Billy Joe Shaver does a lot of looking back on life and the travails of love on his first release since 2008's "Everybody's Brother." That's understandable given the rough-and-tumble life of Shaver, who lived up to the outlaw country moniker of his music. Shaver continues in the long line of ace Texas singer/songwriter types like Townes Van Zandt and Guy Clark.
Shaver puts his cards on the table on the opening "Hard to Be an Outlaw." With help from Willie Nelson, Shaver sings, "It's hard to be an outlaw/who ain't wanted any more."
Shaver is raw and honest on the heartfelt ballad "I'll Love You As Much As I Can," which he co-wrote with Gary Nicholson. Shaver pleads with his woman that he's doing the best he can, although what he has to give may not be enough.
As if to consider the other side, Shaver seemingly can't take it any more on the honky tonking follow-up, "Last Call for Alcohol," which he also penned with Nicholson. Leon Russell spices the song with very fine piano playing.
Later, Shaver gets particularly heartfelt and exudes the happiness as he warbles in "I'm in Love" with the pretty and fitting strings courtesy of Chris Carmichael.
Shaver offers a few gears musically. He goes Tex-Mex on the spare sounding "American Me," about a relationship over the border with a Mexican maiden. He closes with "Music City USA," a musical ode to Johnny Cash.
Co-producers Nicholson and Ray Kennedy were at the top of their game, adding just the right instrumentation (a touch of fiddle here, accordion there and harp elsewhere goes a long way in making one very cohesive country album) with Shaver's leather-worn, but still ageless vocals.
The only misstep is the weird title track where Shaver sort of goes for what may be his style of a hip hop beat with a lot of Jews harp courtesy of Mickey Raphael. The latter ends up being annoying, and the song never works.
But near the end, Shaver sings "Time did a number one me/I ain't the Man I used to be/ Running half speed but better than most." Shaver may have been referring to the aging process - he's 75 - but he might as well have been referring to his music. Shaver may have been absent for a long - too long - a stretch, but he still has something to say, far better than most. Shaver is still a wanted man.