Billy Joe Shaver
It is to our very good fortune that Billy Joe Shaver has found his way to Lexington so regularly over the past 20 years. From initial stops at the defunct Lynagh’s Music Club to recent performance visits at Willie’s Locally Known, the master Texas songsmith has seldom gone more than a year or so without playing here.
The appreciation of such a luxury sinks in every time Shaver returns, especially with a glance at a career that made him an unlikely architect during the outlaw country movement of the early ’70s. We say unlikely because the native of Corsica, Texas, wound up stranded in Nashville early in his career while trying to hitchhike to the West Coast. He took a job as a salaried songwriter, and his music came to the attention of pioneering notable Waylon Jennings, whose 1973 breakthrough album, “Honky Tonk Heroes,” was devoted almost exclusively to soon-to-be Shaver classics including “Old Five and Dimers Like Me.” That song would be the title tune to Shaver’s debut album the same year.
By the time the songsmith began playing Lynagh’s with son Eddy Shaver after the release of the stellar 1995 concert album “Unshaven: Live at Smith’s Olde Bar,” an entire new phase of his career was underway. With such learned life lesson songs and rambler fables as “Old Chunk of Coal,” “Live Forever” and “You Asked Me To” firmly established in his repertoire and a booming alt-country movement making national noise, Shaver began to gain recognition from younger audiences as a country music purist whose sense of storytelling was too poetic and personal to ever find its way onto commercial country radio unless some other artist had recorded it.
There were real-life traumas to overcome, too, including Eddy Shaver’s death from a drug overdose in 2000 and a heart attack that the elder Shaver suffered onstage the following year. But with his 77th birthday looming (it’s Aug. 16) , the songwriter remains an active performer, recording artist (his newest album is 2014’s self-effacingly titled “Long in the Tooth”) and ambassador of Texas honky-tonk tradition.
“I want to write these suckers right, man,” Shaver told me before a June 2015 performance at Willie’s. “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’ leans more toward the truth. You get a little older in age, you try to be as honest as you can.”
Two for Tuesday
Two shows for distinctively different tastes head our way Tuesday.
▪ First up is Dolly Parton, who returns to play the Norton Center for the Arts, 600 West Walnut Street in Danville. Continuing her most extensive North American tour in 25 years, the entertainment entrepreneur is keeping with the theme of her new album, “Pure and Simple” — meaning the concert will boast a minimal band and no frills. The divine Miss Dolly checks in with us in Sunday’s Living section to discuss the tour. Call 877-448-7469 or go to Nortoncenter.com. (7:30 p.m., $175-$500).
▪ The same night at Cosmic Charlie’s, 388 Woodland Avenue, indie rock fave Deerhoof will hold court. Known for broad stylistic leaps (from electronics and punk to hip-hop, pop and doo wop), the band will be promoting its newest album, “The Magic.” Guitarist and mainstay member John Dieterich fills us in on the latest Deerhoof doings in Saturday’s Living section. 388 Woodland Avenue. Call 859-309-9499 or go to Cosmic-charlies.com. (10 p.m., $12).
The week that was
▪ Lyle Lovett and his Large Band at the Opera House: There were a few modifications to this Large Band program, the most obvious being its pacing. The evening began and ended with full blown gospel as the group’s 13 member roster teamed with 10 additional vocalists from the Cincinnati community choir Rameco Lattimore and TWC. As such, the show-opening jubilation of “I’m a Soldier in the Army of the Lord” revealed Lovett to be exactly that — a servant to a massive sound propelled by an in sync battalion of singers and instrumentalists.
From there, the show enlisted a number of dramatic musical spirits. Some were earthbound. Others, like the late Lone Star songsmith Guy Clark, who died in May, were not. Emphasizing a musical kinship was the placement of Clark’s wistful “Step Inside This House” next to the Lovett original “North Dakota.” Both were simple, quiet mood pieces with lovely poetic construction presented as the Large Band slowly pared itself down (eight members on the former song, seven on the later).
The other dominate presence, outside of Lovett himself, was singer Francine Reed – a mainstay of the Large Band for much of its history. With an expressive vibrato steeped in vintage R&B and blues, Reed was both an animated foil for Lovett’s more askew romantic tunes (“What Do You Do,” being the most obvious). But she also rode shotgun to the ensemble swing of “That’s Right (You’re Not From Texas),” beefed up the gospel reverence of the encore hymn “Pass Me Not” and renewed her role as crowd darling on the Ida Cox gem “Wild Women Don’t Get the Blues,” a blast of soul and sass that has been her featured tune during Large Band shows for many years.
But it was with “Closing Time” that Lovett brought the show full circle. The tune was performed as an after hours exhale, a neon-soaked snapshot of Lone Star country in a state a grace and exhaustion. Lovett wore the tune like a sheriff’s badge, a symbol of resolute authority. Lovett may still be closing up the honky tonks. But as this immensely engaging performance revealed, the barroom doors to styles, sounds and stories too big for even Texas to contain, remained invitingly open.