Archive for July, 2012

critic’s pick 239

frank zappa.

When licensing rights to the Rykodisc label for the massive back catalogue of Frank Zappa expired, something curious happened. The music disappeared. Granted, that might not spell the end of the world for your average Justin Bieber or Nicki Minaj fan. But for anyone unacquainted with the wildly adventurous music Zappa created during his lifetime (he died in 1993), it meant all means for discovery and exploration were closed.

The Zappa Family Trust retained ownership of the recordings. But until a new licensing agreement could be struck, those albums would remain out-of-print and unavailable.

As of this week, Zappa’s first 12 recordings – solo works along with the formidable experimental pop pieces forged with his band The Mothers of Invention – became available again as part of a new licensing deal with Universal Records. Hardcore fans know this stuff by heart. But for a new generation acquainting itself to Zappa, this is a momentous occasion. A serious adventure awaits you.

This initial set of 12 albums – released in rapid succession between 1966 and 1972 – represents all the innovations and idiosyncrasies that made Zappa a revered pop figure. Early Mothers works like Freak Out!, Absolutely Free and especially We’re Only In It for the Money and Uncle Meat set the pace. All were montages that mixed grand pop tradition (with Zappa’s roots in doo-wop surfacing repeatedly), social commentary (which, more often than not, morphed into bitter satire), neo-classical compositional structure (that regularly spilled over into the avant garde) and, of course, a whale of a guitar voice.

The turning point was 1969’s Hot Rats, the brilliant, predominantly instrumental work (save for a fascinating Captain Beefheart cameo on Willie the Pimp) that highlights a compositional style built around animated – almost to the point of being cartoon-like – melodies and lengthy jams that took Zappa closer to progressive jazz turf.

Burnt Weeny Sandwich and Weasels Ripped My Flesh remain overlooked gems where the Mothers fell in line with Zappa’s post Hot Rats sound. But Fillmore East and Just Another Band from L.A. (both concert recordings from 1971) reshuffled the Mothers lineup into a bawdy carnival act with ex-Turtles Mark Volman and Howard Kaylan (known then as Flo & Eddie) as ringmasters.

Imaginative, playful and maybe a touch offensive in spots, these were the recordings that introduced and defined Zappa’s masterful pop intellect. How wonderful to have them among the living again.

current listening 07/28/12

+ King Crimson: Live at the Marquee – August 10, 1971 (2012/1971) – This newly unearthed concert recording is the proverbial rabbit-out-of-a-hat, a surprise snapshot capturing the free jazz symmetry, prog-ish abandon and improvisational daring of what remains the most unfairly maligned Crimson lineup. The elegance of Formentera Lady and Cadence and Cascade, the mounting instrumental firepower of The Sailor’s Tale and The Letters and the recording’s pristine sound quality all represent the 1971-72 era Crimson at its finest.

+ Deep Purple and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra: Concerto for Group and Orchestra (2002/1969) – Dug this out after hearing the sad news of Jon Lord’s death a few weeks ago. Considered one of the first extended alliances of rock and orchestral music, the concerto is entirely Lord’s creation. It’s a bit haughty and a bit dated, but there are lovely passages, especially when the orchestra goes it alone. This 2002 set boasts three bonus tracks sans the strings – Hush, Child in Time and the mighty Wring That Neck. Lord plays like a lunatic during the latter.

+ Captain Beefheart and the Magic Band: Bat Chain Puller (2012/1976) – This was the great lost Captain Beefheart record, an album that cleansed the aftertaste left by two disastrous commercial crossover attempts in the mid ‘70s. But due to various legal tangles, Bat Chain Puller was never released until this year. And what a monster it is, from the twisted vaudeville lead of Harry Irene to the beat-less beat poetry of 81 Poop Hatch to the title tune, which chugs along like a wheezy freight train with a sensibility that was punk before punk was hip.

+ Santana: Lotus (1991/ 1974) – Originally a three record concert LP set issued in Japan following Santana’s heavily spiritual and jazz-directed Welcome album in 1973, Lotus didn’t receive a domestic release until this double CD set surfaced 17 years later. Here, brave compositions by Antonio Carlos Jobim and Chick Corea sit side by side with Santana faves like Soul Sacrifice and Incident at Neshabur. Two years later, the band would reinvent itself as a conventional pop unit. Lotus, though, is a fireball of Latin psychedelic spiritualism.

