By Eric Hisaw
(LSM July/Aug 2011/vol. 4 – Issue 4)
By 1993 Billy Joe and Eddy Shaver were both music business veterans. Billy Joe
had come on the scene at the end of the ’60s, one of Nashville’s brightest and most down-to-earth songwriters, pitching songs to established artists like Bobby Bare, Tom T. Hall and, most notably, Waylon Jennings, all the while cutting a few albums of his own. His son Eddy, meanwhile, had developed as a hot-shot guitar player in his father’s road-worn absence, touring and recording some with Guy Clark as a young teenager before teaming up with Billy Joe himself. Once father and son joined forces, Columbia Records took a chance on the Texans’ decidely non-Urban Cowboy stylings for a trio of albums in the ’80s, none making much of a dent commercially. As the years wore on the Shavers took to the highways and the beer-joint bandstands to carve out a living with their songs and guitars. In doing so, their sound hardened, blending Eddy’s blues-rocking guitar lines with his dad’s uncompromising poetry into a sound that was wholly unique. The climate on the roots-music scene in 1993 was finally perfect for the Shavers to make an album that truly represented their talents and vision.
Separated for the first time from the confines of Nashville’s Music Row, they connected with Webb Wilder’s producer and man behind the scenes, R.S. Field, who helped secure them a deal with the adventurous Zoo/Praxis label. Enlisting the talents of former Georgia Satellites bass player Keith Christopher and Memphis drummer Greg Morrow, they unleashed the monumental Tramp On Your Street, a potent mix of cleanly picked Fender Stratocaster magic and soul-purging lyricism. Old associate Jennings sits in on the anthemic “Heart of Texas” and the brilliant Western ballad, “Oklahoma Wind.” It also features the definitive version of Billy Joe’s “Georgia On a Fast Train,” which Field refers to as the “God Save the Queen” of country music; the recording (the song’s third) nails the power and enthusiasm of the lyric and contains an incredible lightening-speed, double-tracked guitar solo that would establish Eddy as the standard bearer of ass-kicking country rock guitar. Former Kentucky Headhunters vocalists Ricky and Doug Phelps don’t really help the beautiful acoustic “Live Forever,” but they don’t hurt either, as Eddy’s bluegrass-inspired guitar lines frame Billy Joe’s most sensitive and enduring lyrics. The rest of the album rocks on with scarcely a weak track in sight, blasting through a new version of one of Billy Joe’s most famous songs, “Old Chunk of Coal,” and finishing up with the swampy blues “I Want Some More,” featuring rock legend Al Kooper trading organ licks with Eddy’s psychedelic tremelo guitar. Eddy had been determined to bring the music up to the same level as his father’s lyrics, and by teaming with like-minded visionaries Field and Christopher, who were as versed in British Invasion rock and blues as they were country music, the goal was accomplished with flying colors.
Tramp On Your Street would establish the Shaver team as leaders in the relatively young alt-country/Americana scene, making them solid draws on the live circuit and boosting Billy Joe to elder-statesman status alongside his multi-platinum-selling friends like Jennings, Willie Nelson and Kris Kristofferson. It was a long and twisted road to get there. Outside of his songwriting success, Billy Joe had never received the kind of attention as a recording artist his supporters and friends had. After several years bouncing around Nashville and Texas, he had his first taste of songwriting acceptance landing tracks on albums by Johnny Rodriguez and Bobby Bare. He made his first foray in to the studio in 1973 with the Kristofferson-produced Old Five and Dimers Like Me, released on Monument Records. That same year, Jennings turned a suite of Shaver “cowboy songs” into the classic Honky Tonk Heroes album. The two albums are closely related with four tunes in common. The production and vocal delivery on Jennings’ album is much stronger and confident in comparison to the ragged folksy groove of Shaver’s. But Old Five and Dimers does boast a few of it’s own highlights in the Jimmie Rodgers influenced “Bottom Dollar,” the original recording of “I Been To Georgia On A Fast Train” and an ode to amphetamines, “L.A. Turnaround.” It was a strong debut, featuring some tasteful accompaniment by the Kristofferson crew including Stephen Bruton. Though outshined by Jennings’ high-water mark, it still holds up with plenty of down-home charm.
