Billy Joe Shaver made a lot of records before he died in 2020, but his songwriting paid the bills. While the Texas-born maverick once joked he had a knack for putting labels out of business, a slew of other artists have been happy to enjoy the fruits of his labors over the years, among them Johnny Cash, Elvis Presley, and Bob Dylan.
Waylon Jennings was an early fan. All but one song on his landmark 1973 album Honky Tonk Heroes were written or co-written by Shaver, who became a key figure in the outlaw movement that offered a rougher alternative to the polished country once dominant in Nashville. As a performer, however, he may have been a little too raw for the marketplace. Though Shaver’s scruffy singing suited the goodhearted hellraiser vibe of his tunes, Jennings sounded like Frank Sinatra by comparison.
Celebrating a songwriter’s songwriter who still looms large in roots music, Live Forever: A Tribute to Billy Joe Shaver recruits vets like Rodney Crowell and George Strait, as well as relative youngsters such as Amanda Shires and Margo Price, for a dozen sparkling interpretations. Produced by Charlie Sexton and Freddy Fletcher, this engaging set underscores Shaver’s place in a downhome tradition going back to Jimmie Rodgers and spotlights the deceptive sophistication of his supposedly simple songs, which can evoke joy and melancholy in the same breath.
Live Forever serves as the perfect introduction to Shaver for newcomers and a lively refresher for longtime fans. Steve Earle’s “Ain’t No God in Mexico” and Ryan Bingham and Nikki Lane’s “Ride Me Down Easy” are fiery barroom rockers, while there’s no sweeter love song than Edie Brickell’s “I Couldn’t Be Me Without You.” Nathaniel Rateliff brings a somber tone to “You Asked Me To,” in contrast to Jennings’ funkier take. Courtesy of Miranda Lambert, the wonderfully jaunty “I’m Just an Old Chunk of Coal (But I’m Gonna Be a Diamond Someday)” embodies the fragile optimism of a sunny day, exclaiming, “I’m gonna be the world’s best friend,” even as spiritual vanity threatens to dim the glow.
The album is bookended by songs testifying to the power of music itself. Shaver’s old friend Willie Nelson kicks off the show with the poignant title track, displaying his usual transcendent calm when he croons, “You’re gonna miss me when I’m gone … I will always be around / Just like the songs I leave behind me.” Allison Russell closes with a spine-tingling “Tramp on Your Street,” crafting an elegant, gospel-tinged epic big enough to fill a cathedral. Channeling the mystical experience of seeing Hank Williams in concert, she sings, “You made a stray dog like us / Feel welcome tonight.” Billy Joe Shaver’s songs have that same sublime magic, and Live Forever is proof.
Live Forever: A Tribute to Billy Joe Shaver is out Nov. 11 on New West Records and Pedernales Records.