We say it all the time: “That’s the real deal.” We don’t object when an artist raised in one world slips on the skin of a borrowed identity, so long as they’re good at what they do. But something even deeper resonates when we encounter a great artist who is utterly of their lineage and seemingly unaware of the identity buffet that is the postmodern world. I’m not sure I’ve encountered anyone in Americana and country music more fully himself than 75-year-old Texan Billy Joe Shaver. On a night at Roots featuring several strong, resolute male songwriters, the alpha male is Shaver, with his chapped voice, wild history and simply astonishing songs.
I discovered Billy Joe about the same time and in the same place I discovered Jim Lauderdale – the late, great Melody Record Shop in Dupont Circle, Washington DC. The album I bought that day, emblazoned with the word SHAVER, was a staff pick, in a bin on the wall with a hand written endorsement. The project was Tramp On Your Street, featuring the craggy looking Billy Joe and his sweet-faced son Eddie. Both had long hair and loads of pride in their expressions. I had yet to learn about Billy Joe’s remarkable story or Eddie’s tragic downward spiral. I just heard great music.
The first two songs, with guest vocals by Waylon Jennings, were solid. Then there was a switchblade sharp electric guitar and a rolling beat that introduced “Georgia On A Fast Train” and soon I knew I was hearing a classic. Then there was the beautiful, iron-willed “Live Forever” and a bunch of other great ones and then the masterpiece that left me in awe. “I’m just an old chunk of coal, but I’m going to be a diamond someday,” he sang. “Old Chunk Of Coal” ought to be in the Library of Congress and on an interstellar spacecraft. It’s what I’d want the aliens to hear.
I didn’t know it then, but I’d dropped in the middle of the Shaver oeuvre. He grew up in the 40s in Corsicana, TX and joined the Navy at 17. He lost two fingers in a sawmill accident but learned to play guitar anyway. He hitchhiked to Nashville where his talents were recognized by all the right people. Johnny Cash and Elvis recorded his songs. Waylon made his iconic Honky Tonk Heroes album entirely out of Shaver songs. Shaver’s 1973 debut as a recording artist Old Five And Dimers Like Me included the first cut of “Georgia On A Fast Train” and other songs that would, you know, live forever. Copies of the LP sell on eBay these days for $60. Billy Joe stayed really busy during the past decade, making a string of fantastic records, running right up to the spare, chiseled Long In The Tooth. He jests. Shaver is vibrantly alive and showing, if they’ll listen, the young wayward bro country followers what country music actually is.
So is our pal Scott Miller, who may one day be seen as Virginia’s craggy senior senator of song. He’s got the lineage, and after a couple of decades building a career in Knoxville (as leader of the acclaimed V-Roys and then as a solo artist), he’s returned to his family homestead in the Shenandoah Valley. There he’s either a farmer with a music problem or a musician with a farming problem, but either way it seems to suit him. He fired up a wonderful duo with fiddler singer Rayna Gellert that we featured in season one of our national public television series. Then Scott put a lot of thought and self-searching into his most recent solo album Big, Big World, produced with the sonic wizard and guitarist Doug Lancio. Its opening song alone is worth the effort to find and spin this one. “How Am I Ever Gonna Be Me?” he sings, offering a verbally dazzling catalog of the obstacles to said objective. Yet we who know him have no doubt that Scott is transparently and triumphantly himself.
Our third strong man of the week is one of the new buzz artists in all of roots and songwriter music. I’ve been hearing reports from a musical friend in Tulsa about his town’s brilliant new light, John Moreland. And a recent No Depression feature about John’s new album High On Tulsa Heat explains that the artist found his way to heartland folk rock by way of a strict church upbringing and then a rebellion phase in metal. Hard to tell from his crisply produced, tuneful three discs, which sit nicely next to folks like Greg Trooper and Steve Earle. The newest is Moreland’s most loosely conceived, he told the magazine. “I wasn’t writing a record, I was writing songs. So when I was done and sequencing the record I noticed in the song titles alone there’s repeated references: Cleveland County Blues, Tulsa County Stars, Cherokee… It ended up having this weird geographical theme to it. It’s about home, I guess, just trying to figure out what that means.”
And as if all that’s not powerful enough, how about we add the Best Live Band In Los Angeles? That’s what the Dustbowl Revival is according to L.A. Weekly. This eight-person collective moves a lot of talented people and instruments around the country as they spread their good vibes drawn from old New Orleans, Vaudeville, Tin Pan Alley, Western dance halls and jazz-age speakeasies. They’ve performed with great American artists like the Preservation Hall Jazz Band and Trombone Shorty. I adore this strain of pure roots music and these guys are exemplars.
So settle in for a Wednesday evening of music that’s strong-willed but open-hearted. MCR is a place where you can always be yourself.