The outlaw country and cosmic cowboy music happening in Nashville and Texas shared several elements with the Southern rock movement happening in Georgia and Alabama. Musicians like Dickey Betts, Charlie Daniels and Bonnie Bramlett were hip to the songs Billy Joe was writing and they all pitched in on his second album, recorded for Macon, Ga., label Capricorn Records and produced by heavy hitter Bob Johnston. Kicking off with the slide-guitar driven “Texas Uphere Tennessee,” When I Get My Wings (1976) is a fine slice of rocking country lifted up by some beautifully poetic lyrics. The downside, and probably the reason it didn’t take off commercially, is that most of Shaver’s vocals are pitched in his lowest range, coming off muddy and less passionate than he’s capable of delivering, usually finding themselves buried in the mix beneath Chuck Leavell’s bouncing piano and the soaring guitars of Ron Cornelius, Tommy Talton and Betts. But the album debuts some enduring Shaver classics that have since been re-recorded multiple times: “When the Word Was Thunderbird,” “Restless Wind” and “Evergreen.” It’s also an important record for dedicated Shaver fans, as it showcases Billy Joe working with some of Eddy’s earliest guitar influences, but it’s not really the best place to start. The Jennings versions of “Ride Me Down Easy” and “Ain’t No God In Mexico” easily over power the takes heard here, and fans familiar with the songs may find these versions sluggish and disappointing.
Peer respect and publishing revenues kept Billy Joe and Capricorn Records partnered together for one more album, 1977’s Gypsy Boy, before the label folded up. This time producer Brian Ahern was brought in, hot from his work with Emmylou Harris, to integrate Shaver’s genius into the kind of country rock that was selling at the time. For the only time in his career Billy Joe cut several songs he didn’t write, including Rodney Crowell’s “I’m Going Crazy in 3/4 Time” and “Gypsy Boy,” written by Bob Carpenter. Though the production is much crisper, Shaver’s vocals still lurk around the murky bottom of his range on several cuts, turning “We Stayed Too Long at the Fair” into more of a recitation and the title cut into an almost comical dirge. Despite the general disconnected feeling, though, the album is worth digging into as the source for Shaver’s own takes on “Honky Tonk Heroes,” “You Asked Me To” and “Slow Rolling Low,” all previously cut by Jennings. The promise of Shaver songs framed by outstanding pickers like Gerry McGhee, Ben Keith, Randy Scruggs and David Briggs never lives up to its potential, but the record does show what a misfit Billy Joe has always been.
It would take four years to get Billy Joe Shaver back in the studio as Columbia Records took its shot at selling his outlaw cowboy mystique to the masses. The first of his two Columbia albums, 1981’s I’m Just an Old Chunk of Coal … But I’m Gonna Be a Diamond Someday, marked the first time Eddy contributed to one of his father’s albums, and from the first notes of “Fit To Kill And Going Out in Style” it’s apparent a more focused and driven Billly Joe is behind the microphone. The songs display not only the far-reaching poetry of his lyrics but also the wide range of his powerful voice and a sympathetic guitar that kicks it up in the right places and still leaves room for the lyrics. “Ragged Old Truck,” “(We Are) The Cowboys” and “Ain’t Nothing New Babe” are all fine tracks heard only on this album. A second pass at “When the Word Was Thunderbird” and the maiden voyage of the iconic title track are also solid, but both would be trumped by later versions. The dramatic closer “The Road” would also be reworked later as the title track to 2001’s The Earth Rolls On.
I’m Just an Old Chunk of Coal was quickly followed by 1982’s similarly packaged Billy Joe Shaver, procuced by Jennings’ long-time drummer, Richie Albright. Kicking off with a strong up-tempo opener, “Amtrak (and Ain’t Coming Back),” the record picks up the same energetic pace as its predecessor. New takes on “Bottom Dollar,” “Old Five and Dimers,” “Ride Me Down Easy” and “Low Down Freedom” are solid commercially viable tracks that wouldn’t have been out of place on 1982 country radio alongside Moe Bandy, Gary Stewart or John Anderson. But the best parts of the record would be revisited in even more powerful form on Tramp On Your Street. “Oklahoma Wind” is one of Billy Joe’s finest moments, lyrically detailing the passing of his friend’s Indian grandfather, touching on government corruption, drought and alcohol abuse in one breathtaking song. The ’82 album’s reworking of “I Been To Georgia On A Fast Train” is amped-up from the ’73 debut with a driving beat and some flashy guitar work, but it’s still nothing close to the balls-to-wall approach that would be employed on Tramp 11 years later.
