LIVE: Billy Joe Shaver @ the Ale House, 12/4/12 (Take Two)

Review by Don Wilcock

Billy Joe Shaver lives inside his songs, and his songs will live forever.

Rough, raw, randy and religious, Shaver in concert at the Ale House in Troy last week mixed metaphors and told politically incorrect stories egged on by fans ready to follow him anywhere he wished them to go.

In 1973, Shaver laid down the template for the outlaw country scene, writing all but one of the tunes for Waylon Jennings’ Honky Tonk Heroes LP. He performed the title song and nearly 30 other songs.

“Piano rolled blues, I dance holes in my boots
There weren’t another other way to be
For loveable losers and no account boozers
and honky tonk heroes like me”

At the Ale House, he wore denim like skin on an alligator that clung to his beat-up bones as the sweat of a two-hour song-fest marathon squeezed in tighter on his frame. A Christian cross and a tiger’s tooth hung from his neck, and he lifted his weathered and feathered brown hat to reveal thinning white hair that corkscrewed around his skull like a baby chick’s fuzz until he swept it back with his hands, his right hand reduced to stumps with his first three fingers severed in a sawmill accident.

“Hey, ride me down easy, Lord, ride me on down
Leave word in the dust where I lay
Say I’m easy come, easy go and easy to love when I stay”
– from “Ride Me Down Easy”

From his overwhelming pain comes the peace of his message, a mixture of a friendly and loving God, a sense of humor based on seasoned, sometimes sardonic observations of human nature and a total absorption of Texas honky-tonk roots.

“Papa ran off before I was born
Mama picked cotton just to raise us kids in the Texas sun
We grew up in the cotton fields.
The road was long but the heart is strong
I was Texas born and raised and Texas is my home
Texas is home sweet home”
– from “Heart of Texas”

A living embodiment of the Portrait of Dorian Gray, he gave himself so completely to his music that the pain of his rough lived 73 years was completely forgotten. “My knees and stuff are going out,” he told me in our interview. “My back’s gone out, and both my shoulders have gone out, and I got screws in ’em, and I got one new knee, and I’m needin’ now to get another new knee, and, oh, just things that gave up from wearing yourself out.”

I kept thinking he was channeling Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson, and Jimmie Dale Gilmore only to catch myself and realize that he’s the one who inspired them. They channeled him, not the other way around.

“I’ve spent a lifetime making up my mind to be
More than the measure of what I thought others could see
Good luck and fast bucks are too far and too few between
for Cadillac buyers and old five and dimers like me”
– from “Old Five and Dimers”

A musical autobiography accompanied by a tough, young band featuring Jeremy Woodall on guitar, Jason Lynn McKenzie on drums and bass player Matt Davis, bad asses straight out of a spaghetti western with a healthy disregard for any lines in the sand between Texas cow punk and roadhouse rock and roll. They’re right there with him, experiencing a man living his life on stage.

Moving in erratic dances in time to the band and occasionally lifting his arms to the sky and bellowing like Sitting Bull at Wounded Knee, Shaver looked over the audience like an ancient mariner surveying the horizon, his intense fixation in search of a sliver of land and the promise of a safe port of call.

He wasn’t sure he could do “Live Forever,” written with his son who died of a heroin overdose on New Year’s Eve in 2000, but he slid into the song, another dose of therapy for the night.

“You fathers and mothers
Be good to one another
Please try to raise your children right
Don’t let the darkness take ’em
Don’t make ’em feel forsaken
Just lead ’em safely to the light”
– from “Live Forever”

Hearing the songs live vs. his latest CD Live at Billy Bob’s Texas is to view the “Titanic” movie in 3D for the first time. Shaver doesn’t create songs so much his songs create him. The antithesis of drugs that numb pain, his musical forays devour and showcase his pain. A seasoned troubadour, he delivers the message that God is a loving entity with a sense of humor, and that life itself is a gift that wrenches the bad times into perspective. “Old Chunk of Coal” was the song that helped him get off booze and find Jesus.

“I’m gonna kneel and pray every day
Lest I should become vain along the way
I’m just an old chunk of coal now, Lord
But I’m gonna be a diamond some day”
– from “Old Chunk of Coal”

The show was transcendent, the perfect blend of medium and message. Part roadhouse, part 19th century Charles Dickens pub, the Ale House is a Troy roots music nirvana, the perfect venue for this, one of the best roots music shows I’ve seen outside of Chicago and north of the Mason-Dixon line.

Billy Joe Shaver lives inside his songs, and his songs will live forever.

Fred Rudofsky’s review at Nippertown

A Few Minutes With… Billy Joe Shaver

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