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

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