with the Star Room Boys

The 40 Watt Club, Athens, GA • September 17, 1999

It had all the potential of a night of pure honky-tonk heaven. The man who more or less kicked off the “Outlaw” movement in late ’70s country music, Billy Joe Shaver, was in town, and he brought his firebrand guitarist son Eddy with him. Since regrouping in 1993 as Shaver, the pair has made some of the best hardcore country albums of the last decade. The charmingly gaudy environs of the 40 Watt suited the night’s music, and the excellent openers the Star Room Boys (whose Why Do Lonely Men and Women Break Each Other’s Hearts may be the finest country release of the past year) won the crowd over with their beautiful songs.

Unfortunately, the night of honky-tonk bliss didn’t come off quite as expected, but there’s really no one to blame except fate. Billy Joe was in fine voice and high spirits, cracking jokes and even dancing around during songs. Eddy, despite occasionally engaging in a bit of Joe Perry-esque overkill, proved he’s one of the finest young guitar players of any genre.

The rhythm section… OK, there was the problem. Or, to be more specific, the complete lack of a drummer was the problem. It obviously wasn’t a planned thing, as the songs were arranged with a drummer in mind (the bassist played normal rhythmic lines instead of a more percussive style, for example). Billy Joe said his drummer had come down with the “jazz flu” (which one wise man noted was an old euphemism for a heroin overdose, but the true reason is still unknown), but in any event, the whole night came off a bit flat.

That isn’t to say the show was bad. Billy Joe’s songs are still brilliant pieces of country pathos and he’s still the finest purveyor of honky-tonk songwriting since Hank Williams. The lack of a drummer was hardly noticed on slower numbers such as the lovely “Live Forever” (featuring some incredible finger-picking from Eddy) and “Ride Me Down Easy.” Billy Joe has always touched with his spiritual side (particular the dichotomy of being a good Christian soldier who still likes to raise a bit of hell), and did so with “You Can’t Beat Jesus Christ.” He prefaced this particular tune with an old Biblical proverb (“It isn’t what goes into a man’s mouth that makes him, but what comes out”) and encouraging all to drink up, which went over well particularly with a group of good ol’ boys from rural Douglasville, GA.

Billy Joe particularly shined on his “hits,” tunes of his made famous by others such as “Honky-Tonk Heroes” (Waylon Jennings) and “Old Chunk of Coal” (John Anderson). However, what’s made the recent Shaver albums so special (particularly the live Unshaven from 1995) are the hard-thumping rockers like “Hottest Thing in Town” and “Georgia on a Fast Train” (the video for the latter was filmed in Athens). These tunes, as well as “People and Their Problems” from the recent release Electric Shaver , fell flat without the drummer’s punch to ground them. Still, the show was enjoyable and it was an honor to see one of country music’s lost heroes getting his due and in fine form. If anything, the show made one appreciate just how important drummers are to good, rockin’ honky tonk. Who’d a-thought drummers were good for much of anything?

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