By Jeffrey B. Remz, December 2002
o say that Billy Joe Shaver could be the poster boy for the school of hard knocks is an understatement.
To say that the Texan also is a man determined to rise up and overcome life's difficulties thrown his way literally since birth also would be entirely true.
The latest ample evidence is his brand new "Freedom's Child" disc - his first outright solo album since "Salt of the Earth" in 1987 - on the new Compadre Records label of Houston.
"We worked hard on it," says Shaver, 62, in a telephone interview from a friend's house in Austin of the album mixing country, a touch of the blues and the usual batch of finely written songs mixing stories and a strong spiritual side. "It was a little kicking around having some fun."
The album was the first since the death of his son and guitarist, Eddy, who died of a heroin overdose Dec. 31, 2000. They recorded under the Shaver moniker. That death was preceded by the death of his wife, Brenda, of cancer, and mother who died within a few months of each other in 1999. Not to mention the heart attack Shaver himself suffered in August 2001.
Shaver didn't exactly take his time in the studio recording "Freedom's Child," needing two weeks to record the 15 songs, although "Salt of the Earth" took a mere two days.
"It was a great mixture of people, and we were all after the same thing, and it wasn't that hard. I think I like it that way instead of a long drawn out thing where they wear you out."
"It was high velocity, swift action stuff, which is what I really like," says Shaver of the recording with R.S. Field at the helm. Field also was the producer for Shaver's biggest album ever, "Tramp On Your Street."
"That's Why the Man in Black Sings the Blues" with a distinctive Johnny Cash beat was done after one take. In the album booklet, Shaver writes, "Call it osmosis or something, but this is a song that Johnny Cash said to me without saying a word."
"We thought we were rehearsing, and Richard (McLaurin) the engineer left the thing running, and we didn't have to do it again," says Shaver. "It was a rehearsal actually. We were going to rehearse it. We said 'let's take it from the top.'"
Not everything was so quick in happening. Doubtlessly the slowest song to make the cut was "Day by Day," a song chronicling the life of Shaver where the spiritual side shows through.
It's a heartfelt song with Shaver describing how at 21 he married his wife, 17.
Shaver picks up by merging work and music: "While the young man broke horses and worked
at the sawmill/the young
girl would sing to the
sing him the blues
and some rock-n-roll
music/Then drift off to
sleep with a sweet lullaby."
The chorus says that their "love kept on growing...There's hope for the family that God holds together/If they hang on 'till everything turns out alright."
Not everything was all right however as "the young girl went home to her heavenly Father/While the husband and son sang the mother good-bye."
Eddy soon was to follow "to be with his mother/The father just fell to his knees on the ground."
The idea of love continuing to grow was replaced with disconsoling words: "Day by day his heart kept on breaking/And aching to fly to his home in the sky/But now he's arisen from the flames of the forest/With songs from the family that never will die."
Shaver came to the recording sessions with 500 songs, which he whittled down to 42.
"'Day by Day' was the last one that we did," says Shaver of the song with only the accompaniment of Will Kimbrough on 12-string guitar. "I'd been writing that song for about 20 years, and people kept dying. I knew that therapeutically I had to get it out of me, and Bobby (Field) did too. Bobby was saying, 'you got to finish it.' Sure enough, it would up being the last one, and I'm glad I did it."
"It was a continuous story, and I enjoyed working on it. It's a hobby. I just write songs. Sometimes, I'll have a pet project that I'm messing with it. I have a pet project that I mess around (with) for years. That was one of them."
"When Brenda passed away, that just blew it all to hell," Shaver says of the woman he married three times. "Then I went back to work on it, a little bit because it was real hard to mess with it at all. Then Eddy passed away, and I was completely not going to mess with that stuff. Then when Bobby (Field) got back into the deal, I played a little bit for him, and he said you got to play that. Bobby's always concerned about the album being a whole party of work. He's just a marvelous guy, a genius."
With the song so highly personal, Shaver was asked if he had qualms about making those thoughts public. "I kind of did, but Bobby said we got to have it. But I'm a songwriter, and we got to have those gut wrenching things. It's kind of the hard core (center) of the whole album."