+ The Steve Miller Band: Your Saving Grace (1990/1969) – One of the great overlooked recordings in Miller’s pre-Joker catalogue, Your Saving Grace offered boogie-driven basics (Little Girl), psychedelic meditations (Baby’s House), protest songs (Don’t Let Nobody Turn You Around) and trippy pop (the title tune). But leading the pack is a slow, chilling, electric reading of Motherless Children that represents the stylistic depth of Miller’s music before the hits took over. Sadly, this 1990 CD edition has been out of print for years.

talking memphis with lucero

lucero: rick steff, brian venable, ben nichols, todd beene, roy berry and john c. stubblefield.

When you are part of a band bred in a music-rich Mecca like Memphis, Tenn., the sounds surrounding you – not to mention the history surrounding them – unavoidably become inspirations.

The members of Lucero recognized those sounds when they set about recording their debut album over a decade ago even if they didn’t exactly prioritize them. A punk-savvy outfit, the band’s live show plugged into a roots music sound gone haywire. Call it cowpunk. Call it turbo-charged honky tonk. Call it pure rock ‘n’ roll immediacy. Whatever the tag, Lucero was initially consumed more with music of the moment than with examining influences within their hometown.

Then something curious happened. When listening back to that self-titled debut, which was produced by the late Memphis/Mississippi roots music guru Jim Dickinson, Lucero found soul, R&B and Sun Records-style charm had nestled into the songs as if by osmosis.

“It had been several years for me personally, since I had listened to our first record,” said Lucero bass guitarist John C. Stubblefield. “We’ve been playing a lot of the songs off of it for years. But going back and listening Lucero with fresh ears, I rediscovered a lot of things.

“I had almost forgotten I was playing upright (bass) and that some of the production values were, in retrospect, a huge homage to the whole Sun Studio thing. Over the years, we started discovering new aspects of Memphis music.”

As time passed, Lucero’s reputation as a rave-up live act grew – especially regionally. It has been favorites for years in Louisville (culminating in a featured spot at Forecastle earlier this month) and Lexington (where it will headline Saturday at Buster’s). Such growth was both figurative and literal. The band gradually began absorbing a wider spectrum of Memphis musical tradition while steadily adding members. Rick Steff was brought in to augment the core Lucero quartet in 2005 on keyboards. Two years later, pedal steel guitarist Todd Beene made the band a sextet. Then with 2009’s 1372 Overton Park album, Lucero added the two-man horn section of Jim Spake and Scott Thompson.

“Yeah, we should call ourselves the Lucero Orchestra now,” Stubblefield said.

“I don’t really know how to describe the Memphis influence exactly. It’s a unique vortex. We were definitely blessed for our first album in being able to go down to Jim Dickinson’s studio, the Zebra Ranch, in Coldwater, Mississippi. I mean, Dickinson and all those guys were part of a Memphis country blues society that was going on. It was a scene where these younger white kids were discovering these older blues guys all over again.”

For its new Women & Work album, Lucero called upon the help of two Memphis institutions. The first was the famed Ardent Studios, where the album was cut. Aside from serving as the one-time recording home for acts from the legendary Stax label (Isaac Hayes, The Staple Singers and Sam and Dave, among them), artists as diverse as Led Zeppelin, Big Star and Leon Russell have made records there.

”We had an A&R (artist and repertoire) guy from the label on our last record who was saying, ‘You should go to New York and work with this guy’ or ‘Go to L.A. and work with so-and-so.’ So we kind of put our foot down with this one and said, ‘We’ve got a world class studio right here.’”

The other institution graces the album art for Women & Work. It’s the Arcade Restaurant, a fabled Memphis eatery located just down the street from Lucero’s practice studio.

“It’s is in this downtown area that’s experienced quite a resurgence,” Stubblefield said. “It’s kind of an arts district. There’s all kinds of history with people coming and going. Elvis had a booth at the Arcade for years. It was even Joe Strummer’s favorite spot to eat breakfast while he was making (the 1989 Jim Jarmusch film) Mystery Train. He actually wound up staying around town for a few months after the movie wrapped just because he liked the neighborhood so much.

