There’s so many superb Texas songwriters from the past and present, it is so hard to say who is best or who is my favorite. But somewhere at the top of this list is Billy Joe Shaver. Sure, there might be some songwriters who are a tick better turning a phrase, but to me Shaver has always been the full package: good with words, but good with music as well, and the consummate performer. Sheer longevity also helps put Shaver in an elite class. That is why when the opportunity came up to see him live, and even better, at the legendary Luckenbach Dance Hall, I couldn’t pass it up.
For someone who has never seen him, it was hard to know what to expect. Sorry Billy Joe, but you’re no spring chicken. It happens to all of us. When you’re staring down 70, the pipes start to rust, the shanks get angry. And when you go to watch an older performer, you take special notice to see if the stage hand sets the stool in front of the microphone at center stage. It’s a good thing the stage hand didn’t, because that stool would have been kicked and splintered and sent it into the crowd before the first song was done.
On a stifling, sticky evening after a Texas summer scorcher, Billy Joe didn’t just have the vitality and stage presence of a first-rate performer in his prime, he had the moves of a prize fighter: kicking, punching, taunting, removing his hat so a big poof of his thin gray hair stood a foot above his head as he stretched his arms out to animate the words of his songs. Billy Joe had more energy on stage than three aloof Nashville pop stars combined. He starred down 70 and kicked its ass. In fact, the only 70’s involved with that night were the energy and feeling of that by-gone country music decade that Billy Joe took us all back to with his unbelievable, unforgettable, and ageless performance.
The voice was solid without a hint of waiver. No need for respectful embellishments about how I liked the way his voice has “matured” to make up for rasps and mumbles. He would growl and shout, but his voice would be sweet and touching when he called upon it. Billy Joe’s band was solid as well. He had the wisdom to gather a band of much younger, rose-cheeked musicians to help him out. To help with the energy level? Hell, he needed three young guys that could keep up.
The first song they played was one of the most upbeat songs of the night and included a 60 second upright slap bass solo. This set the tone for the evening; this was not going to be a psalm and storytelling night with an aging oldtimer stooped on a stump, it was going to be a night filled with full on Outlaw country. The two-steppers who usually dominate the floors of the Texas dance halls were forced back as the stage was crowded by a throng of young and old alike who wanted to get as close to this songwriting legend as they could. The diversity of the crowd was heartening. The young still cared, and the old had not forgotten.
Billy Joe wasn’t afraid to bring the room down as well and let the sweet part of his persona enchant the crowd. Shaver never lost the audience all night, in fact one of the most touching parts of the show is when he sang his song about his son Eddy, who died of a drug overdose in 2000. Shaver has a simple country wit and wisdom to him him that is impossible to not appreciate. After the first half hour of a nearly two hour performance, he could have said or sang anything he wanted, and the crowd would’ve been right there with him.
“If you don’t love Jesus, you can go to hell!”
Yes sir, Mr. Shaver.
He was engaging, funny, honest, at times sweet in his own gruffy way, and he told some amazing stories. “One time I was living outside of Nashville and I bought this ol’ car.” Ten minutes later, nobody had noticed the long break in the music because they were laughing so hard and hanging on Shaver’s every word. He had a very small guitar, almost toy-sized with him all night. He might lead off a song with it, but then like a child with a toy, he would get bored with it and free his hands to punch and motion to his songs. Inside, Billy is still that unruly boy who can’t stand still, won’t comb his hair, and will never grow up, and we love him for it.
In all honesty I walked away from the performance with not one gripe, or one expectation unfulfilled. He played all those great Waylon songs from “Honky Tonk Heroes” that put him on the national map, including “Ain’t No God in Mexico” that was requested from the crowd. Shaver led off the song by saying, “I once had a guitar player who went to one of the best music schools in the country, and he told me that this song was impossible to play.” And then he and the band performed the song flawlessly.
After the show Shaver stood outside to shake hands, sign autographs, and pose for pictures, still bucking with humor and energy. I must admit, in my head maybe I had pictured Billy Joe Shaver with one foot in the grave, and because of this I had put his name on my “See Before They Die” list.
Now Billy Joe Shaver is on my “See again Before I Die” list.
*Photos also by Kyle Coroneos
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Kyle “Trigger Man” Coroneos is music journalist currently residing in the Texas Hill Country.He is the owner of the very popular music blog, “Saving Country Music.” (www.savingcountrymusic.com). He’s also a musician and a strong advocate for real country music.
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