In 1973, Waylon Jennings released an album called Honky Tonk Heroes that consisted almost entirely, with one exception, of songs written by Billie Joe Shaver, a then-unknown Texas songwriter. Since that time, his songs have been recorded by everyone from Elvis Presley to Willie Nelson, and he's considered one of the founders of the outlaw-country movement. Now 74 years old, Shaver has just released his first new studio album in six years, called Long in the Tooth. Fresh Air critic Ken Tucker has a review.
DAVE DAVIES, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. Billy Joe Shaver first came to prominence in 1973, when Waylon Jennings released an album called "Honky Tonk Heroes" consisting almost entirely of songs written by Shaver, a then unknown Texas songwriter. Since that time, his songs have been recorded by everyone from Elvis Presley to Willie Nelson and he's considered one of the founders of the outlaw country movement. Now 74 years old, Shaver's just released his first new studio album in six years called "Long In The Tooth." Rock critic Ken Tucker has a review.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HARD TO BE AN OUTLAW")
BILLY JOE SHAVER: (Singing) She was cuter than a speckled pup, just turned 21. She had a lot of fun playing with my gun. Just before the sun come up, she couldn't take no more. She come undone crying and crawling for the door. And it's hard to be an outlaw. We ain't wanted anymore and the only friends that's left is now behind the swinging doors. And it's hard to keep your triumph when you're back is to the floor and it's hard to be an outlaw. We ain't wanted anymore.
KEN TUCKER, BYLINE: That's Billy Joe Shaver singing "Hard To Be An Outlaw" with a guest appearance by his old friend Willie Nelson on the chorus. Shaver isn't so much an outlaw as an outlier, admired by much bigger stars than he'll ever be. A figure ornery stubbornness, who specializes in writing (unintelligible) story-songs filled with macho-boasting phrased poetically. Shaver is one of those loners who claims to want to be loved, even as he's pushing everyone away with a defiant or morose attitude.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE GIT GO")
SHAVER: (Singing) It's been that way since the get go. It's been that way since the get-go. It's been that way since the get go. Lord it's always been that way. Woman shined the Apple and the man had to take a bite. Anything that good God knows just had to be right. He woke up naked with a big headache. He'd been done in by a slippery snake. A man and a woman get to live a while then they die. It's been that way since the get-go. It's always been that way.
TUCKER: Shaver was in on the ground floor when, in the '70s, Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings and a few other musicians began recording what became known as outlaw country, music about romanticized rebellion. He was adept at whipping up vivid scenes, but Shaver's music has always lacked the kind of tight melodies and memorable courses that get you played on country radio then or now. And so for decades, he was more of a mentor invoked by others than a vital presence. But Shaver has become a much more interesting artist in his old age. The title song, "Long In The Tooth," is excellent. Conceived as a kind of country-rap song, it's blunt and priapic about the pains and freedoms of the elderly.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LONG IN THE TOOTH")
SHAVER: (Singing) Long in the tooth, long in the tooth. Telling you children I'm long in the tooth. What I used to do all night, it takes me all night to do. But the women folk don't complain 'cause still got young man brain. I can still do more than most men do. I'm telling you, I'm a long in the tooth, long in the tooth, long in the toot., I'm telling you folks I'm long in the tooth. I used to go bear hunting (unintelligible) sleep all week with a sandwich. I could put (unintelligible) over my knee, but I'm not the man I used to be. Long in the tooth, long in the tooth.
TUCKER: The best songs on this album aren't ones like "American Me" or "Music City USA" which overreach for grand statements. No it's when Shaver scales things back and working with producers Ray Kennedy and Gary Nicholson, goes with reliable country themes and (unintelligible) to design a catchy hook. He does just that on the happily sodden "Last Call For Alcohol."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LAST CALL FOR ALCOHOL")
SHAVER: (Singing) Last call for alcohol, I'm finally through with you. It's too late to go home early. And the crowd is thinning fast. I swear to God the next drink I take is going to be my last. I'm sick and tired of being sick and tired. Still not over you. I've got to find me a better chaser to chase away these blues. Last call for alcohol. I'm finally through with you. My honky-tonking good for nothing (unintelligible). Trying to drink you out of my mind was more than I could do. Last call for alcohol, I'm finally through with you.
TUCKER: Billy Joe Shaver has called this collection, "Long In The Tooth" the best album I've ever done. And while I don't claim to have plowed through all of the twenty plus he's turned out since the '70s, I'll bet he's correct because it's the first Billy Joe Shaver I've ever listened to all the way through and wasn't tired of his bragging or his repetitions well before it ended. In a way, he's now more like a young, tough hip-hop act than a would-be country star. He's phrasing the truth as he sees it, with precision and vehemence. He's not concerned about who his audience is or whether they like what they're hearing. Take him or leave him, this version of him I'll take.
DAVIES: Rock critic Ken Tucker reviewed Billy Joe Shaver's new album "Long In The Tooth." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.