“We’re just giving the Arcade props because it definitely nourished us, literally, through the whole writing and demo process of the new album. We wanted to give something back.”

Lucero performs with Those Crosstown Rivals, Alone at 3 a.m. and Jollett starting at 9 p.m. July 28 at Buster’s Billiards and Backroom. 899 Manchester St. Tickets are $15 in advance and $20 day of show. Call (859) 368-8871 or go to www.bustersbb.com.

 

in performance: steve miller band

steve miller.

Concealing the stage area last night before showtime at Cincinnati’s PNC Pavilion was a massive banner adorned with the image of an Old West gunslinger covered with stars. In huge lettering underneath was the portrait’s title: Space Cowboy. That, of course, is also the name of a 40-plus year old hit by the evening’s headliner, the Steve Miller Band – a hit that went unplayed during the concert that followed.

Journey with us now to the concession stand. Among the wares for sale was a t-shirt depicting the cover art for one of Miller’s greatest albums, 1969’s Your Saving Grace – a recording bypassed completely during the performance.

Yes, Miller has maintained a fruitful recording career for close to 45 years. And while such visuals served as reminders of the vastness of his song catalogue, Miller devoted the better part of the 100 minute concert to his commercial heyday. Specifically, 13 of the evening’s 19 songs came 1973’s The Joker, 1976’s Fly Like an Eagle and 1977’s Book of Dreams – albums that transformed Miller from a psychedelic bluesman into an international pop star.

Admittedly, Miller’s did this material proud. At 68, he was in very strong voice, which helped illuminate the folkish reflection in a solo acoustic reading of The Window (probably the least familiar of the Eagle tunes). Similarly, he proved to be a keen, versed guitarist that still confidently piloted the soul-funk drive of Shu Ba Da Du Ma Ma Ma Ma (the best of the Joker selections).

But Miller has played this set, with few changes, for decades. While the crowd (curiously and abundantly populated by enthusiastic 20-somethings who weren’t even close to being born when these ‘70s hits were on the radio) had a field day with the familiar fare, it sure would have been nice if Miller rummaged more in the deep end of his back catalogue. As it was, a glossy and fairly static reworking of Living in the U.S.A was the only representation offered of his ‘60s music.

Oddly enough, what few surprises the show presented came when Miller shifted the time machine in the other direction. He stripped 1986’s I Want to Make the World Turn Around of the robotic beats that were standard pop issue back in the day and offered a darker, denser update with chant-style vocals and guitarwork that recalled latter day Pink Floyd.

A trio of blues tunes from Miller’s 2010 album Bingo! (highlighted by a subdued take on Otis Rush’s All My Loving that fell somewhere between Peter Green-style British blues and noir-style rhumba) balanced out a set delivered with ageless vigor and ample good cheer. But it seemed a shame to summon the image of the Space Cowboy and then not even invite him to the party.

critic’s pick 238

About half way through Wing Beat Fantastic, you would almost swear Andy Partridge was singing. And in a way, he is.

The song this occurs in, You Kill Me, is one of the more immediately arresting works on an album largely co-written by Mike Keneally, guitar stylist and all-around pop scholar, and Partridge, chieftain of the long dormant British post-punk pop troupe XTC.

You Kill Me has all the earmarks of classic XTC. The lyrics read like a droll socio-political diatribe (“You kill me, with your ‘praise the Lord’ and your waterboard”), the melody is draped in delightfully askew pop and the singing possesses authority, lightness and an almost parlor-style formality.

That said, much of the rest of Wing Beat Fantastic willfully strays from XTC, especially the latter’s more raging music. But neither is the record an exclusive showcase for Keneally’s seemingly limitless guitar vocabulary. Sure, you get ample (but contained) blasts of instrumental mischief during the jangly, Beatle-esque It’s Raining Here, Inside or the patiently paced guitar coda that caps Bobeau. But even in these instances, the music is far removed from the busier, wide-eyed work that defined Keneally’s early albums and the wildly complex musicianship that recalled his one-time employer, Frank Zappa.

Wing Beat Fantastic instead operates very much as an album of pop craftsmanship as opposed to a means for guitar exhibitionism. Take the closing Bobeau solo. It emerges not as some blast of bravado, but as an almost jazz-like device that weaves its way into a melody built around keyboards and trombone. What results is less like Zappa and more akin to Steely Dan.

