Billy Joe Shaver, one of the figureheads of the “outlaw country” movement that came out of Texas and flourished in the 1970s, is the subject of a forthcoming tribute album that sees some of the top names in country and Americana saluting the late legend, including Willie Nelson, Miranda Lambert, George Strait, Nathaniel Rateliff, Rodney Crowell and Margo Price. The project, “Live Forever: A Tribute to Billy Joe Shaver,” comes out on New West Nov. 11.
The title track, a Nelson recording of “Live Forever” with Lucinda Williams on harmony vocals, premieres on Variety today.
Others included in a mix of artists that ranges from Shaver’s contemporaries to younger stars in the mainstream or on the fringes are Amanda Shires, Allison Russell, Edie Brickell and Ryan Bingham with Nikki Lane. (The album can be pre-ordered here.)
The producers behind the project are Charlie Sexton, a Texas recording artist more recently seen as a featured guitarist in Bob Dylan’s and now Elvis Costello’s bands; and Freddy Fletcher, somewhat of a Austin legend in his own right as a producer, player and studio owner, not to mention a member of the extended Nelson family and a friend and working associate of Shaver’s for 50 years.
“We were just dear friends, you know,” says Fletcher, “and a few years before he passed, he just asked me, ‘Hey, if something ever happens to me, make my music live.’ And I said, ‘You got it, buddy.’ But I would’ve done this anyway.”
Upholding the legacy of Shaver, who died in 2020 at age 81, requires some careful and passionate handling. Although Shaver ran in the same so-called outlaw country circles as major stars like Nelson and Waylon Jennings, and recorded a lifetime’s worth of original material just as they did, he never received their same mainstream notoriety, and he found his greatest success being covered by other artists. His songs were recorded by Elvis Presley, Tom T. Hall, Kris Kristofferson, Bobby Bare, Robert Duvall, Bob Dylan (unreleased but bootlegged) — and, most famously, Jennings, who cut an entire album of Shaver tracks with the classic 1973 album “Honky Tonk Heroes.”
Sexton did not have a lifetime of hanging with Shaver, as his producing partner did. “You know,” he says, “every time we came into contact, I took it as an important thing that he didn’t tell me to get lost.” He and Fletcher crack up. “Because as Freddy says, what you saw was what you get. He told it like it was, and he was not someone that was pandering to much of anything. He was the real deal. His songs really had such a great outreach, and in a lot of ways the whole outlaw country (movement) started with him — I mean, other than people acting like outlaws, which he knew how to do, too. But his soulfulness and his acceptance of people was much like his songs.
“And as far as being ‘outlaw’ … it’s the way he got all of his songs on the Waylon album. You can always refer to numerous stories about that that spell it out pretty clear. He’s like, ‘Hey man, you told me you want to hear these songs. You’re gonna listen to these songs, or I’m gonna whoop your ass.’ It doesn’t get much more outlaw than that, you know?”
“I’m gonna whoop your ass!” says Fletcher, doing an impression of his late friend, confirming the veracity of the story. “Then he got pissed off when Waylon did do ‘em and said, ‘You’re messing with my songs, Hoss!'”
Fletcher adds, “Those songs were true stories. I mean, he wasn’t sitting around in some office somewhere writing. And I think that was his beauty.”
Nelson is the only artist on the album to merit two songs — “Georgia on a Fast Train” as well as “Live Forever” — as it should be. “There was a lot of horse trading for songs,” laughs Fletcher. “But Willie was gonna do whatever Willie wanted to do… That’s top-of-the-mountain,” he says, referring to Nelson’s status. “When we finally got the vocal back, I was blown away, because he continues to do great work. And that one, particularly, when it showed up, I was like, ‘Yeah.’ He really took it to heart.”
The message of the song is part-and-parcel with the album concept, in a semi-meta kind of way, about what’s mortal and what’s immortal. “The beauty of great songwriters is they do live forever, because their songs live forever and they just will not go away,” says Sexton. “I mean, people eventually lose sight of what they looked like. Or they never even knew what they looked like to begin with, but that story’s old as dirt. People are still singing songs that are hundreds of years old, you know? And in his own way, he gave you a good example of that, with that song.”
