Forget all the Johnny Come Lately’s ladies and gentlemen. If you want to witness the last remaining vestige of what once was the high flying revolutionary original Outlaw movement in country music, if you want to see the last remaining example of the piss and vinegar, the cowboy poetry, the tried and true rebellious nature that defined what an original country music Outlaw really was, Billy Joe Shaver is the last living true specimen of the genre. He’s the one who never came down off that mountain, who never gave up the ghost, who is still fighting tooth and nail every day and night for what he has, and hasn’t given up one speck of ground when it comes to energy and appetite for the music over his legendary career.
When you watch Billy Joe Shaver perform live, you don’t have to rely on the mythos surrounding the man to enjoy his show. Billy Joe Shaver is no museum piece. He doesn’t come out and ride off of his past accomplishments while sitting on a stool with his laurels stuffed in his back pockets. He puts on a show that kicks the ass of most performers a third of his age—punching and bobbing and singing and performing his guts out like it’s his last performance ever, and all of this from a man who’s arguably known first and foremost as a songwriter, not a performer. If you put a stool out on stage for him, he’d kick its ass during the first stanza of “Georgia On A Fast Train” and then dance a jig around its splintered corpse during the guitar solo. Billy Joe Shaver is what Outlaw country music is all about: never giving in.
We have waited seven damn years for the 74-year-old to finally put out another album of original music, and Long In The Tooth is well worth the wait. The album finds Billy Joe Shaver sitting tall in the saddle, shouting and spitting, brandishing his fists and taking potshots, and shining in moments of unexpected sentimentality.
In some respects this album can be taken as a companion piece to Shaver’s dear friend Willie Nelson’s recent album Band of Brothers. On that album, Willie featured two Billy Joe Shaver-penned songs, “The Git Go” and “Hard To Be An Outlaw”, and those are two of the first three tracks on Long In The Tooth. Honesty, and as you would expect, Shaver’s versions are slightly better, and are sung with such conviction it can give you shivers. Shaver might now be in his 70’s, but his current songwriting output holds up to the lofty standards he set for himself years ago. “The Git Go” and “Hard To Be An Outlaw” are the two biggest takeaways from Long In The Tooth, and for completely different reasons. “Hard To Be An Outlaw” is the bellicose, “climb-the-highest-building-in-Nashville-like-King-Kong-and-shoot-the-double-bird” type of song, while “The Git Go” is pious, poetic, yet still grounded and folksy in its wrinkled wisdom.
Long In The Tooth comes out of the shoot like a bronking bull. Billy Joe Shaver announces immediately that this is not going to be some gray-haired, geriatric affair. He may be 74, but he will still kick everyone’s ass in the room if he has to, and do it in the name of Jesus. As the album proceeds though, there are some astounding moments where Shaver, whose zeal can sometimes exceed his vocal prowess, shows off a set of pipes in love songs that stir the heart with the same ferocity as his boot stompers shake the bones. “I Love You As Much As I Can” and especially “I’m In Love” capture timeless performances from Shaver, whose voice sounds as strong and sincere as it ever did. It’s almost shocking, especially with the throat gravel Billy Joe unearths on some of the other tracks, how remarkably Shaver has held onto his singing voice and the control he displays.
The controversial song on the album (if you want to call it that) is the title track. It has some people (including Shaver himself in certain interviews) saying that he’s rapping, though I’m not sure that’s how I would characterize it. The song is drenched in Crybaby guitar pedals and spit on the microphone as Shaver does his best to scare off old age in a merciless exploration of whatever is left of his id and machismo. If a song like this came from someone like Hank Williams Jr. or another country star who is trying desperately (and embarrassingly) to hold on to their youthful career, we’d be laughing and labeling them a sellout. But Shaver is so far beyond that phase, this song is simply meant to be taken as fun, and it should be. It is good for a few passes, though it certainly is not representative of the best music the album has to offer.
Shaver’s songwriting continues to impress as the album progresses, including with the train number “Sunbeam Special”, and the witty song for the common man, “Checkers And Chess”.
Blame the seven year hiatus for helping to refine his material, blame his immortal spirit that refuses to let him sit down, or blame the talent within him that appears to be bottomless. But at 74-years-old, Billy Joe Shaver is still schooling an army of artists who would love to label themselves Outlaws, but don’t have the acumen to truly understand what the word even means, let alone the skills to pull it off, or the history to back it up.
In Outlaw country music in 2014, there’s Billy Joe Shaver, and everyone else.
1 3/4 of 2 Guns Up
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