In fact, the primary platforms for Keneally’s solos are three instrumental vignettes – the two-part The Ineffable Oomph of Everything and Friend of a Friend – composed without Partridge’s help. Each couples acoustic guitar with an unlikely dance partner. Oomph 1 lets in an island/country whiff of pedal steel-style slide guitar, Oomph 2 adds bell-like chimes of celeste and Friend of a Friend employs keyboards that simulate lazy strains of mariachi horns. All three are a minute or less in length and essentially serve as preambles to the more fully realized pop works that follow. But the schooled and spirited lyricism of these miniatures are also tip offs to the pop charm that blooms throughout Wing Beat Fantastic.

Within the Keneally/Partridge songs, that sound manifests in often unexpected ways. Your House is a lightly embellished piano ballad that is nonetheless unsettling – a romantic remembrance of a past that never really was (“If I were to meet you, what could I really say? You’d think I was insane”) while Wing Beat Fantastic’s title tune brings us back to XTC country. Its summery, psychedelic sweep exemplifies the common ground discovered by these two unlikely pop allies.

new indigo

indigo girls: amy ray and emily saliers.

This story was originally published in the Herald-Leader ahead of an Indigo Girls concert last November that was subsequently rescheduled. We present it here in The Musical Box for the first time ahead of a new performance date at the Kentucky Theatre. The duo performs tonight (7 p.m., $38.50). Call (859) 231-7924.

One might suppose that at the heart of any relationship – especially a fruitful, artistic one that has lasted over 30 years – some commonality, some mutual trait would be present.

Not so in the case of the Grammy winning contemporary folk duo Indigo Girls. When Emily Saliers explains the secret to her long running musical alliance with Amy Ray, little is revealed by way of an obvious, immediate common bond.

“We are the quintessential yin and yang,” said Saliers. “We have always been diametrically opposed in terms of our sensibilities, our energy, in the ways we express ourselves… in everything, really.

“But the differences have made us hang together all these years – that plus the respect we have for each other as human beings.”

That’s not to say the music of Saliers and Ray hasn’t bumped into a few shared passions, including a devout sense of political and social activism (“That is integral to everything we do,” Saliers said). But the stylistic differences between the two artists, both as singers and writers, have fueled some of the Indigo Girls finest music.

Take, for example, the duo’s 14th and newest studio album, Beauty Queen Sister. Marked often by elegiac strings and roots-savvy strains of banjo and violin that provide the songs with a decidedly summery feel, the record shifts from Saliers’ country-esque Gone to Ray’s more electrified title tune.

Yet as the record heads into the home stretch with the electric folk gusto of Making Promises and the Celtic-charged Damo, the music’s strength comes from the combined artistic profiles of the two – that and a level of artistic maturity drawn from a working partnership that began when Saliers and Ray started singing together as high schoolers in Decatur, Ga.

“Life experiences can definitely influence songwriting,” Saliers said. “But I don’t know if they broaden it or shrink it. What I do know is that Beauty Queen Sister is definitely a record we couldn’t have written 20 years ago.

“Say you start out making records when you are in your mid ‘20s. You’re sort of marked by what happens at that time. But if you’re still making records 20 years later, you can’t help but compare now to then. There is definitely a maturity at work.

“We wrote songs early on that we still love. But now I feel we don’t put a song on a record unless we really love it and feel connected to it. I feel that through life your connections naturally become deeper. So this is definitely a mature record that we’ve made.”

Beauty Queen Sister is also an album of reconnections as well as connections. Returning as producer is Peter Collins, who has overseen recording sessions for such wildly disparate artists as Rush, Nanci Griffith and Alice Cooper.

Not coincidentally, Collins also produced several of Indigo Girls’ best selling and best received albums, including 1992’s Rites of Passage, 1994’s Swamp Ophelia and 2002’s Become You.

“There is no doubt Peter was at the helm of this album,” Saliers said. “He is a producer who believes nothing is superfluous, nothing is wasted. He is just a really musical guy. Yet even if Amy and I worked three months on a guitar part and he felt it was repetitive or was simply not working, it was ‘scrap that.’

“And that can be a hard pillow to swallow. But at this point in our lives, we are able to swallow it.”

