Peruse the songs that have flowed from the pen of Billy Joe Shaver over the past 40 years, and you will find one fabulous yarn after another. All may be country by design. But even a perfunctory listen reveals how worldly the lyrics are.
"I'm just an old chunk of coal, but I'm going to be a diamond someday."
"The devil made me do it the first, the second time I did it on my own."
"I'm a pistol packing papa with a million dollar smile. I'm fit to kill and going out in style."
Premium content for only $0.99
For the most comprehensive local coverage, subscribe today.
At age 75, the fire and spirit of Shaver's music has not remotely begun to settle. In a lifetime full of personal loss (his son and musical partner Eddy Shaver died of a drug overdose in 2000) and artistic triumphs (Bob Dylan referenced the elder Shaver in the 2009 song I Feel a Change Comin' On), the songsmith remains a Texas soul unspoiled by Nashville country consumption. He also has no interest in letting the dust settle under his boots. Shaver remains a prolific writer and concert performer who doesn't understand why other artists of his generation (or younger) haven't remained similarly invested in their craft.
"I figure if the boot fits, then wear it," says Shaver, who kicks off this year's Best of Bluegrass festival with a Tuesday performance at Willie's Locally Known. "I don't put nobody's name down or nothing. There are just guys that are capable of writing real good stuff, but they're just kind of slacking off."
Defining the current state of Shaver's tireless career is a 2014 recording that takes a friendly jab at his own professional and personal stance. It's titled Long in the Tooth.
"It's a challenge for me to write a song," Shaver said. "But I love a challenge. I want to write these suckers right, too, man. I always feel that way when I'm writing this stuff, and I can tell when I have a good one. Long in the Tooth just leans more toward the truth. You get a little older in age, so you just try to be as honest as you can be. But I guess everybody else is, too."
The record kicks off with a tune destined to be a Shaver classic, Hard to be an Outlaw. New generation country stars may sing of trucks, beer and beaches. Shaver sings of mortality and sin, but does so with the same Lone Star, honky tonk soul that has drawn artists like Waylon Jennings, Emmylou Harris, The Allman Brothers Band and dozens of other notables to cut his songs.
"It's hard to be an outlaw," Shaver sings, "who ain't wanted anymore."
Far more sobering is American Me, a decidedly non-jingoistic tale centering around South-of-the-border mischief with a devastating climax: "The woman I loved was left waiting for me. I broke her sweet heart, American me."
"I kept hanging on to that thing for years and years," Shaver says of American Me. Finally, Ray Kennedy (who co-produced Long in the Tooth) heard it. He threw a couple of fantastic words in there and made it come together real good. It's a real good song, really poetic."
Of course, Shaver is well aware that fans, critics and fellow artists still flock to warhorse songs like Georgia on a Fast Train, When the Word Was Thunderbird and especially Old Five and Dimers Like Me (the title tune to his 1973 debut album) that defined his career and songwriting reputation decades ago.
" Old Five and Dimers... man, that one was loaded for bear. Actually, that's the song I keep trying to beat. It's pretty true to life. I mean, these songs are so old they're new."