's impulsive excitement at a glimpse into the next installment's narrative. Then sat in the movie theatre on the anticipated day of release, the sight and sound of the Twentieth Century Fox fanfare signalled the end of fevered anticipation. Whatever happened to those times? For some of us, is it a product of youth in which age now denies us the ability to lose ourselves within such adolescent pleasure? There's no answer to this question -- only the realisation that this sensation is missing and it has been since the summer of 2005. Star Wars is now a movie to tick off your to-watch list, no longer a spark in the dreary reality of the everyday. The magic has disappeared… Star Wars is spiritually dead.

Keep reading... Show less

This has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it.

It hardly needs to be said that the last 12 months haven't been everyone's favorite, but it does deserve to be noted that 2017 has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it. Other longtime dreamers either reappeared or kept up their recent hot streaks, and a number of relative newcomers established their place in what has become one of the more robust rock subgenre subcultures out there.

Keep reading... Show less

​'The Ferryman': Ephemeral Ideas, Eternal Tragedies

The current cast of The Ferryman in London's West End. Photo by Johan Persson. (Courtesy of The Corner Shop)

Staggeringly multi-layered, dangerously fast-paced and rich in characterizations, dialogue and context, Jez Butterworth's new hit about a family during the time of Ireland's the Troubles leaves the audience breathless, sweaty and tearful, in a nightmarish, dry-heaving haze.

"Vanishing. It's a powerful word, that"

Northern Ireland, Rural Derry, 1981, nighttime. The local ringleader of the Irish Republican Army gun-toting comrades ambushes a priest and tells him that the body of one Seamus Carney has been recovered. It is said that the man had spent a full ten years rotting in a bog. The IRA gunslinger, Muldoon, orders the priest to arrange for the Carney family not to utter a word of what had happened to the wretched man.

Keep reading... Show less

Aaron Sorkin's real-life twister about Molly Bloom, an Olympic skier turned high-stakes poker wrangler, is scorchingly fun but never takes its heroine as seriously as the men.

Chances are, we will never see a heartwarming Aaron Sorkin movie about somebody with a learning disability or severe handicap they had to overcome. This is for the best. The most caffeinated major American screenwriter, Sorkin only seems to find his voice when inhabiting a frantically energetic persona whose thoughts outrun their ability to verbalize and emote them. The start of his latest movie, Molly's Game, is so resolutely Sorkin-esque that it's almost a self-parody. Only this time, like most of his better work, it's based on a true story.

Keep reading... Show less

There's something characteristically English about the Royal Society, whereby strangers gather under the aegis of some shared interest to read, study, and form friendships and in which they are implicitly agreed to exist insulated and apart from political differences.

There is an amusing detail in The Curious World of Samuel Pepys and John Evelyn that is emblematic of the kind of intellectual passions that animated the educated elite of late 17th-century England. We learn that Henry Oldenburg, the first secretary of the Royal Society, had for many years carried on a bitter dispute with Robert Hooke, one of the great polymaths of the era whose name still appears to students of physics and biology. Was the root of their quarrel a personality clash, was it over money or property, over love, ego, values? Something simple and recognizable? The precise source of their conflict was none of the above exactly but is nevertheless revealing of a specific early modern English context: They were in dispute, Margaret Willes writes, "over the development of the balance-spring regulator watch mechanism."

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

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