Billy Joe Shaver, widely recognized as one of country music's greatest songwriters, is continually beset by a cycle of professional and personal woes that seems weirdly inevitable. The former hard-bitten outlaw brawler has seen some spectacular high tides over the course of his near-30-year career: His songs have been recorded by everyone from Elvis Presley, Kris Kristofferson and Waylon Jennings to Jerry Lee Lewis, John Anderson and Patty Loveless, and he's released a dozen of his own acclaimed albums. Yet these considerable achievements have been woven through the peculiar Shaver pattern of disaster: He's flat-out quit the music business numerous times, only to be drawn back in by friends like Bobby Bare and Willie Nelson; he's endured a series of record deals – on Monument, MGM and Capricorn – that ended with the labels' demise. As Kristofferson said when producing Shaver's debut album, “I'm doin' this just to try and get Billy Joe a better time slot. If the world was a TV, Billy'd come on about 4 o'clock in the morning.”
Along the bruised-knuckled, booze-sodden way, Shaver has continued, almost miraculously, to prove himself one of country music's most compelling voices, a writer whose ear for both simplicity and metaphor is unsurpassed. Shaver strips layers of self-deception from his own life and, with unblinking severity and unusually spare language, turns the process into song. From his roaring days in Nashville when he “used to crank and drink until my back was on the floor” to a profound early-'80s mountaintop religious epiphany, Shaver's life has been clearly broadcast through his songs. When he re-emerged, with his son Eddy throwing down an unrivaled brand of volcanic country-rock guitar, on 1993's stunning Tramp on Your Street album, everything, it seemed, was finally going right. For Shaver, of course, several tons of wrong was dangling just above his head, and it hit hard, the worst yet.
The on-again/off-again Shaver pattern has always extended to his personal life – once he found the love of his life, Brenda Tindell (who inspired some of his finest work), the pair married, then divorced, then remarried, only to divorce again. Recently, Brenda's deteriorating health sank to a near-terminal, cancer-ravaged condition, forcing Billy Joe and Eddy to lie low for most of the past two years; characteristically, the horrific situation has reunited and strengthened the family, and also produced Victory, an amazing new album.
With nothing but Billy Joe's leather-lunged Texas croak and Eddy's lustrous acoustic picking, Victory, his first album since 1996's Highway of Life, combines outspoken testaments of faith with philosophical, almost cosmic reflections on fate and the universe, and some deeply introspective self-explorations. With this collection, mostly previously unrecorded songs that have been in gestation for decades, Shaver, a dedicated Christian, faces down the inexplicable cruelty of life. He refuses to be intimidated, even maintaining an admirably grizzled optimism.
“Hey, we don't none of us deserve anything,” he says, “and it can always be worse – I kinda adopted that little sayin' now. But I'll tell you what, it's up to God. All things considered, we're back together, which probably wouldn't have happened otherwise. And it's awful for somethin' like that to do it, but we are all pullin' together now, and it's kinda hard to stop us once we get started. It really pulled the whole family together, Eddy and his wife, we're just all back like we was when we were on the farm.
“You can't hardly beat a family. If you can keep your house from bein' divided against itself, it just can't hardly be beat. It's the best way.”
Under these dire circumstances, Victory lays Shaver so completely open to public view that certain moments on the album carry an almost voyeuristic sensation, but also draw the listener in so tight and close that they create a profound sense of intimacy. Peppered with a couple of evocative recitations, some rather psychedelic imagery and potent remakes of Shaver classics “If I Give My Soul” and “Old Five and Dimers” (which he reckons “might be the best song I ever wrote”), the album ultimately revolves around Christian faith, which he celebrates with passionate conviction.
“Ever since the git-go I've had songs about Jesus, and I can't find any better writer than him. And that's the victory, knowin' that. That's where I'm coming from. He's my savior, and it's part of my job to try and tell everybody.
“But I try not to shove it down their throats. Of course it's the last thing people want to hear about. But to write these kinds of songs, you can't be anything but honest.”
Billy Joe and Eddy Shaver appear at Jacks Sugar Shack on Saturday, August 1.