This pairing is, of course, more than fitting. It was Billy Joe Shaver who gave heft, who gave real words, to the outlaw-country movement of the early 1970s — even if Willie Nelson, Kris Kristofferson and Waylon Jennings personified it. In Shaver, they found someone who’d actually lived the lives they sang about as a loveable loser, as a no-account boozer and, most certainly, as a honky-tonk hero.
Fans will remember Nelson attended a long-ago trial for aggravated assault in which Shaver testified on his own behalf, only to be acquitted and turn the whole gunshot-to-the-face-of-a-knife-wielding-redneck into a crowd favorite in “Wacko from Waco.”
Along the way, he’s also been married three times to two different women. Had his hand badly damaged by a saw. And, even worse, lost the publishing rights to a trove of songs that should have made him rich beyond his own Texas-sized dreams. Heck, nine Shaver tracks make up the bulk of Jennings’ seminal Honky Tonk Heroes, including the aforementioned title tune.
Meaning, if Shaver hadn’t been the main character in his own hard-bitten, dusty-booted life, he’d have probably created someone very similar in song, anyway. And that makes the rare look back, as on “Hard To Be An Outlaw” from the just-released Long in the Tooth (Lightning Rod Records), thrum with meaning — even as it completes a circle that should have been completed decades back.
Nelson’s presence, ironically enough, is more likely to give Shaver a well-deserved moment of reflective fame than anything else on the well-constructed Long in the Tooth. And so, in some small fashion, the debt is finally repaid.