If ever a singer had a right to release a bitter, dispirited, even defeated album, Billy Joe Shaver did. In the past 2 1/2 years, the 63-year-old Texan and outlaw country songwriting legend lost his mother and wife to cancer and his son and musical co-conspirator, Eddy, to a drug overdose. Those are losses of menacing proportions, and as if they weren't enough, Shaver suffered an onstage heart attack during a July 4, 2001, concert. Responding with songs of rage or perhaps utter despair would have been understandable and probably even expected.
There's something remarkable, then, about "Freedom's Child," his just-released record. It is a work of unfailing consolation, at turns tender, funny and moving. A reflection on a lifetime of hardship and reward, struggle and sweet victory, it is country music clean to the bone at its gritty, thoughtful best. It is also, in a sense, a career retrospective even though composed entirely of new material.
Everyone from Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson to the Allman Brothers and Elvis Presley has covered Shaver's songs, but he brings a firsthand soulfulness to them that makes you believe he has lived most of what he sings. That appealingly gruff voice, a twangy, honky-tonk buzz saw that fashions graceful stories from even the grimmest of material, is the sound of battle-worn experience. And here the songs are of lessons learned and lessons he ought to have learned.
There are relationships-on-the-rocks songs like "We" and "Drinkin' Back" while "Hold On to Yours (And I'll Hold On to Mine)" is a blueprint for working things out. Other songs visit the strength of familial love -- the autobiographical "Corsicana Daily Sun" and the delightfully nostalgic "Wild Cow Gravy." On "Day by Day" he addresses the extraordinarily sad turns in his life, but by the end the song feels like a healing tonic: "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."
Though there is heartbreak on this record, Shaver also keeps things loose with the bawdy "That's What She Said Last Night" and the hard-luck but hilarious "Deja Blues." On the title track, and on "Good Ol' U.S.A.," he manages the tricky feat of writing strong and heartfelt patriotic songs without a touch of jingoism. And his tribute to Johnny Cash, "That's Why the Man in Black Sings the Blues," not only sounds like a Cash song but captures the essence of one of country's great singers and songwriters.
There are only 13 tracks listed on the album, but two other songs, a mournful "Merry Christmas to You" and "Necessary Evil," a dark and smoldering blues performed by his son, bring the record to a close. Both hint at a deeper, lingering sadness, an ongoing pain with which Shaver continues to struggle. It is clear from these songs that Shaver relies on his faith for spiritual solace. Perhaps it will also bring him some solace to know that he has recorded what is certainly one of the year's best country albums.
(To hear a free Sound Bite from this album, call Post-Haste at 202-334-9000 and press 8161.)