Recording sessions for Beauty Queen Sister also brought Saliers and Ray to the British-born producer’s adopted hometown of Nashville. That meant the participation of such esteemed artists as drummer Brady Blade (“He can play trashy, he can play funky… he’s a genius”), bassist Viktor Krauss, violinist Luke Bulla and singer/songsmith Lucy Wainwright Roche.

“Aside from working with Peter again, we got these wonderful players. These guys – I say ‘guys,’ but I mean men and women – played brilliantly. They really made the record what it is.

“We were making a record where the focus was on the songs. But the production and the players made those songs many times bigger and better than they ever could have been on their own.”

in performance: america

america: dewey bunnell and gerry beckley.

Few acts seem more securely pinned to a time and place than pop-folk favorite America. Though now in its 42nd year of performance, the group’s heyday is linked, almost exclusively to a four year period – essentially, the first half of the ‘70s. That’s the era where its West Coast nurtured, post-Woodstock songs bloomed with enough broad-based pop appeal to keep frontmen Dewey Bunnell and Gerry Beckley (and, let’s not forget, Dan Peek, who split from America in 1977 and died last year) at the top of the charts until disco and punk changed the mainstream landscape.

Not surprisingly, this was the era that enveloped America’s 95 minute performance last night at the Opera House. Bunnell and Beckley tossed in a pair of early ‘80s hits (You Can Do Magic, which seemed to tax the upper register of Beckley’s thinning vocal range, and The Border). There was also the appealing Jimmy Webb-penned title tune to the soundtrack of The Last Unicorn) and a smattering of cover tunes of America’s new Back Pages album (the best of which was a lively take on the Gin Blossoms hit ‘Til I Hear It From You, which placed Beckley in a greater vocal comfort zone). Outside of that, the performance was a nostalgia ride, pure and simple, with arrangements fashioned meticulously after the songs’ decades-old recorded versions.
For the most part, the crowd would not have had it any other way. A succession of four songs from America’s self-titled 1971 debut album (Riverside, Three Roses, I Need You and Here) still possessed a Laurel Canyon-esque sense of folk fancy while the set-closing Sandman (another staple from the debut album) darkened the performance’s sunny stance with a surprisingly jagged, rockish drive.

The show began on shaky ground with a sound mix that buried much of Bunnell’s still-rustic vocal lead on Tin Man. But the singer wound up walking away with the show’s star moment – a vibrant reading of Ventura Highway, an America hit that wears it age  especially well. Here, Bunnell led a light pop brigade charge full subtle but pronounced vocal harmonies and an instrumental stride that oozed honest, summery charm.

 

discovering america

dewey bunnell and gerry beckley of america.

How far can the appeal of pop music take you? In case of Dewey Bunnell and Gerry Beckley, collectively known as America, the distance can seem limitless.

Over four decades have passed since a series of radio-friendly singles – beginning with folk-informed, West Coast-flavored songs like A Horse with No Name, I Need You and Ventura Highway and continuing with more spacious, George Martin-produced works that included Tin Man, Lonely People and Sister Golden Hair – defined America has one of the preeminent pop ensembles of its day.

There have certainly been successes since then, most notably the massive 1982 comeback hit You Can Do Magic. But how do you explain the appeal of those ‘70s staples – all light, melodic and fortified with effortless harmonies – that continue to keep Bunnell and Beckley on the road?

“That’s really an intangible,” Bunnell, 60, said. “And as the years go on, it fascinates me even more. We have to assume the music has transcended our own generation. Granted, it’s mostly baby boomers out there in the audience every night and we’re all getting older. But there’s still a strong enough element of young people out there also.

“As we age, all this takes on a life of its own. We’re now in our 42nd year. But every night for me presents its own challenge. Nobody onstage is walking through this thing in their sleep. In fact, I’m always a little bit nervous before a show, so that keeps the adrenalin up.”

Such are the reflections of the seasoned pop performer. But then again, America experienced success at the very onset of its career. Originally a trio completed by singer/songwriter Dan Peek, America’s first single (A Horse with No Name) and album (titled simply America) were instant hits in early 1972.

“We were naïve and young enough to think, ‘Oh, this is the way it works. You get a No. 1 single and a No. 1 album your first time out.’ But that was really an anomaly.”