It would be another five years before Columbia released a new Billy Joe Shaver album. In the downtime the Shavers gigged constantly, trimming their live act down to a four-piece honky-tonk and rock ’n’ roll combo with drummer Jimmy Lester and bassist Kenny Hoelscher supporting the father and son. In 1984 they made an appearance on public television’s Austin City Limits, which was released on DVD in 2006 by New West Records. Live From Austin City Limits shows the lean and mean band crisscrossing the Shaver catalog, showing off the one-man guitar orchestra that Eddy had become. They also debuted three new songs that later showed up on the 1987 LP Salt of the Earth, “Sweet Mama,” “Street Walking Woman” and “You Can’t Beat Jesus Christ.” That album would feature the stripped-down line up, sounding mostly like a live-in-the-studio effort, much more low-fi than a typical major-label country release. For the first and only time, Billy Joe and Eddy are credited as producers. It’s possible the executives at the label, seeing what Steve Earle and Rodney Crowell were accomplishing in making inroads to country radio, thought it was worth taking another chance on Billy Joe. But the record sank without much of a trace and the Shavers would disappear back to the beer joints and honky-tonks for six more years before blasting out with Tramp On Your Street.
The intervening time was not idle for Eddy. In constant motion between Nashville, Memphis, Austin and Waco, he signed on with a hard rock group called the Delta Rebels, which made one album of Skynyrd-meets-Molly-Hatchet-styled southern hard rock for Polygram in 1989 called Down In the Dirt. At that time he also paired with producer/songwriter Tony Colton, who was hot from his huge Gregg Allman hit single “I’m No Angel.” Colton thought Eddy “looked like a young Marlon Brando and played like a guitar god.” The two recorded an album, Babtism of Fire, that leaned heavily on AC/DC style blues rock. (The album was eventually released by the guitar worshipping French label Dixie Frog in the ’90s to little acclaim or commercial success.) Around the same time, honky-tonk revivalist Dwight Yoakam needed a replacement for his guitarist Pete Anderson, who was too busy producing albums to tour. He called on Eddy to fill in, giving the guitarist a taste of the big time, including a Tonight Show appearance.
By ’93, father and son were reunited, and with the potent addition of bassist Keith Christopher, firing on all cylinders. The success of the resulting Tramp On Your Street brought the offer to do a live album with super hot producer Brendan O’Brien, who’s recent credits included Pearl Jam. Like Christopher, O’Brien had also served time in the Georgia Satellites. The group took the stage on their home turf at Smith’s Olde Bar in Atlanta for the recording. Released in 1995, Unshaven: Shaver Live at Smith’s Olde Bar proves to be a powerful document of the honky-tonk highway-to-hell sound that Shaver the band was laying down to the newly appreciative audiences across the country. In a slight pause from the electric mayhem, Keith and Eddy grab acoustic guitars and Billy Joe delivers “Honey Bee,” one of the first songs he wrote as a child, released here for the first time. After that it’s back to the hell raising, covering the tough and tight arrangements of songs from across the stellar catalog.
Coming up with a suitable studio follow-up to Tramp On Your Street presented a unique challenge. This was the first time Billy Joe had any kind of momentum to build on, with every other album having been a new start. Highway of Life (1996) saw the Shavers, without Christopher, moving over to Randall Jamail’s Justice Records. Building an outlaw country empire, Justice had signed up Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings alongside young gun Jesse Dayton and songwriter Kimmie Rhodes. Billy Joe and Eddy fit right in and turned in a fantastic set of songs running the gamut from purely acoustic to full-tilt boogie. The opener, “Yesterday Tomorrow Was Today,” is a pleasant minor-key meditation on the unstoppable effects of time. “Coming On Strong” pumps along with some catchy baritone guitar and cowboy romantic lyrics. “Moonshine and Indian Blood,” co-written with Tony Colton, is the love-it or hate-it moment on the record, a hard-rock rhythm with some snappy aggressive bass parts frame a cliché-ridden lyric that falls far short of the previous album’s masterful “Oklahoma Wind.” Personally, I love it anyway. “You’re as Young as the Woman You Feel” maybe doesn’t get the same free pass; the image of Eddy cringing as Billy Joe introduced this song at Floore’s Country Store in Helotes, Texas, one night a few months before the album’s release is burned in my mind. Overall though, this album is a highly underrated work that is well worth seeking out.
