Shank Hall in Milwaukee, Wisconsin: It was 9:35. Audience members were understandably nervous. The concert was scheduled to begin at 8 p.m., and the opening act had unintentionally acknowledged that the headliner had not yet arrived. Discussions of two previous cancellations dominated patrons’ conversation. Some were placing bets. But suddenly, the club’s door banged open and in strode Billy Joe Shaver — all 77 years of him, and on his birthday, no less!
As the backing trio furiously began to set up instruments and amps, I expected Shaver to retreat backstage to ready himself for the performance. Instead, he briskly walked to the middle of the small stage, took the microphone, and announced that he would sing a couple of a cappella numbers while the band got ready. Any mounting frustration from the audience was immediately quelled by this gesture.
“The Cowboy Got Lucky That Night,” half sung and half recited, opened this impromptu section. When the audience began to applaud prematurely between verses, Billy Joe silenced them quickly with one stern look. He may be running late tonight, but Shaver was still the man in charge of this honky tonk. Picking up a small electric guitar, the singer accompanied himself on “You and Me Again.” Seeing that the band still needed a little more time, he sang another a cappella selection, “America, You are My Woman.”
Billy Joe Shaver’s longtime guitarist Jeremy Woodall nodded to his boss, and the group made up for lost time with strong renditions of “Together Forever,” “Heart of Texas,” a partially yodeled “Fit to Kill,” and “That’s What She Said Last Night.” Between numbers, Shaver thanked the audience for attending the show and proclaimed what he felt was obvious: “Jesus Christ is the way to go!” Billy Joe’s strongly stated spirituality did not impede his sense of humor. The group’s rapid set up made for some brief technical disruptions early in the evening for drummer Jason McKenzie and the band’s new bassist, Tony Calhoun. During one unexpected delay, Shaver remarked: “This show is so slick, we may take it to Vegas.”
But they weren’t in Las Vegas; they were in Milwaukee. And some wondered why Billy Joe Shaver had booked such a gig, the northernmost stop on this tour. He has fans here, of course. But reasons could go deeper, as Shaver perhaps hinted when discussing his past with this Wisconsin city. Billy Joe told tales of being stationed in the Port of Milwaukee while serving with the Navy in the 1950s. He spoke of a local dance hall named the Roof, a music venue reference that pre-dated even this aging audience. “I learned to drink in Milwaukee!” he happily announced, expressing a preference for 7 and 7s. His drinking days now far behind him, Shaver had little time for a drunk fan, who tried to impress the singer by ostentatiously drinking glasses of Thunderbird near the stage as Shaver’s band rollicked through his song with that title.
Shaver also told the colorful story of why he felt he had to shoot a man in Lorena, Texas in 2007 — because the singer was being disrespected and the man would not apologize. Billy Joe spoke of how grateful he was not to be in jail, and then sang the surprisingly lighthearted autobiographical song that came out of the incident, “Wacko from Waco.” Other songs containing upbeat themes with hard driving rhythms peppered the set, including “Black Rose,” “Georgia on a Fast Train,” and “Try, Try Again.” Shaver had a serious message to convey, but that didn’t mean this night of music had to be a somber occasion.
The mood did become serious as Billy Joe Shaver talked about his son Eddy, a gifted guitarist who died of a heroin overdose in December 2000. The father spoke with pride when recounting how his son was “the best guitarist Dwight Yoakam ever had.” It was during this section that Shaver prayed for the silent crowd with closed eyes and both arms held outstretched in front of him. He reminded everyone in the room that all of their problems could be solved by turning to Jesus Christ. Sincerity was unmistakable, in the singer’s words and in his songs.
As Shaver performed “I’m Gonna Live Forever,” the attentive audience clearly wanted to accompany him on the journey being described. Billy Joe Shaver repeatedly told them how.
Tom Wilmeth is author of ‘Sound Bites: A Lifetime of Listening,’ focusing on 40-plus years of writings on rock, jazz, country and more. Jazz legend Gary Burton called the book “insightful,” saying ‘Sound Bites’ “gets at the heart of what is happening in music.” It’s available now from Muleshoe Press via Amazon.
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