If you’re a country purist, you’ve gotta be pretty bummed these days.
Johnny’s gone. Waylon, too. Kris was always more of a poet than a singer, and
Willie…well, okay, Willie’s still Willie, but, somewhere along the line, he
transformed from outlaw to icon. There’s nothing wrong with that, really, but,
for the same reason fans of U2 prior to The Unforgettable Fire days can’t
entirely get behind anything the band does nowadays, fans of Willie’s since his
late ‘60s / early ‘70s work have a problem properly embracing albums where every
song seems to feature a guest star from today’s crop of musicians.
Billy Joe Shaver, however, has remained decidedly untainted by any experiences
he’s had over the years in country music. He’s what you’d call a country
musician’s country musician…which, loosely translated, means that his sales
might not amount to a hill of beans, but his music will stand the test of time
after other one-trick ponies have come, gone, and left no permanent mark.
If these sound like the sort of comments that have been cut and pasted from a
publicist-composed artist bio...well, they’re not. Shaver really is that good.
All of those outlaw artists mentioned above...? He’s worked with ‘em.
Kristofferson recorded Shaver’s “Good Christian Soldier,” then returned the
favor by producing Shaver’s debut solo album. Cash recorded what most agree is
the definitive version of “I’m Just An Old Lump of Coal (But I’m Gonna Be A
Diamond Some Day),” but Jennings one-upped him by releasing Honky Tonk Heroes, a
ten-song album of which nine were written by Shaver. Even Nelson got into the
act in 2000, when he, Kristofferson, and Jennings all teamed with Shaver to
record an album’s worth of Billy Joe’s songs. (Confusingly, it, too, is called
Honky Tonk Heroes.) Oh, yeah, and Elvis Presley knocked one of Shaver’s songs
out of the park, too, with his rendition of “You Asked Me To,” which closed the
King’s Promised Land album.
To celebrate Shaver’s 65th birthday, a bunch of his fellow country musician’s
country musicians -- Guy Clark, Joe Ely, Jimmie Dale Gilmore, and Robert Earl
Keen, to name a few -- got together t o pay tribute to a man who’d influenced
them. The festivities begin with a performance by Shaver himself, teamed with
the band Diamondback Texas, on “Georgia on a Fast Train.” (Shame they couldn’t
get BR5-49 in to do the honors, as they recorded the song on their ’98 album,
Big Backyard Beat Show.)
As you’d expect, the tribute focuses primarily on Shaver’s own songs, but there
are exceptions; Clark performs one of his own songs, “Randall Knife,” which is
one of Shaver’s favorites, and Ely opts for his own “Honky Tonk Masquerade,”
which was directly inspired by Shaver’s own work.
No matter what the material, however, the assembled artists offer introductions
to their songs, some of which ramble on a bit, but they help put things in
perspective and really give you a feel for how much the man’s work has touched
them. Gilmore, in particular, offers a self-fulfilling prophecy that he might
not make it through his introduction to “Hearts-A-Bustin’” without his voice
breaking, so personal is his connection to the song.
The performances may not be perfection across the board, but the emotion behind
them is undeniable. Watson’s rendition of “You Asked Me To” is a heartfelt
reminder of how good old school country can be; perhaps most surprisingly,
country comedy troupe the Geezinslaws contribute a rollicking version of “Bad
Rock ‘n’ Roll.” Robert Earl Keen’s introduction to “Bottom Dollar” is hard to
top, but his version is pretty solid.
This might not be the best introduction to Billy Joe Shaver’s work – that honor
goes to a Razor and Tie compilation, Restless Wind – but it’s a nice start, and
it certainly demonstrates the love that the man’s fans have for him.