Bittersweet Anticipation For Final Shaver Set

Anticipation was already high for "The Earth Rolls On," the sixth album from Shaver -- the duo of highly regarded singer/songwriter Billy Joe Shaver and his son Eddy, whom many hold in equally high

Anticipation was already high for "The Earth Rolls On," the sixth album from Shaver -- the duo of highly regarded singer/songwriter Billy Joe Shaver and his son Eddy, whom many hold in equally high esteem as a country/blues guitar slinger.

But the focus shifted, however undeservedly, when Eddy died Dec. 31, 2000, of a suspected heroin overdose at age 38. Regardless, "The Earth Rolls On," a tough-and-tender epic due April 10 from New West Records, represents some of the father and son's best work.

The Shaver duo's third New West set ranges from raucous roadhouse romps ("Leavin' Amarillo," "Hard-Headed Heart") and blues rave-ups ("Sail of My Soul") to tender ballads ("Star of My Heart," "Evergreen"), all boasting Billy Joe's signature insightful lyrics and rough-hewn vocals, with blistering guitar runs from Eddy. The songs were all written by Billy Joe, save for the hard-hitting "Blood Is Thicker Than Water" -- an instance of no-holds-barred father/son interplay co-written by Eddy, who also sings.

Given the turn of events, "Blood" is likely to attract attention, even if for the wrong reasons. "If people turn to that song because [of Eddy's death], I'm sorry," Billy Joe says, "because it's a good song anyway." The song doesn't mince words, particularly in Eddy's verse, where he recognizes his bond with his father by eerily singing, "The powers that be are leading you and me/Like two lambs to the slaughter." Eddy also paints a graphic, unflattering picture of his father's past behavior.

The elder Shaver admits that the song is at times harsh. "I told him to be honest, and he was," he says. "I had been like [he said], but it had been so many years that I thought I had lived it down. I guess I hadn't."

Another high point of "The Earth Rolls On" is the poignant "Star in My Heart," which comes off as a testament to friendship and familial love. "I wrote [that] for Eddy before he went into drug rehab not too long ago," Shaver recalls. "I think it's one of the greatest songs I ever wrote -- I wish someone more popular than me would've recorded it."

As these songs suggest, Shaver believes strongly that blood is indeed thicker than water. "It's hard to turn your back on your kinfolk," he says. "That tough-love stuff is just a way of washing your hands of the situation."

Eddy Shaver died in Austin, Texas, where he was scheduled to play a show that night with his father. "He was in some hotel room with a bunch that apparently were more worried about keeping themselves out of trouble than with saving Eddy's life," he says. "I didn't even know he was in town."

Shaver says he and his son "grew up together," expressing pride in their body of work. "My lyrics were definitely country, and then Eddy came out of nowhere, influenced by Jimi Hendrix, Johnny Winter, Dickey Betts. We stuck his guitar with those country lyrics, and it worked everywhere we went. Tradition is OK; it just gets old sometimes.

"I just hope everybody appreciates Eddy, 'cause he was a good one. I couldn't have afforded him if he wasn't my kid."

For all its emotional impact, "The Earth Rolls On" is not without its lighthearted moments, none more humorous than "Leavin' Amarillo," a not-too-flattering take on the Texas burg that sees Shaver cast aspersions on everything from the city's remoteness to the relative honesty of its promoters. Along the way, he manages to take a shot at Nashville's "cookie-cutter" music business.

Shaver is unapologetic. "There ain't nothing out there [near Amarillo] unless you slide sideways and go to Lubbock for God knows what reason," he says. "There ain't nothing between Amarillo and the North Pole but a barbed wire fence, and it's down. I took a punch at just about everybody in that song. It's all in good fun, but I meant it."

In the hangdog "I Don't Seem to Fit Anywhere," Shaver laments, "Nobody quite got the drift of my songs/Like me, they're a bit over-done." He admits that his reception in Nashville has been mixed for years. "I feel like they ain't quite got it yet. They might eventually. You're easier to manage when you're dead, like Hank Williams."

Shaver knows he has brought many of his problems upon himself. "I know I'm not manageable -- a few have tried over the years, and they don't need to feel bad about it," he says. "My grandma who raised me died when I was 12, and nobody sent me after a 'switch' after that."

Instead of Shaver's traditional, stripped-down approach, "The Earth Rolls On" features a beefed-up studio band that includes Wilco members Ken Coomer and Jay Bennett on drums and keyboards, respectively, along with E Street Band bassist Garry Tallent and guitarists Doug Lancio, Kenny Vaughan, and Ray Kennedy. The result is a full-band sound that adds punch even to Billy Joe Shaver chestnuts like "Evergreen Fields" and "Restless Wind," recut for this album.

The label was more than pleased with the result. "[Producer] Ray Kennedy and I wanted a different flavor from the Shaver road band, and Billy Joe and Eddy were going through some changes, too," says Cameron Strang, president of Los Angeles/Austin-based New West.

"Our goal was to feature Billy Joe and Eddy and the songs," Cameron adds, "and Ray picked a lineup for each song that worked best. I try not to judge records, but I think this is the strongest stuff they ever did for us. Billy Joe and Eddy together were one of a kind. The music was so honest that it cut to the bone, as Billy Joe likes to say. I'm proud to have worked with them."

Shaver will tour to promote the record, and New West plans to shoot a video for the debut single, "Love Is So Sweet," which goes out to radio the last week in March.

Billy Joe regrets Eddy's star was never allowed to fully rise, but he believes in his son's legacy. "He was fixing to record on Jan. 2 with Dickey Betts, and he was really looking forward to it," he says. "Eddy had so many great songs that nobody got to hear, and as a guitar player, he kicked ass. I had been carrying his guitars around, and I finally [had them taken out] to Willie Nelson's to put in the vault with Willie's guitars. They'll be safe there. I got tired of dragging them around -- they're too precious.