Over The Weekend: Billy Joe Shaver at Billy Bob's Texas

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Billy Joe Shaver
Billy Bob's Texas in Fort Worth
September 17, 2011

Better than: many of the overly polished country whippersnappers who like to throw around the word "outlaw" these days.

Calling Billy Joe Shaver a character is a bit of an understatement. The country legend's life reads like one of the outlaw-themed tunes that made him famous.

Raised near Waco by his honky-tonk waitress mother, Shaver joined the Navy at 17; upon discharge, he worked in a lumber mill until a machine took off two of his fingers. During his recuperation, Shaver taught himself to play guitar and write songs, after which he hitchhiked to Nashville to pursue songwriting as a career.

Although Shaver himself isn't an altogether massive name, some of the artists who have recorded his songs sure are (e.g.,Waylon, Willie, Elvis). He's recorded consistently since the '70s, and is responsible for some of country music's most classic tunes.

Shaver's last album was released in 2007 -- the same year he was infamously arrested for shooting some guy in the face outside a saloon in Lorena, Texas, after the two got into an argument. Other artists have recognized the potential of the Shaver's-life-as-a-country-song formula; Austin songwriter Dale Watson wrote a song about the 2007 shooting, entitled "Where Do You Want It?" after the phrase that Shaver reportedly uttered before putting a bullet into the poor drunk bastard who dared mess with him.

Sure enough: Artists like Shaver bring out our inner crusty curmudgeon, and cause us to start lamenting that they don't make 'em like him anymore.

Saturday's show at Billy Bob's Texas in Fort Worth proved as much.

Saturday's show at Billy Bob's Texas served as an historic retrospective, featuring tunes spanning Shaver's lengthy career. The folks at Billy Bob's recorded the show, to be released as a forthcoming live album and concert film; in accordance, the lights and sound were spot-on, and a mechanical arm with an attached camera swung around stage left during the show.

The slick presentation seemed almost at odds with Shaver himself, who was the picture of the craggy cowboy in head-to-toe denim. Combined with his white cowboy hat and ruddy, sun-weathered skin, Shaver's color scheme was enchantingly, if unintentionally, patriotic.

He began his set with the 1993 crowd-pleaser "Heart of Texas," originally recorded as a duet with Waylon Jennings. The seasoned professionals in Shaver's band plowed through classics like "Georgia on a Fast Train" and "Honky Tonk Heroes," nimbly backing up the 72-year-old legend, who took a couple songs to loosen up and find his groove.

However, once Shaver launched into "What She Said Last Night" (which, for the uninitiated, is a three-minute montage of "that's what she said" one-liners), he hit his stride, cracking jokes, delivering ad-libs, and basically charming the stuffing out of the mostly middle-aged, overwhelmingly cowboy-hatted audience. He ably guided listeners through a set that ran the emotional gamut. During his powerful a capella performance of "Star Of My Heart," which Shaver dedicated to his son and longtime guitar player, Eddy, who died of a heroin overdose in 2000, several folks in the crowd wiped away tears.

There is a certain reverence shown by audiences towards singers of Shaver's age and legendary status. As such, any weaknesses in Shaver's performance were a non-issue to the adoring crowd. Throughout his career, Shaver's vocals have always played second fiddle to his irresistibly unique lyrical genius. Although his voice shows his age, he knows how to work with what he's got; the 2007 hit "Live Forever" just wouldn't sound right without the character and charm added by Shaver's weathered, unpolished voice.

This opening-act-free set that clocked in at over two hours. The only break came halfway through the set, in the form of a drum solo during "Thunderbird." Although the four-minute solo seemed a bit out of place in a country set, the audience remained patient, murmuring amongst themselves that they understood the septuagenarian singer needed a moment to sit down and rest.

Saturday's show exemplified just why Shaver is given such respect. He's a peerless lyricist, an appealing performer, and a true Texas character.

Critic's Notebook
Personal Bias:
Little to none. I was familiar with a few of Shaver's songs from the radio. When a friend invited me to this show, I did a little research, and was blown away by Shaver's impossibly interesting life story. We got to meet Shaver backstage before the show, while he was putting his famous stub-fingered handprints in concrete for Billy Bob's commemorative concrete-handprint wall. He was incredibly kind and down-to-earth. I now count myself as a rabid fan.

Random Note: Shaver did deliver some choice comments about the infamous 2007 shooting incident: "That guy shot at me first," Shaver growled, "so I pulled out my gun and shot him right between the mother and the fucker." He then launched into the new tune, "Wacko from Waco," which is a musical synopsis of Shaver's side of that story. Like we said, this guy's life story reads like a country song, and he takes full advantage of this.

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