I’m always excited about a new Billy Joe Shaver album – especially one with almost all new songs (“The Git Go” first appeared in 2012 on “Live at Billy Bob’s.”). This one even kicks off with a duet with Willie Nelson on “It’s Hard to be an Outlaw,” an enjoyable tune that sets up the album well – bemoaning the current Nashville sound (If it seems too negative about the town, the more optimistic closing track, “Music City, USA” sets the record straight.). I love the album title, and when I saw that Tony Joe White contributed electric guitar and backing vocals to the title track, I was excited to hear the results. It has some amusing lines (“What I used to do all night, it takes all night to do.”), but the chorus is ultimately a little awkward and overstays it’s welcome. Still, White’s guitar and the inclusion of a mouth harp make for an interesting musical experiment.
Fortunately, one of the best songs on the album (“The Git Go”) immediately follows. Leave it to Shaver to not only write about both politics and religion, but to put both in the same song. The song starts in the garden, later compares politicians to the serpent and wraps everything up with Jesus. It’s full of great lines, including “War is the beast that makes every mother cry.” “Checkers and Chess” is another strong one with a political slant (“I’m playing checkers while they’re playing chess; they make the big moves that me a little less.”), and despite the dark tone of the lyric, the beat keeps it fun. There are a couple of love songs – the cautionary promise of “I’ll Love You as Much as I Can” and “I’m in Love,” which is more of a declaration of faith. “Sunbeam Special” is a fun, nostalgic ode to trains, and Leon Russell even shows up for some bouncing piano lines on “Last Call for Alcohol” (Shawn Camp lends backing vocals on both songs.).
It is fun, serious and silly, while managing to touch on all of the major recurring themes in Shaver’s music without feeling forced. There’s even some songs that may rank with Shaver’s best. That’s no small feat for the man who wrote “Georgia on a Fast Train,” “Honky Heroes” and “Ride Me Down Easy,” among others in what Steve Earle calls “one of the greatest bodies of work ever produced by any songwriter dead or alive” (That quote comes from a nice essay included in the liner notes.). In the end, it’s a very solid outing for Shaver.