When it comes to country music, I used to think that I was a “very picky” fan. I think it’s more accurate to say that I am a very picky fan, but of music in general. When it comes to things like rock music, there’s a lot of it I like because I know it well enough to know what to avoid, but with country (and, to a similar extent, rap and hip-hop), there is definitely a sound I like, but I don’t know enough about the genre as a whole to be able to find what I like in the glut of horrible songs about how much we love fightin’ terrorists and songs about women getting revenge on their cheating boyfriends by vandalizing their property.
For a long time I just had a list of country singers I do like, and it went like this:
1. Johnny Cash
But I just recently picked up, of course without listening to any of it first, Billy Joe Shaver’s new album, entitled Everybody’s Brother:
Now the list goes as follows:
1. Johnny Cash
2. Billy Joe Shaver
Of course, this wasn’t as much a blind run as my previous purchases, as Billy Joe’s reputation certainly precedes him. For one, Johnny Cash has said before that Billy Joe Shaver is his favorite songwriter, and that’s quite an endorsement. One-time Texas Governer Contestant and part-time novelty act Kinky Freidman had him as a spiritual advisor on his campaign, as well. He seems to have found his niche among the “outlaw” country musicians, which is a much more fun place to be than the law-abiding country musicians, I can tell you.
Unfortunately, I had never heard of Billy Joe Shaver until I started collecting Johnny Cash albums. One of my more recent acquisitions was the collection of Cash’s American Records outtakes entitled Unearthed (Perhaps tastelessly named since it came out 2 months after the man’s death), in that compilation, on the first disc, was a song that completely blew my mind. It was a song called “If I Give My Soul” which was an alcoholic musician’s plea to the Lord that, if he gives his soul, will he get his wife back, new clothes, etc. The song broke my heart as it touches on some very personal details of someone very dear to me, and is otherwise a really great song. That’s when I found out who Billy Joe Shaver was, as he had written that song and Cash covered it, despite the beardy protests from Cash’s then-producer Rick Rubin, who considered the song too “theatrical”, whatever that means.
Turns out, Billy Joe Shaver has written a lot of songs for a lot of people, and the ones that he wrote for himself on Everybody’s Brother are top-notch. It should also be said that, excepting Johnny Cash’s My Mother’s Hymn Book, this is probably the most religious country music recording I have heard; 10 out of the album’s 15 songs (I quite enjoy long albums) have to do with God directly. I am pretty sure there’s not even a song on the album that doesn’t reference some kind of religious activity. I do have to say, as someone who doesn’t normally enjoy religious music unless done exactly right, I didn’t have to compromise for this one, as it had no problem doing everything exactly right. From the hopeful spiritual ballad of the album’s title track (which opens up with traditional American Indian tribal music):
We must stop the bleeding and bring peace upon this earth
The first will be the first, and the last will be the first
Even greater miracles than Jesus Christ performed
Can be performed by all of us, no-one will come to harm
To the defiant, as in songs like “Get Thee Behind Me Satan” and “No Earthly Good”, to the genuinely moving songs like “Jesus Is The Only One That Loves Us”, and even to the downright evangelical:
If you don’t love Jesus, go to Hell
I love that. The up-tempo beat and attitude of “If You Don’t Love Jesus” really brings that play on words home. There is quite a lot of attitude on this album, considering the writer is now 69 years old. From “When I Get My Wings”:
Gonna die with my boots on, gonna go out in style
With a free-wheelin’ feelin’, and a honky-tonk smile
And if the Devil don’t dodge me, gonna spit in his eye
When I get my wings, I’m gonna fly
At which point an angelic-sounding chorus of backup singers helps his tired vocals through the chorus.
Besides the superior songwriting, the thing that really kept me going with this album is the production, courtesy of John Carter Cash. The whole album has a warm and old-fashioned feel to it, like the entire thing was made of wood and was built in a farm. There’s no twang to speak of, and though country staples like a fiddle are present, they are played by real professionals and never get in the way of what’s really going on. It’s a very warm and cheery sound, against which all kinds of ideas can take shape, and often do.
One third and final indication that I could do no wrong picking up this album is the closing track, “You Just Can’t Beat Jesus Christ”, which is a duet with the Man In Black himself, Johnny Cash. I listened to the album all in order, and wound up having to listen to it a second time before writing this, because it turned out I missed most of it because I was anticipating the song with Johnny Cash so hard. When it finally came on, it brought a loving tear to my eye…. ok not really, but it is an amazing track, as Johnny’s singing is at its peak of power in this track, and the two singers work really well together, not to mention it’s a fantastic song.
There are other celebrated country singers on the album too: Tanya Tucker, Kris Kristofferson, John Anderson, Bill Miller, and Marty Stuart all share duets with Billy Joe, but I haven’t heard much of what they’ve done outside of that, but now that my list of country singers I like has doubled, I guess it’s about time I got to checking out some of their catalogues, too!
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