Songwriter, Singer, Raconteur Brings Texas to NYC
A touch of Texas in New York never comes amiss, and on December 17 Billy Joe Shaver brought much more than a touch along with him and his top-flight band. Celebrated songwriter, singer, raconteur, and man who loves living, 75-year-old Shaver spent as much time talking as he did singing his hits made famous by others, like Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson — and that’s all good.
Former sailor, rodeo cowboy, lumberman (which job resulted in the accident that cut two fingers off Shaver’s picking hand), Shaver has been a sought songwriter since 1972, when Waylon Jennings set out to record a whole album of his songs. Honky Tonk Heroes (1973) shook up Nashville’s honky-tonk plaints with a rough dose of rock and rhythm, and people began to talk about “outlaw country” — as if America’s wild country West hadn’t been the place preferred by outlaws all along. He co-wrote some songs with his son and guitarist, Eddy, until Eddy’s sad death of an overdose at the age of 38. Shaver himself has survived loss and an exhaustingly colorful personal life — he jokes now about his “triple-ex wife,” who he married three times — and an onstage heart attack in 2001.
His audiences are adoring, and they know all the words. At City WInery people began calling requests for his biggest hits right away — “Old Five and Dimers,” “Honky Tonk Heroes,” “You Asked Me To,” “Live Forever,” “That’s What She Said (Last Night).” Shaver begged off, insisting they’d kill him if he did those right away, and then gave in, with clear relish. “When I started writing this song I was about eight years old,” he announced in introducing “Honky Tonk Heroes.” “Live Forever,” which he wrote with his son, is for Eddy, every time; Shaver ends it on one knee, his trademark cowboy hat doffed, his white hair floating in a halo around his head. His excellent band, with Mickey Raphael on harmonica (and on the City Winery stage for the second night in a row), kept the songs fresh and vital, as Shaver’s ragged rumble-and-rise of a voice celebrated the words.