“The poet laureate of Texas no doubt was Billy Joe Shaver,” declared Ray Benson from the stage of the Long Center Lawn on Sunday afternoon as a tribute to the legendary Texas songwriter neared its end. Shaver’s good friend Willie Nelson might well agree; after all, it was Luck Productions, a company aligned with Nelson’s Luck TX ranch just west of Austin, that presented this event, which featured more than a dozen local artists singing some of Shaver’s best-known songs.
Proper tributes are complicated in the age of the coronavirus. A show for Shaver, who died Oct. 28 at age 81 from a massive stroke, likely would have drawn thousands in ordinary times. This one might not have happened at all except that Luck and the Long Center already had been planning a series of socially-distanced outdoor shows. This one was the third, following earlier events with Hayes Carll and Tank & the Bangas.
About 100 square plots were marked on the lawn, with each square sold to groups of up to four concertgoers and gaps between squares of at least 6 feet. Total attendance appeared to be about 400, in a space that normally accommodates a couple of thousand or so.
Austin guitar great Charlie Sexton organized the backing band and helped put together the lineup of performers. It represented less a cast of Shaver’s peers and than of younger generations who counted Shaver as an inspiration.
Early highlights included Jonny Burke kicking off the nearly two-hour, 22-song set with “Georgia on a Fast Train”; Jonathan Terrell, who played guitar and harmonica in the band throughout, playing “Oklahoma Wind”; and a mostly acoustic double-shot of “Old Five and Dimers Like Me” and “Just Because You Asked Me To” from Vincent Neil Emerson.
Singer and violinist Carrie Rodriguez kicked things up a notch with “Slow Rollin’ Low” before Bruce Robison and Kelly Willis took the stage for two tunes, including “I’m Just an Old Chunk of Coal (But I’m Gonna Be a Diamond Someday),” one of several songs that came to define Shaver across the decades. Sexton stepped out on his own with “Tramp on Your Street,” which he dedicated to the Fletcher family seated near the front. (Freddie Fletcher is Willie Nelson’s nephew; his daughter Ellee Fletcher Durniak is a key figure in the Luck Productions camp.)
Arguably the best performer of the afternoon was David Ramirez, whose rich and resonant voice stood out so obviously that it’s likely time we start acknowledging him as one of the best singers Austin has ever produced. He also was very sharp in picking his material: “Silver Wings of Time” and “We Are the Cowboys” (the latted recorded by Nelson on his most recent album) might not be as widely known as some of Shaver’s classics, but they’re both strong numbers that felt perfectly suited to Ramirez’s delivery.
Shakey Graves was the biggest-drawing name on this bill, and his soulful version of “Bottom Dollar” was on-point. Some levity came from his humorous exchanges with Sexton, who’d gotten tongue-twisted in thanking Rodriguez after she sat in with Ramirez. Graves referred to “Charlie Saxton” before Sexton himself corrected: “It’s Carly, actually.” Shakey followed suit, waving as he finished the song and saying, “Thank you so much, I’m Sharkey Grabs!”
Austin-via-Nashville singer Nikki Lane got two of the best Shaver tunes down the stretch, doing justice to both “Ride Me Down Easy” and especially “Black Rose” with emotional swagger and an easy rapport with the band. Besides Sexton and Terrell, the crew included Ricky Ray Jackson on guitar and pedal steel, John Michael Schoepf on bass and Joshua Blue on drums, with occasional backing vocal contributions from Molly Leary.
The final touches came from Benson and Dale Watson, two musicians with closer ties to Shaver. “I met Billy Joe almost 50 years ago,” Benson noted, bringing up his Asleep at the Wheel twin fiddlers Katie Shore and Dennis Ludiker to help reel off two well-chosen tunes. “Honky Tonk Heroes” was the title track of the 1973 Waylon Jennings album that brought Shaver to wider renown, while “Way Down Texas Way” was a Shaver song Asleep at the Wheel recorded in the 1980s.
Watson followed with Shaver’s “Ragged Old Truck” before a slight detour with “Where Do You Want It,” a song Watson wrote about the 2007 incident in which Shaver was charged with shooting a man outside a tavern. (He was acquitted in 2010.) The obvious closer was “Live Forever,” and in non-pandemic times, it probably would have been an all-hands-on-deck finale. But more people onstage is riskier with COVID-19, and so Watson sang the timeless tune mainly on his own, with beautifully evocative guitar work from Sexton that felt like a quiet benediction washing over the skyline of a city beleaguered by hard times.
Local singer-songwriter Monte Warden opened the show with a half-hour acoustic set that featured seven of his own songs, followed by Shaver’s “If You Don’t Love Jesus.” Warden said he was invited by BMI’s Mitch Ballard, at Luck Productions’ request, “to do a set of originals as a tribute to Billy Joe as a songwriter.” His performance, with longtime sidekick Brent Wilson on electric guitar, was solid, but the decision to have an opening set of mostly non-Shaver material felt a bit out-of-place.
One more show in the Luck/Long Center’s “Long Live Music” series remains, on Dec. 8 with Alabama band St. Paul & the Broken Bones. The series was planned and booked before Austin-Travis County health officials moved the region to Stage 4 restrictions last week, after several months at Stage 3. Under the Stage 4, high-risk individuals are asked to stay home, and the city recommends that others avoid social gatherings, any gatherings greater than 10 people and nonessential travel.
Concertgoers’ temperatures were taken at the gate, and masks were required upon entry. Mask removal was allowed while attendees were in their designated squares. Food and beverages were delivered to the squares by event staff. Restrooms were provided in the lobby of the Long Center.
Set list of Billy Joe Shaver songs performed:
“If You Don’t Love Jesus,” Monte Warden
“Georgia on a Fast Train,” Jonny Burke
“Oklahoma Wind,” Jonathan Terrell
“You Just Can’t Beat Jesus Christ,” Jonathan Terrell
“Old Five and Dimers Like Me,” Vincent Neil Emerson
“Just Because You Asked Me To,” Vincent Neil Emerson
“Low Down Freedom,” Leah Blevins
“Slow Rollin’ Low,” Carrie Rodriguez
“Willy the Wandering Gypsy and Me,” Bruce Robison & Kelly Willis
“I’m Just an Old Chunk of Coal (But I’m Gonna Be a Diamond Someday),” Bruce Robison & Kelly Willis
“Jesus Christ, What a Man,” Charlie Sexton with Bruce Robison & Kelly Willis
“Tramp on Your Street,” Charlie Sexton
“Silver Wings of Time,” David Ramirez
“We Are the Cowboys,” David Ramirez
“Bottom Dollar,” Shakey Graves
“Ride Me Down Easy,” Nikki Lane
“Black Rose,” Nikki Lane
“Honky Tonk Heroes,” Ray Benson with Katie Shore & Dennis Ludiker
“Way Down Texas Way,” Ray Benson with Katie Shore & Dennis Ludiker
“Ragged Old Truck,” Dale Watson
“Live Forever,” Dale Watson