As Justice Records faded in to the sunset, New West Records came calling with the offer to record an acoustic, gospel record. 1998’s Victory, named for Billy Joe’s mother, is a pleasant listen, with father and son running through three songs first heard on Tramp, a much different unplugged take on Salt of the Earth’s “You Can’t Beat Jesus Christ” and another pass at “Old Five And Dimers.” “Christian Soldier” was first cut by Kristofferson on his third album, and “Cowboy Who Started the Fight” was a longtime showpiece of Shaver’s live show. There’s not much new here, and the album’s mostly very quiet and low key, but it works well as a stopgap between other projects.
Electric Shaver, from 1999, is the polar opposite of Victory, a rough and tumble, heavy guitar-driven romp. Sonically, Electic Shaver is a bit of an odd album; produced by Ray Kennedy, it features far more studio trickery than any previous Shaver set. Most of the material has a world-weary, tongue-in-cheek sarcasm to it that is alternately fun and a bit depressing. But overall, it’s a treat. The album hits its peak right at the top with a third pass at “Thunderbird.” Long distinguished by some of Billy Joe’s most potent lyrics, this version is full of chugging rhythm guitars, pounding drums, thumping bass and Eddy’s screaming solos. Unlike anything they’d cut before, it’s a hard track to follow. “Try and Try Again,” “People and Their Problems” and “You Wouldn’t Know Love” are all humorous big-guitar rockers. “Slave at the Feet of the Queen,” “I’ll Be Here” and “She Can Dance” are sweet Billy Joe tunes that address his life-long romance with Eddy’s mother, Brenda. Eddy contributes “Heart To Heart,” a sincere love song with some driving 12-string jangle and a convincing vocal by Billy Joe.
By the time Electric Shaver hit the streets, it was apparent that Eddy was struggling with substance problems. And in quick succession, Billy Joe’s mother Victory and Eddy’s mother Brenda both passed away. It was troubled times for the duo going in to the studio to record 2001’s The Earth Rolls On. Billy Joe has mentioned in the press that New West Records was pushing for a Billy Joe solo record without Eddy’s rock ’n’ roll guitar or attitude coloring the songs. If New West really did want Eddy out, instead they got the guitarist’s finest moments. Ray Kennedy returned to produce the record, this time leaving behind the clever effects and going for a pure, organic sound that reflected an extraordinary group of musicians (including Wilco’s Ken Coomer and Jay Bennet and E-Street Band bassist Gary Tallent) playing in a great sounding room. “Love is So Sweet” comes bursting out of the speakers with a fresh energy, “Evergreen Fields” features a stunning guitar solo that sends the listener reaching for the repeat button, and the reworked “Restless Wind” is a masterpiece. The album also features some fun blues rockers, “Hard Headed Heart,” “Leavin’ Amarillo,” “Sail of My Soul,” the stunning ballads “Star of My Heart” and “You’re Too Much For Me,” and a touch of acoustic hillbilly in “New York City Girl.” “Blood is Thicker Than Water” is a raw glimpse inside the relationship between father and son. The closer, “The Earth Rolls On,” is the show stopper. Opening with a nod to the Rolling Stones’ “Paint It Black,” it takes the listener on a psychedelic cowboy journey unlike anything recorded before or since. Sadly, before the album’s release, Eddy died from an apparent heroin overdose on Dec 31, 2000.
