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Billy Joe Shaver was only 33 years old when he released his 1973 Kris Kristofferson-produced debut, Old Five and Dimers Like Me. Yet, by that time he was blessed and cursed to have lived several lifetimes, all of them hard, some of them nearly fatal. The pain and world-weariness of his hardscrabble existence was reflected in a rasp of surprising emotion. His voice was the sound of the dirt, the sound of the earth, the sound of a simple man yearning for grace.
But it was also an agitated, twangy, finger-jabbing weapon of a voice, radiating red-hot, quivering sensuality and aggression, a Southern-fried carnality that finds its truest manifestation in “Black Rose,” a harmonica-fueled rave-up with the chugga-chugga rhythm that could be a tribute to a potent blend of moonshine or a particularly irresistible kind of woman, or some combination of the two. The inscrutability of the lyrics—at least to city folks—give the song a certain voodoo. Shaver isn’t singing so much as he is conjuring spirits.
It takes chutzpah for a man barely in his thirties to rerecord a song like “Old Five and Dimers Like Me,” but much like his good buddy Willie Nelson, Shaver clearly felt like a relic from an earlier, more honest time rather than the vulgar one he currently inhabited. On the title track, he looks back over the decades with an exquisite sense of worldliness. It’s a tear-in-your-beer anthem for sad sacks holding onto that one little shred of dignity in the face of an often cruel world.
“I Been To Georgia on a Fast Train” resurrects the Tennessee Three railroad rhythms for a redneck anthem rich in defiant mountain pride and casual sexuality. But if Shaver is an inveterate, Southern-fried badass, there is a softness and a yearning for connection that makes him impossible to typecast or dismiss.
Two of Old Five and Dimers outings are essentially love songs to other men. In the wandering, deliberately pokey “Willy the Wandering Gypsy and Me,” Shaver deifies his close friend and frequent collaborator Willie Nelson. He posits the man as a kind of folk hero or urban legend, a fierce force of nature even when seated still. “Willy, you’re wild as a Texas Blue Norther” he tells him, and the line, “My woman’s tight with an overdue baby, Willy keeps yelling ‘Hey, gypsy let’s go’ ” says everything about the two men’s relationships, how they see the world and their place in it. For lesser or more moral souls, a partner with an “overdue baby” would be all the reason in the world to stay home. For Willie and Billy Joe Shaver, a nearly born baby is a bump in the road, a minor obstacle to overcome for the glory of the open road and the favors that can be found on it.
On the plaintive, tender “Jesus Christ, What A Man” Shaver longs to be inundated with sacred songs about the soul-enriching words and music of his Savior. Shaver knew better than anyone that it was the Saturday-night sinners like himself who really needed Christ’s forgiveness, not the phonies with shiny red Cadillacs who showed up for service on Sunday.
It’s strange to think of Old Five and Dimers as a debut when it feels so ancient, so dusty; such a gorgeous, angry classic right out of the box, like it should always have existed in country record shops. Despite the album’s antique sensibility, its beginning is marked with Shaver’s plaintive cry for more love, more sex, more self-dignity, and above all else the benediction and salvation of Christ that would allow an old five and dimer a seat in heaven alongside Jesus. So even though Old Five and Dimers Like Me is technically an opening to a remarkable career, it nevertheless has the feeling of a magnum opus from a man who lived not wisely or well—but for the grace of God—continues to ramble wherever strange corridors his muse may lead.