By Roy Trakin
Billy Joe Shaver at the Troubadour, Los Angeles.
Cowboy hat fixed squarely on a head full of unkempt gray hair, the veteran country singer-songwriter is a true survivor, along with contemporary (and fellow Texan) Willie Nelson, one of the last outlaws left standing, and this rare L.A. appearance is greeted as the second coming by an enthusiastic throng that hangs on his every whoop and holler.
Backed by a three-piece band (including a stand-up bassist) that follows his every move, Shaver opens with what might well be his theme song, “Heart of Texas,” with its refrain, “Texas is still my home,” before seguing into the playful, twangy “Fit to Kill and Going Out of Style,” as he smacks his butt and punches the air with a hearty “yee-haw.”
He picks up an acoustic – which he claims to “play a little” – for “Honky Tonk Heroes,” originally covered by Waylon Jennings for the album of the same name, of which every song but one is Shaver’s, though he laughed on explaining that Waylon never did record another of his after turning down “When the Word Was Thunderbird,” a song he’ll play later in the set. He takes the female part in “That’s What She Said Last Night” hitching his thumb in his belt as he mock-complains, “You’re too small for me. He rummages around in his on-stage back pack and pulls out a trucker hat, which he wears cocked like a hip-hop gangsta for “Wacko from Waco,” a song which he wrote and sang with Willie Nelson, describing a 2007 incident in which he was acquitted for shooting a man outside a saloon. “I’m wacko from Waco/Ain’t no doubt about it/Shot a man there in the head/But can’t talk much about it…. Best not mess with me.”
Next up is another song Waylon covered, “Black Rose,” supposedly because he was enamored with the line, “The devil made me do it the first time/The second time I done it on my own,” the band swinging like Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen. “I’m Just an Old Chunk of Coal (But I’m Gonna be a Diamond Someday)” is another song that brings out Shaver’s distinct self-effacing sense of humor.
The mood turns somber for a moment, as Shaver recalls the two-year period marked by the death of his mother and wife Brenda from cancer, as well as his son Eddy from a heroin overdose with the a cappella reading of “Star in My Heart”: “You are the star in my heart/Guess you’ve always known/Though we are many worlds apart/I am still your friend.”
That’s followed by “When the Fallen Angels Fly,” an unmistakable ode to those no longer with him: “But I know no one’s ever loved me/like you’re loving me tonight,” he sings, flapping his arms like a bird trying to get off the ground. “Nobody here will ever find me/But I will always be around,” he sings defiantly in “Live Forever” (co-written by son Eddy) as a shout of “living legend” comes from the crowd. “Just like the songs I leave behind/I’m gonna live forever now.” When he sings, “Your fathers and your mothers/Be good to one another/Please try to raise your children right,” it resonates deeply.
By the end, Billy Joe takes a knee bows his head and doffs his cap. It’s a poignant moment for a veteran who has lived long enough – and overcome enough tragedy for a lifetime – to finally get his due.