In his latest, most ubiquitous publicity photo, Billy Joe Shaver gazes knowingly into the horizon. His brow's furrowed; his wrinkles are deep and shadowed. The wind lifts the back of his wispy white hair. He looks weathered. He looks like a defiant Indian chief. He looks like his voice is going to be broken by years of drink and tragedy and hard living.
Pictures lie. Because the Billy Joe Shaver who headlined at Revolution on Friday was the spryest 70-year-old in the world. He fist-pumped. He gave himself chest pounds. He flapped his arms like a bird. He two-stepped with himself as a partner, twice. He drank two Red Bulls (“an old man's bumper jack”). He had words of wisdom on drinking (“It ain't what goes into your mouth that defiles you, it's what comes out”) and Jesus (“He's the one that makes us all number two”). And he told awesomely rambling stories — about his grandmother, who he said gave birth to his mother in Texarkana with her legs straddling the Arkansas and Texas line, about his mother, who had a rear end “13-axe-handles wide,” about his wild, drinking days when he and his band “puked” so much onstage that it turned into a “slip-n-slide.”
That charisma kept everyone in smiles, but it wasn't a crutch. Unlike most of his contemporaries — Willie and Dylan come to mind — Shaver's voice isn't wrecked, he's not reduced to offering cues to the audience with speak-singing. He's still got that gentle country tenor he's hung his songs on since the early '70s. And Saturday, he treated us to a broad career retrospective. Likely to keep the requests down, he kicked the show off with “Georgia on a Fast Train.” He reclaimed “Honky Tonk Heroes” from Waylon Jennings. He did “Black Rose” (“the devil made me do it the first time / the second time I done it on my own”), “I'm Just an Old Chunk of Coal (But I'm Going to Be a Diamond Someday)” and he tried to remember, for the Arkansas crowd, the lyrics to “Wild Cow Gravy,” a song about his Arkansas kinfolk's skill in milking a cow gone wild.
It goes like this: “Eating wild cow gravy and drinking mountain dew / it'll make you live forever even if you don't want to.”