Billy Joe Shaver is one of those songwriters that never received a lot of attention on this side of the Atlantic, which is a shame, because he was one of the best writers that country music ever produced and, without the songs of Billy Joe Shaver, it’s reasonable to suggest there would’ve been no Outlaw country movement, Waylon Jennings might not have been such a big star and someone like Steve Earle might never have got a start as a songwriter. That’s a lot of speculation but they’re all reasonable assumptions, given what an important writer he was, especially for the emergence of Outlaw Country.
This book, from writer Courtney S. Lennon, should go a long way to make a wider audience wake up to the importance of this giant of country music songwriting. Firstly, it’s a very good book and, secondly, it’s a very clever book because Lennon has let Shaver’s peers and colleagues in the music industry give their opinions and observations on the great man and how he touched their lives and inspired them. It’s a very clever way to get some real insight into a character that was always larger than life.
Lennon herself lays out the biographical detail about Shaver, and she’s clearly passionate about her subject matter. Acting on the advice of a close friend, concerning what she should listen to by Waylon Jennings, she sought out Jennings’ 1973 album “Honky Tonk Heroes” and it blew her away. “I heard that album, and it completely changed the trajectory of what I thought country music could and should be. I saw the name “Billy Joe Shaver” and thought, Who is this guy that wrote all these songs?” Shaver had written nine of the ten songs on the album and it was the recording that cemented Jennings’ position as the top dog when it came to recording Outlaw Country.
Billy Joe Shaver passed away in 2020 but, prior to his death, Courtney Lennon managed to complete a significant number of in-depth interviews with a whole range of artists who, in one way or another were impacted by Billy Joe Shaver and his songwriting. Collated under a series of wry and witty chapter headings, such as ‘Hard to be an Outlaw’, ‘Tramp on Your Street’ and, my personal favourite, ‘Wacko from Waco’, the tributes paid to him are significant. Kris Kristofferson’s description of Shaver was “as real a writer as Hemmingway. He’s timeless”. Kimmie Rhodes went further, stating that “Billy Joe is Shakespeare in Texas. He’s a phenomenon.” Given that Kristofferson and Rhodes are both significantly successful songwriters themselves it’s very meaningful praise, but Lennon’s book is full of similar comments from a whole army of writers and performance that cover many areas of americana and vary from established artists to the up and coming. Rodney Crowell, Steve Earle, Ray Wylie Hubbard, James McMurtry, Dale Watson, Jessie Colter, Bobby Bare and Bobby Bare Jnr., Elizabeth Cook, Rosie Flores and many, many, many more – just under 70 separate interviews by my count. Perhaps my favourite comment on Shaver and his writing comes from Texan singer/songwriter, Brian Wright, who has said “Billy Joe’s strength is conveying the complexity of ideas and emotions with eloquent simplicity”. Wright also has an amusing anecdote about Shaver in the book that points directly to the kind of man he was. Shaver really was a writer’s writer and that’s what comes across most clearly in this book. He was considered by many in Texas, and further afield, to be the third member of the holy trinity of Texan songwriters, alongside Townes van Zandt and Guy Clark, and it seems something of an injustice that, on the European side of the pond at least, he remains the lesser known of those three names.
In her Afterword for the book, author Courtney S. Lennon states, “My goal with this book was to help preserve Billy Joe Shaver’s songwriting legacy”. Goal achieved and a job very well done. If you don’t know about Billy Joe Shaver, read this book and discover just what you’ve been missing.
This book is available now from all the usual outlets but, as is so often the case these days, the author will receive a better royalty if you buy direct from the website – https://www.shaverliveforever.com/product-page/live-forever-the-songwriting-legacy-of-billy-joe-shaver
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