Billy Joe Shaver has never been a household name, but his songs became country standards during the ’70s and his reputation among musicians and critics hasn’t diminished during the ensuing decades.
One of the best synopses of Shaver’s upbringing is his own song, “I Been to Georgia on a Fast Train.” When he sings, “my grandma’s old-age pension is the reason that I’m standing here today,” he ain’t kidding. The “good Christian raising” and “eighth grade education” — not to mention being abandoned by his parents shortly after being born, working on his uncles’ farms instead of going to high school, and losing part of his fingers during a job at a sawmill — are all part of his life story. “I got all my country learning,” he sings, “picking cotton, raising hell, and bailing hay.”
After several trips between Texas andTennessee, he appeared one day in 1968 inBobby Bare‘s Nashville office, where he convinced Bare to listen to him play. Bareended up giving him a writing job and soon his songs began to see the light thanks toKris Kristofferson (“Good Christian Soldier”),Tom T. Hall (“Willie the Wandering Gypsy and Me”), Bare (“Ride Me Down Easy”), and later,the Allman Brothers (“Sweet Mama”) and Elvis Presley (“You Asked Me To”). Shaver’s real breakthrough, though, came in 1973 whenWaylon Jennings recorded an album composed almost entirely of Shaver’s songs, Honky Tonk Heroes — largely considered the first true “outlaw” album.
Shaver’s own debut album, Old Five and Dimers Like Me, was produced by Kristofferson in 1973. Along with the title track, it contained now-classic Shaver songs “Willie the Wandering Gypsy and Me” and the aforementioned “Georgia on a Fast Train.” In 1978 Johnny Cash recorded “I’m Just an Old Chunk of Coal (But I’m Gonna Be a Diamond Some Day),” a song Shaver wrote just after he chose to give up drugs and booze and turned to God for help.
All Music Guide lists 23 albums, from 1973’s Old Five & Dimers Like Me through 2007’s Everybody’s Brother. Among his many classic songs are “I’m Just an Old Chunk of Coal (But I’m Gonna Be a Diamond Some Day),” “Honky Tonk Heroes,” “Georgia on a Fast Train,” “Live Forever,” “Tramp on Your Street,” and “Try and Try Again.”
In 1999, Shaver was invited to perform at theGrand Ole Opry. In 2005, Billy Joe Shaver performed on CMT Outlaws. In 2006, he was inducted into the Texas Country Music Hall of Fame. He recently served as spiritual advisor to Texas independent gubernatorial candidateKinky Friedman and his 2007 album “Everybody’s Brother” was nominated for a GRAMMY. For his efforts, the Americana Music Association awarded him their Lifetime Achievement Award in Songwriting.
Shaver is truly one of the most respected living figures in American music. Bob Dylan, who rarely covers other writers, has often played Billy Joe‘s “Old Five And Dimers Like Me” in concert. Johnny Cash called him “my favorite songwriter.” TheWashington Post noted, “when the country outlaws were collecting their holy writings, Billy Joe Shaver was carving out Exodus.”
Kirby Brown’s Uncommon Prayer is a ten-song soliloquy of loneliness and longing, underpinned with a fundamental belief that there is always a home to be found. From being raised in a small, picturesque farm town, to years spent roaming the charged, gritty sidewalks of New York City, Brown has made his home in the extremes of American culture. However, it is his own experiences of personal loss and subsequent growth — in combination with these varied backdrops — that inspire his constant search for perspective. “This album is definitely centered around a desire for identity and truth,” explains Brown, “but it’s not me wondering if I’m one thing or another. I know that, like a stained glass window, I am many things and I am one thing simultaneously. Similarly, life is not about pain versus beauty, confusion versus meaning, but rather it is all of those things — and one is born of the other. One thing I learned living on a farm is that you have to break the ground if you want to see any growth.”
Born in Deep East Texas and raised in the Ozark Mountains of Arkansas, Brown spent his childhood on his grandparents’ dairy farm, where his dad was the milkhand. “I had a lot of misgivings about growing up in a really small place, until I was an adult and came to appreciate my upbringing,” says Brown. After his parents split, the family moved back to East Texas, where he discovered Guy Clark, Townes Van Zandt, and the various icons of the Texas songwriting tradition. Although these artists, among other favorites like Joni Mitchell and Bob Dylan, led him to start playing the guitar, it was his father who inspired him to start writing poetry and short stories. His dad had gone back to school to study English Literature and introduced his young son to a variety of the great American writers — Walt Whitman, Donald Hall , Sylvia Plath, and the like. “If you ask me who my influences are, I’m more likely to name, say, Flannery O’Connor than any songwriter, because I feel that I naturally and subconsciously approach songs from a distinctly literary perspective,” he explains.
Brown’s life took a sharp turn in his late teens. Shortly after high school, both his first love and his long time best friend died tragically and unexpectedly in the space of a year, and it was feelings of immense loss and brokenness that initially inspired him to record an album. Rather than attend university as he had previously planned, Brown found himself floating around the Dallas area, working for his friend’s band and trying to regain his sense of what life was supposed to be. Out of sheer emotional necessity he began to write and record what eventually became his first album, Child of Calamity. “I think you can hear it on that album,” he says, “someone who is working through a loss of love and loss of innocence, and he’s trying to figure out what to do with the leftover pieces of what he thought he knew.”
When a gig brought him to New York City, Brown unexpectedly fell in love with the place. “I had no concept of New York before that trip, so it was kind of crazy. But I had reached a sort of plateau in Texas, and after being there for a few days I just felt like it was calling to me,” he explains. Brown’s time in New York City was as inspirational as it was isolated, and it fueled moments of heavy existential contemplation. “I feel like, even though it’s not always apparent, the most prevalent conversation I’m having in my writing is the one that I’m constantly having with God — or the idea of God,” he explains. “But it’s a unique back-and-forth, so to speak. Like after you send a text message, and there’s that three dot reply bubble while the other person is typing a response… it’s just that most times it feels like I may be stuck with just those bubbles forever [laughing].” Still, Brown seems to find humor in the endless search for meaning. In “Place to Stay” he sings: “I just spent all night at the diner, searching for the truth in my eggs.”