Skip to main content

Culture Music

Michael Stravato/The Washington Post/Getty Images

Billy Joe Shaver
Michael Stravato/The Washington Post/Getty Images


Rough around the edges

Billy Joe Shaver led a hard life but penned music full of truth

I once interviewed R.C. Sproul about his book Willing To Believe. In its discussion of faith and salvation, he’d referred to semi-Pelagians as “barely” Christians, and I asked him what he meant.

“All of us who are Christians,” he said laughing, “are only barely Christians.”

The country-music singer-songwriter and Texas legend Billy Joe Shaver would have agreed.

Shaver, many of whose compositions became “outlaw country” staples, died three days before Halloween after suffering a stroke. He was 81.

No one deserved the description “larger than life” more than Shaver. Abandoned in infancy, he spent his first dozen years with his Baptist grandmother in Corsicana and the next several reunited with his saloon-running mother in Waco. He had his first sexual experience at age 12 (the subject of his song “Black Rose”) and lost the top halves of two fingers in a sawmill. He married and divorced his wife Brenda three times. He lost his 37-year-old guitar-playing son Eddy to heroin.

In 2001, he survived an onstage heart attack, and six years later faced charges of aggravated assault and illegal firearms possession after he shot a man in the face outside a saloon. (He pleaded self-defense and prevailed.) In the interim, he served as his friend and fellow Texan Kinky Friedman’s “spiritual adviser” during Friedman’s unsuccessful gubernatorial run. 

There was more where those episodes came from. When I interviewed Shaver in 2005, I gave him an advance copy of a Johnny Cash box containing his previously unreleased duet with the Man in Black. “Johnny Cash,” he said, “was the only man I’ve ever seen who could kick down a door.” One can only imagine the craziness of the circumstances leading up to such an event.   

Perhaps craziest of all is that no matter how wild and woolly his life became, Shaver never stopped writing, recording, or performing.

One theme to which he returned throughout his career was the Savior to whom he’d turned in the early 1970s upon finding himself enslaved by drugs and booze. “Jesus Christ, What a Man,” “You Can’t Beat Jesus Christ,” “Jesus Christ Is Still the King,” “Jesus Is the Only One Who Loves Us”—it was easy to see what Kinky Friedman meant when he said one of his biggest challenges when performing with Shaver was keeping Shaver from turning their shows into revival meetings.

During a 1997 performance with Waylon Jennings, Kris Kristofferson, and Willie Nelson on Austin City Limits, Shaver introduced “You Can’t Beat Jesus Christ” by saying, “I’d like to say today that I—I love the Lord Jesus Christ. That’s where I’m at.” Then, lest he be thought sanctimonious, he added, “I’m a sinner big time.”

It was his way of saying about himself what Sproul had said about all believers. And like everything else he sang, it was true.  

Share this article with friends.


Atypical “best-ofs”

New and noteworthy releases

Herb Alpert Is ... by Herb Alpert: An accessory to the authorized documentary of the same name, Herb Alpert Is … begins with its subject’s swinging instrumental ’60s, continues with his chart-topping ’70s (both “This Guy’s in Love With You” and “Rise” reached No. 1), and proceeds to the dapper Miles Davis–lite funk of his ’80s and ’90s (choicest cut: “Sneakin’ In”). It winds down with 11 21st-century recordings featuring a little bit of everything (Edith Piaf, Michael Jackson, Irving Berlin, “Wade in the Water”). Once in a while, he or others sing. But the unifying factor is his trumpet, the tone of which never falters.

Wildflowers & All the Rest by Tom Petty: Wildflowers is the 15-song, triple-platinum solo-album-in-name-only with which Tom Petty inaugurated his Warner Bros. phase. Twenty-six years on, its melodically straightforward shuffling of acoustic introspection and slack-free rocking still sounds good. All the Rest, depending on which “edition” you buy, is 10 mostly acoustic and introspective songs that Warner Bros. refused to allow Petty to include the first time, 15 “home recordings” that sound pretty much like their studio counterparts, 14 live Wildflowers-era cuts edited together from 22 years of concerts, and 15 alternate versions. The 10 previously nixed tunes are worth having—unlike the original 15, they ha­ven’t (yet) become so familiar that their clichés are impossible to ignore. The rest is memorabilia for affluent devotees only. 

