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Billy Joe Shaver rolls along

By Jon Johnson, May 2001

Eddy Shaver died on New Year's Eve, as had Hank Williams and Townes Van Zandt before him.

On the surface, his death - the result of a heroin overdose - was surprising from a 38-year-old man who had been married less than three months earlier and who was scheduled to begin recording a new solo album in a couple of days; not to mention the fact that he had recently finished recording a new album with his father and longtime musical partner, singer/songwriter Billy Joe Shaver.

And yet, having developed a reputation as one of the better Texas blues-rock guitarists of his generation, Eddy Shaver had associated with great songwriters his whole life, appearing on records by his father, Guy Clark, Waylon Jennings, Dwight Yoakam and others.

It's perhaps inevitable that Shaver's new record, "The Earth Rolls On," will be greeted by the general public in the same way a mortician welcomes visitors to a wake: Lovely to see you, really, though I wish the circumstances were better.

All the more's the pity, since "The Earth Rolls On" is a fine album; probably one of the three or four best things Billy Joe Shaver has recorded in his career. Though hints of Eddy Shaver's personal problems are scattered throughout much of the lyrics, from a musical standpoint he's rarely sounded better, his youthful pyrotechnics having largely given way in recent years to a more mature style.

Since Eddy's death (which follows the 1999 deaths of Billy Joe's wife and mother, both from cancer) Shaver has continued performing, both with his regular band and with an old friend.

"Kinky Friedman made me go out and do a bunch of shows with him," says Shaver, 61, in a telephone interview from his home in Waco, Texas. "We did a little run of about five shows in a row. Did real well, as a matter of fact. We had a few laughs, and he hadn't played in a while, and it was real good for both of us."

One senses that performing, like songwriting, is cathartic for Shaver these days. After happily rattling off a string of upcoming shows in Texas, he mentions that he performed the night of Eddy's death.

"Eddy had already passed away that morning, and I had a gig outside of Austin. And Eddy was the one that didn't like to miss a gig. Even when my mother was dying, we had one we had to do, and there wasn't hardly no money in it, but we just went ahead and did it. So those people don't know, and I didn't ever tell none of 'em. I just went over there and played with Willie (Nelson, who filled in for Eddy that night)."

"The Earth Rolls On," out on the Austin-based New West label, includes new versions of two early Shaver compositions, "Evergreen Fields" and "Restless Wind." These were, in fact, two of the first songs Shaver played for Bobby Bare when Bare hired him as a staff songwriter for his publishing company upon Shaver's arrival in Nashville in 1968.

The fact that Shaver frequently re-records old material has often baffled fans and critics, given his reputation as '

a prolific songwriter.

"Well, here's the deal. I've had so many deals where my records got cut short. You know Monument Records? They went out of business before my record (1973's "Old Five and Dimers") got out real good. Then, Capricorn Records, I did two records there, and they went out of business. When they were great songs, I'd do 'em over again because I was afraid they'd never get to the public. Then, I got a little flak about it because the records started coming back out again, and it kinda made me look like I was doing 'em over and over. I got hundreds of songs, but these I felt like really needed to be heard, and they were some of my best work. And I had no idea they'd ever resurface. I just kept on doing 'em until I had a record that stayed out there."

"On this new one, I decided that I wouldn't do any old songs, but (producer) Ray Kennedy picked these two, and he had a way of doing 'em that was really great. I had other songs on there that didn't make it that were new, like 'Slim Chance and the Can't Hardly Playboys' and a couple more."

Though Shaver has complained in a few recent interviews about the differences between how he had originally intended the new record to sound and how it actually ended up sounding, he now downplays his earlier criticism.

"Well, no, it didn't really come out that different. They told me I could use my own band, and we worked these things up. And then they kinda pulled a fast one on me a little bit there. That's all right, though. It came out in the wash."

Instead of Shaver's regular road band, "The Earth Rolls On" includes an A-list of Nashville-based talent, including Wilco/SWAG drummer Ken Coomer, E Street Band bassist Gary Tallent and producer Kennedy on various instruments, as well as Eddy, whose involvement in the album at some point in its planning seems to have been iffy for reasons that Shaver is vague about.

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