“A little bit of Texas heat found its way into the Old Rock House on an unseasonably cool St. Louis July night. Billy Joe Shaver, the original “Honky Tonk Hero,” took the stage, bringing his history, unique brand of song and storytelling to an audience of neo-urban cowboys, greasers, hipsters and anyone faithful to ’70s outlaw country.
His songs have been recorded by Waylon, Willie and Cash (just to name a few) and survive a historical genre label. In his 74th year, Shaver is still an ornery cuss and is still having fun when those stage lights shine on him.
St. Louis’ own Jack Grelle opened the show; his set was graced with the steel guitar of Tom Heath. Grelle has a knack for bridging the gap of Hank Williams and Webb Pierce to Townes Van Zandt and Steve Earle. His legs are firmly planted in the common language of country’s founding fathers and the poets who elevated the genre’s sensibilities.
Dressed in his trademark jeans, denim, cowboy hat and boots, Shaver and his band launched into a love letter for his home state: “Heart of Texas.” They were just warming up through the first two songs when guitarist Jeremy Woodall rocketed into high gear with the opening lines of “Georgia on a Fast Train.” The energy and anticipation of the night came to fruition and did not relent through the nearly 75-minute set.
Shaver was backed by a powerhouse band that included bassist Matt Davis and drummer Jason McKenzie who provided a drive that match Shaver’s songs. Guitarist Jeremy Woodall covered the remaining bases harmonically, switching effortlessly from rhythm and lead with a tone that is clean, dirty, country, rock ‘n’ roll and purely Texas. The star of the evening were the songs. “These are all songs that I have written,” Shaver said a number times, never letting us forget the man behind “I’m Just an Old Chunk of Coal,” “Honky Tonk Heroes” and “You Asked Me To.”
“I married my first wife three times,” he quipped. “That makes her the dumb ass, not me.” To see Billy Joe Shaver is not complete without his wit, humor, stories and one-liners. His ability to write a great song is matched by his gift for gab, that includes his ever changing soliloquy that precedes the song “Old Ragged Truck” to his most recent exploits that include a confrontation outside a Lorena, Texas honky tonk.
“I didn’t say ‘where do you want it’” in reference to the Dale Watson-penned song about the incident. “You see, he came across the street and fired three times. He wasn’t that good shot because he missed, and I must have got lucky because I hit him right between the mother and the fucker. I never said, ‘Where do you want it.’”
The most poignant moment of the evening came when Shaver paid tribute to his departed son, Eddy Shaver. His aged voice echoed through the silent hall alone as he sang “Star in My Heart,” and in that moment the loss and love for his son carried more weight than any story Shaver could tell. The tribute continued as he and the band played “Live Forever,” a song that he co-wrote with Eddy.
“How long are we suppose to play to? 75 minutes?” he asked. “We will play ’til we are goddamn ready.” That is the spirit that has brought the crowd through the doors to see and hear the man who personifies the outlaw country sound. Shaver summed up his 74 years of life and songwriting and ended the night with “Try and Try Again,” a gospel rendering that re-enforces the fact that we might not succeed at first, but, like Shaver himself, we just have to keep going.”