The loss of Eddy’s immense talent and vision ended an era of Billy Joe’s music. Picking up the pieces and reconnecting with Tramp producer R.S. Field, who wisely stayed away from trying to recreate the balls-to-the-wall fervor of their earlier collaboration, Billy Joe released Freedom’s Child in 2002 on Compadre Records. Though anti-climatic after the depth, grit and edge of The Earth Rolls On, overall it is a fine album, far beyond the work of most all his contemporaries. “Corsicana Daily Sun” and the title track rock along nicely with Will Kimbrough and Jaimie Hartford chiming in with tasty guitar work. “Day By Day,” delivered with just a lone 12-string acoustic guitar for accompaniment, is a beautiful poetic story about his wife and son. The album is sentimental, reflective and open. Fans of Billy Joe’s lyricism will find a lot to dig into here, though fans of the father/son duo will be looking for the other strong personality that managed to balance that sentimentality and occasional redneck silliness. Without Eddy’s instrumental power, “That’s What She Said Last Night” and “Deja Blues” fall pretty flat. The good far outweighs the bad, though, and the production and performances are solid throughout.
Billy Joe and Compadre Records took a big chance in 2004 pulling out some tapes Eddy had left behind, a mix of tracks from his solo album, live recordings and a few home demos, to create Billy and the Kid. For the most part the record sounds weird and disjointed. The tracks were pieced together over 15-years time, some parts originally recorded on cassette. It’s not a true album per se, but a fans-only glimpse into the development of an artist. Billy Joe adds vocals to several tracks, with “Step On Up,” “Eagle on the Ground” and “Window Rock” the most successful. The songs from Eddy’s solo album, written with Tony Colton, are hard rock in the AC/DC vein, with clichéd lyrics and over-the-top screaming solos. Oddly enough, although Eddy always sounded singular and wholly unique with his father, on his own he sounds just like a million other guitar players. There are parts of the disc I really enjoy, but I would only recommend this as a reference. Fans looking for the great, lost Shaver tracks will be greatly disappointed.
A much better bet is Storyteller-Live at the Bluebird, released by Sugar Hill in 2007. A mixing-board tape from a live show recorded at the famed Nashville songwriter venue in 1992, it features Billy Joe singing songs from across his catalog, some yet to be released at the time, backed by Eddy and Keith Christopher on acoustic guitars. The sound is harsh and raw, nothing like a folk or bluegrass album, just unplugged country-blues-style rock ’n’ roll in an intimate setting, with Billy Joe delivering some humorous asides. Todd Snider contributes informative, personalized liner notes about his friends that are an added bonus.
In the last half of the decade Billy Joe has released two albums, 2005’s The Real Deal and 2007’s Everybody’s Brother. Both records are similar in that Billy Joe’s perspective has changed from that of the hungry outsider to one of a living legend. Still full of poetic turns and the hard-earned edge of experience, the newer songs are more of a soundtrack to a dramatic backstory than stand-alone works like his oft-covered classics. At this stage of a long and artistically fulfilling career it is a pleasure to have Billy Joe Shaver still making records. His voice sounds as good as ever, and outside of the ridiculously poor taste of letting Music Row flavor-of-the-month Big and Rich produce a disasterously misguided remake of “Live Forever” (on The Real Deal), there is nothing here to be embarrassed by. The Real Deal benefits from Lloyd Maines’ outstanding pedal-steel work, an instrument that had never really figured prominently on previous Shaver records. Everybody’s Brother, covering mostly gospel ground, is heavy on duets, none of which seem particularly inspired or essential, but whatever draws a new listener in to Billy Joe Shaver’s music can’t really be criticized. (The notable exception, of course, being the aforementioned “Live Forever” travesty.)
In recent years, Billy Joe has found greater fame using a firearm in a bar fight outside of Waco (and the celebrity circus trial that ensued) than for his incredible body of work. This is a shame, as the depth and individuality of his songwriting is in a league with few others. It’s rare in the music business that a parent/child team has operated on such sympathetic or equal ground. When playing his father’s songs, Eddy created a truly irreplaceable voice on his battered Fender Stratocaster. When backed by his son, Billy Joe put forth a confidence, intelligence and authenticity that placed country songs on the same plane as the best of rock ’n’ roll. There is not a moment on the albums released under the band name Shaver between 1993 and 2001 that is not essential listening for any true fan of Texas music.