Well, yes and no. Starting with 1974’s Holiday album, America began an extensive collaboration with Martin, who emphasized arrangements and orchestration in the band’s music. The partnership would cement America’s star power for the next three years.

“At that point, we had sort of been self-producing,” Bunnell said. “But that was a big responsibility and we fell into the deep end a little bit as a result. With George, the stars just lined up. What he brought to us was an element of sophistication. In retrospect, he was also kind of a mentor. We really consider that time with him our peak years.”

Peek departed America in the spring of 1977 for a career in contemporary Christian music. The split was amiable but final. What few hints of reunion discussions that surfaced never panned out. Peek died last year of pericarditis at age 60.

“There was never any conflict or animosity with Dan leaving,” Bunnell said. “But there really was a resignation that we weren’t going to come back together. We were always supportive, especially in the early years after his split. Gerry and I actually sang on a couple of his projects. But there was a distance.

“Dan’s contributions speak for themselves, though. We still do several of his songs, especially Lonely People and Don’t Cross the River, which were big hits. So, his legacy will always be there. Life goes on, but it never feels quite right that Dan’s not around somewhere.”

But Beckley remains Bunnell’s co-pilot in America. Friends since before the band formed (in London, oddly enough, not America itself), the two have weathered considerable personal and professional change over the years, from America’s flagship hits its most recent album, the 2011 covers collection Back Pages.

“I don’t hesitate to say Gerry has always been the musical director. He is a schooled player while I’m mostly self-taught. When we get into rehearsals or into arranging songs for recordings, Gerry is at the helm. Still, we have equal strengths and weaknesses in terms of writing and singing and what we bring to the table, so it’s a good partnership.

“We’ve grown up together and been through most all of life’s changes together – ups and downs, families, divorces. All the elements of life we share. And, of course, we have been on exactly the same rollercoaster ride with our profession in terms of success and failure. That plays into the longevity of the group. We really don’t have much conflict at all, which is pretty good considering what we see and have seen in this business.”

America performs at 7:30 p.m. July 21 at the Lexington Opera House, 401 West Short St. Tickets are $55.50-$75.50. Call  (859) 233-3535, (800) 745-3000.

in performance: mic harrison and the high score

mic harrison.

This is more of a snapshot glimpse of last night’s very satisfying performance by Mic Harrison and the High Score at the Green Lantern than a complete review. That’s because the absence of opening act Fancytramp (well, let’s coin the term “much delayed” Fancytramp, instead; the Nashville band eventually showed up to play, after some road delays, around midnight) threw the Knoxville headliners onstage nearly an hour ahead of schedule. While a wonderfully intimate and inviting venue, the Green Lantern isn’t exactly known for early shows, so the turnout was, to be polite, modest.

As such, we arrived well into Harrison’s set. Sadly, that barely threw the audience attendance into double digits. But the turnout and showtime adjustment didn’t faze Harrison in the slightest. A honestly jubilant but no frills performer, he and the equally energetic High Score band ripped through tunes full of rich country soul dressed with functional yet highly inventive guitar fabrics.

Songs like No Regrets had Harrison revisiting his power-pop days with the V-Roys (the Knoxville unit that was a regular in local clubs during the late ‘90s). But Leo Johnson and Wiser the Whiskey succinctly reflected the High Score’s stylistic duality. The former, sung by guitarist Robbie Tropser, was all punkish frenzy – a loud, crackling blast of ageless rock vitality. The latter, which closed the show, was like a last round – a thick, sweaty serving of guitar drenched honky tonk. And placing Harrison’s generational inspirations even further in perspective (influences that nicely informed the portion of the show we got to witness) was a loose, fun cover of Bob Seger’s Ramblin’ Gamblin’ Man.

Fueling all of this was a novel three guitar lineup that avoided the standard vocabulary of power chords and off-the-shelf jams in favor of melody and rhythm. But when lead guitarist Trosper shot off one of his scorched, whammy bar-induced solos – breaks which regularly recalled the roar of guitar great Adrian Belew- this efficiently rocking honky tonk-and-more troupe turned compellingly wild and artful.

That more people weren’t there to witness it all – with or without the scheduling adjustments – was plenty dispiriting.

still billy joe

billy joe shaver.

Among the many highlights of Emmylou Harris’s sold out Opera House concert last winter was the moment she shared her vision of what a country song should be.