Fletcher previously produced a Townes Van Zandt tribute album as well as working on televised specials saluting Jennings and Johnny Cash, and he felt like Sexton was a natural partner in laying down the better part of the sessions for this salute. Together, they went after a lot of the artists, but occasionally the artists came after them.
“Amanda (Shires) used to play with Billy Joe” as a fiddler, Fletcher points out. “I knew who Amanda and Jason (Isbell) were, but didn’t really know her personally. She got my phone number from Mickey Raphael and said, ‘Hey, I want to play on this album!’ She loved Billy Joe. It was one of those things where we couldn’t say no because she just had a lot of history there.”
Sometimes a bit of Shaver-style aggression counted when it came to the jockeying for songs — as with Margo Price. “I mean, a lot of people wanted that song, but Margo flew here and got it. That one jumped quick.”
George Strait represents a very different strain of Texas country than the outlaw movement, but he makes for a good, parallel fit.
Says Fletcher, “About three years ago, Lou Messina, the promoter, had a big birthday party down in our studio, and George came in and sang ‘Willy, the Wandering Gypsy and Me,’ and it blew me away. I’m like, ‘Wait a minute!’ So after he finished, I was talking to him and said ‘I can’t believe (you did) a Billy Joe Shaver song.’ He said, ‘Yes, it’s one of my favorite songs.’ And I went, holy shit. It stuck with me, and then when we decided to do this record, he said, ‘I’ll do it if I can do that song.’ And it was perfect. I had a lot of work on my end, because there was a lot of people vying for certain songs, but there was no way I was gonna tell George Strait he couldn’t have that song.”
Notes Sexton, “Much like the story that Freddy told about George Strait doing ‘Willy the Wandering Gypsy,’ when I reached out to Rodney Crowell, who’s a brilliant songwriter himself, he goes, ‘This is a song I wanna do, because that’s what I do to warm up before I do shows. I don’t do vocal exercises. I sing that song.’ ‘Well, then that’s the song you’re doing then'” — “Old Five and Dimers Like Me.” “That’s important when dealing with artists: You want them to have that engagement and love for what they’re doing and connection to it.”
The final track on the album was also the last to be recorded: “Tramp on Your Street,” by Allison Russell, who’s risen to fame in the last couple of years and is currently a leading contender for the Americana Honors & Awards.
“Originally Elle King was gonna do that, but she had had a baby, and we were getting to a deadline. And I remembered hearing Allison sing that a Luck show during AmericanaFest, and I’d never heard her, and she blew me away. It is just one of those things I couldn’t quite forget about. And when we finally were like, ‘Elle, we’ve gotta do something else,’ Allison popped into my head. And to be honest, it’s one of my favorite cuts on the album. That just happened so organically; it was a special, meant-to-be thing.”
Says Sexton: “I’ll drag in, in closing, another great Texas songwriter (Van Zandt): All this is for the sake of the song. It’s also for Billy Joe, number one, but also for the sake of the song, and that being his song.”
“Live Forever: A Tribute To Billy Joe Shaver” track listing:
1. Willie Nelson (w/ Lucinda Williams) – Live Forever
2. Ryan Bingham (w/ Nikki Lane) – Ride Me Down Easy
3. Rodney Crowell – Old Five And Dimers Like Me
4. Miranda Lambert – I’m Just An Old Chunk Of Coal (But I’m Gonna Be A Diamond Someday)
5. Edie Brickell – I Couldn’t Be Me Without You
6. Nathaniel Rateliff – You Asked Me To
7. George Strait – Willy The Wandering Gypsy And Me
8. Amanda Shires – Honky Tonk Heroes
9. Steve Earle – Ain’t No God In Mexico
10. Margo Price – Ragged Old Truck
11. Willie Nelson – Georgia On A Fast Train
12. Allison Russell – Tramp On Your Street