The Wanderer: 40th Anniversary by Donna Summer: With The Wanderer, Donna Summer concluded her reign as the Queen of Disco and began a pure-pop phase to prove her big, powerful voice knew no stylistic bounds. “Grand Illusion” floated in like an art-pop-meets-new-wave dream. “Cold Love” detonated one power chord after another. “Breakdown” told Alan Parsons the news. And eluding categorization altogether—even remixed (twice) for dance-floor compatibility on this bonus-track-enhanced anniversary disc—was the title track. Yet, surprising as these changes were, they were as nothing compared with “I Believe in Jesus,” which Summer wrote by herself (with a little cribbing from Sarah Josepha Hale and the Rev. Sabine Baring-Gould) and placed at disc’s end, giving God the last word.

I’d Rather Lead a Band by Loudon Wainwright III with Vince Giordano and the Nighthawks: Wainwright has said that he recorded these lively Tin Pan Alley songs so that he “could shed [his] Loudon Wainwright III-ness” and focus on singing. Still, some LWIII-ness comes through. “The skunk got squashed, and there you are!” he emoted in his lone Top 40 hit. “I lead with a baton, and there you are!” he emotes in this album’s title cut. Then there’s “I’m Going To Give It to Mary With Love,” originally recorded by Cliff “Jiminy Cricket” Edwards and banned by the BBC because of risqué double-entendres. The remaining baker’s dozen are a mixture of sentimental favorites and profound obscurities. And they’re conservative to the core.

Share this article with friends.


Melodic sensibilities

Noteworthy new or recent releases

The Omnibus by Roland Chadwick & the Modern Guitar Trio: The ensemble’s name implies four classical guitarists, but the cover—accurately—shows three. And they’re enough. Although Roland Chadwick composed all 19 pieces himself, he, Vincent Lindsey-Clark, and Roland Gallery interact with a riveting sensitivity to their melodies, to each other, and to the slyer implications of the titles. “Stumbler’s Waltz” suggests even people with two left feet might have a future on the dance floor. “Waltzing Waitress” holds out similar hope for working-class women living from one tip to the next. In an ironic twist, “Rush Hour” unpacks the melody of that quintessential Shaker paean to life in the slow lane, “Simple Gifts.”

I’m So Happy by Happy Makky Sax Quartet: Recorded eight years ago but either just released or just released digitally (information, to put it mildly, is scant), this 63-minute program by the Japanese saxophonists Kimie Ishioka, Maki Kasai, Kyoto Kitajima, and Ryo Asako Kito leads with an arrangement of Jérôme Naulais’ five-movement Toquades then proceeds to wind its way through works by Mari Miura (the four-movement Teatime Album) and other Japanese composers before arriving at “Moon River,” “Je Ne Pourrai Jamais Vivre Sans Toi” (aka “I Will Wait for You” from The Umbrellas of Cherbourg), and a title piece that succinctly summarizes much that has gone before. The playing, even at its perkiest, is decorous. At no point is it decorous to a fault.

Charles Ives: Complete Symphonies Los Angeles Philharmonic, Gustavo Dudamel: Charles Ives remains one of the more under-recorded major American composers, and three of his four finished symphonies were so far ahead of their time that they’ve only recently begun sounding contemporary. But these recordings stand out. Chronological sequencing and stellar musicianship make identifying Ives’ development a pleasure. While he’s known for forging a uniquely American music made from tension-building inner conflicts and the motivic use of hymns and popular songs, he also produced wonderful European effects. His Symphony No. 1, which has both feet in the 19th century, speaks volumes about knowing the past before trying to shape the future.

Airlines by Alexandre Desplat, Emmanuel Pahud, Orchestre National de France: It’s not necessarily saying much these days to point out that a soundtrack is better than its film. But Alexandre Desplat, who rewrote some of these pieces to help them live as vibrantly off the screen as on, is one film composer whose musical imagination seems to thrive in any context and no matter what its source of inspiration. As this album’s hauntingly lovely suite from The Shape of Water demonstrates, he can make the musical equivalent of a silk purse from the cinematic equivalent of a sow’s ear. And Emmanuel Pahud, the preeminent flautist of our time, sustains the illusion of seamlessness, whether illuminating or being illuminated by the orchestra.

Share this article with friends.