“When people ask me what country music is,” she told the crowd, “I tell them, ‘This is.’”

With that, she sailed into a regal version of Billy Joe Shaver’s Old Five and Dimers Like Me. It remains, some 40 years after the great Central Texas songwriter penned it, one of the most gloriously unaffected country yarns of all time. That probably explains why everyone from Bob Dylan to Waylon Jennings cut it before Harris.

The wild thing is, Shaver has a truckload of similar works – Georgia on a Fast Train, Old Chunk of Coal, Live Forever, Honky Tonk Heroes, among them. Each one is a little epic, a tale of hard living and hard times invested a resilient sense of faith. And every one is told with a conversational charm. There is no whimsy, no decorative poetic device at work in a Billy Joe Shaver song. Nor are there the standard pop appropriations that clutter more contemporary country tunes. Shaver’s songs pack an elemental storyline and a hearty honky tonk drive into a three minute frame. It exemplifies country songwriting at its most efficient and effective.

“Songwriting, to me, should be simple,” said Shaver, 72, who will headline the opening night lineup of this year’s Masters Musicians Festival in Somerset. “That’s because I’m real simple. I didn’t finish high school and I didn’t go to college, so I don’t know those big $10 words. I had to stick with simplicity. But it winds up being the best thing in the world. I kind of got a corner on that. I feel songs don’t need to be greased like you grease a wheel. If it’s simple, it will slide on in there and everyone will understand it.”

Old Five and Dimers Like Me also served at the title tune to Shaver’s first album, which was issued in 1973. Since then his music has been recorded by Johnny Cash, The Allman Brothers Band, Elvis Presley, George Jones, Jerry Lee Lewis, Kris Kristofferson and many others. But possibly the most important interpreter turned out to be Waylon Jennings. He cut nine of Shaver’s songs for his Honky Tonk Heroes album, thus kicking the outlaw country movement of the mid ‘70s into full gear.

“I don’t know what it is about Texas and songwriters,” Shaver said. “It must be the weather or something. I think a lot of it has to do with how everyone walks around here and talks pretty much like the songs. So I guess we’ve kind of got a leg up before we even get started.

“Mostly, I just write about my life. But, you know, I never run out of stuff. I think everybody ought to write a song. It’s the cheapest kind of psychiatry there is.”

While Shaver’s ‘70s-era songs may have defined his career, a new generation flocked to his music in the ‘90s when he began touring with his guitarist son Eddie Shaver. The father-son team, billed simply as Shaver, released a series of exemplary albums including the landmark 1995 concert recording Unshaven: Live at Smith’s Olde Bar.

But the songwriter’s life was often as tumultuous as his songs. Eddy Shaver died of a drug overdose in 2000. The elder Shaver lost his wife and mother the previous year. Flash forward to 2007 and Shaver was charged in a shooting incident outside a saloon in Lorena, Texas. He was eventually acquitted.

“I had a fortune teller tell me once I wasn’t going to make it to 21,” he said. “Well, I busted that. The thing is, though, I lost my wife, my son, a couple of dogs. It’s kind of funny… well, not funny. But it seemed like I should have went first. I’m the biggest sinner of them all. It’s kind of hard for me to believe that I’m the one left. But I’ve actually become pretty responsible. I got to where I pay attention to what I’m doing. I’m just thankful I’m still here. Every day above dirt is a good one.”

A new Shaver concert CD/DVD with his current band titled Live at Billy Bob’s was issued this week. The recording boasts over 20 Shaver tunes (including a pair of high spirited new songs, The Git Go and Wacko from Waco) cut at a concert last September at the famed Fort Worth honky tonk.

“You know, I’d like to play at Carnegie Hall at some point. But I still love playing these little honky tonks. We call them skull orchards, you know. Hey, somebody’s got to do it. And I’m a Christian, so I enjoy saying a little something about my religion and passing it on at these shows. I wouldn’t tell you about it if it wasn’t good. No sir. If it wasn’t good for you, I wouldn’t tell you a word about it.”

Billy Joe Shaver performs tonight as part of the Master Musicians Festival, which continues through Saturday at Somerset Community College Festival Field, Somerset. Tickets are $25- $45. Call (606) 677-6000 or go towww.mastermusiciansfestival.org.

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