Note: There are a few “best ofs” and live compilations I’ve left out here. Honky Tonk Heroes is a handy Bear Family Records import from 1994 that features all of both 1976’s When I Get My Wings and 1977’s Gypsy Boy, as well as his 1974 MCA single “Lately I’ve Been Leaning Toward the Blues”/“I Couldn’t Be Me Without You” and a previously unreleased version of “Music City U.S.A.” Restless Wind: The Legendary Billy Joe Shaver 1973-1987, released on Razor and Tie in 1995, also does a good job covering the early albums that may be hard to find. Another collection called Honky Tonk Heroes, released by Freefalls Entertainment in 1999, is a poorly recorded set of demos with Jennings, Nelson and Kristofferson sloppily overdubbed in as duet partners. A much better recording of that combination is The Outlaws — Live From Austin, TX, released as part of the Austin City Limits series by New West; it features Shaver, Jennings, Nelson, Kristofferson and Kimmie Rhodes recorded about the time Highway of Life was released. Compadre’s Greatest Hits (2007) mostly repurposes tracks from Freedom’s Child with (post-Eddy) live versions of older songs.
MR. RECORD MAN’S TOP 5 SHAVER ALBUMS
1. Tramp On Your Street, Zoo/Praxis Records, 1993
After years of toiling away as a second-tier fixture on the country scene, Billy Joe shakes off the trappings of Music Row, bumps his son Eddy up to co-billing and sets the standard for what will be called Americana Music. From the slinky first notes of “Heart of Texas” to the tremelo-laden throb of “I Want Some More,” Tramp On Your Street is jam packed with as much grit and guts as anything by the Rolling Stones or Bob Dylan. Credit to Zoo Records and producer R.S. Field for investing so much in an album with no perceived market. This time the good guys won. Key tracks: “Oklahoma Wind,” “Georgia on a Fast Train,” “Live Forever”
2. The Earth Rolls On, New West Records, 2001
The swan song for Eddy Shaver, this album reflects the dark and desperate turbulent times in which it was made. Rumour has it New West was pushing for a Billy Joe solo album without the big guitars or rock ‘n’ roll attitude. Instead, they got the deepest, most raw and rocking album the duo ever made. Twangy Duane Eddy-inspired riffs give way to Hendrix-esque touches of psychedelic blues, while Billy Joe lays his soul bare with some of his most potent lyrics. Key tracks: “Evergreen Fields,” “Too Much For Me,” “The Earth Rolls On”
3. Highway of Life, Justice Records, 1996
When Justice Records set about building their mid-90s outlaw country dynasty, Shaver (the band) proved to be the most vital component as the only act to actually be in its prime at the moment. Split between gorgeous acoustic story songs and pounding electric rockers, Highway of Life is the Shavers at the peak of ability and confidence. Former Buck Owens and Dwight Yoakam fiddler Brantley Kearns trades off some stellar instrumental passages with Eddy, who is equally at home on an array of acoustic, electric, and baritone guitars. Key tracks: “Yesterday Tomorrow Was Today,” “Coming On Strong,” “Highway of Life”
4. Unshaven: Shaver Live at Smith’s Olde Bar, Zoo/Praxis Records, 1995
This live recording from a couple hot nights at Smith’s Olde Bar in Atlanta showcases the leanest and meanest Shaver lineup, with Keith Christopher on bass and Craig Wright on drums, pounding out the audacious arrangements they’d perfected from years in the beer joints and dancehalls. Producers Brendan O’Brien and Nick Didia get the knobs set just right and let the band play with all the force and might it had to offer. Eddy conjures up traces of Rory Gallagher, Johnny Winter and Jeff Beck, while sounding like no one but himself. Key tracks: “Love You ‘til the Cows Come Home,” “Black Rose,” “Sweet Mama,” “Ride Me Down Easy”
5. Electric Shaver, New West Records, 1999
Electric Shaver finds the band — with Keith Christopher back on board after being away for a spell — backing away from the live sound of their previous albums, using layers of edgy guitars and studio effects to make a record that is darkly humorous and at times lovingly sweet. The opening “(When the Word Was) Thunderbird,” recorded for the third time, is an all-time classic mash up of cowboy poetry and wacked-out electric guitar crunch. In previous versions of the song, the melody and music seemed burdened by the weight of the brilliant lyrics, but this time the story is set free with reckless abandon. Other key tracks: “People and Their Problems,” “Try and Try Again,” “Heart to Heart”