Recording information: Arlyn Recording Studios, Austin, TX; Caribou Ranch, Hederland, CO; Fireside Studios, Nashville, TN; The Castle Recording Studio, Franklin, TN.
Photographers: Jim Marshall ; Larry Dixon; Beverly Parker.
Billy Joe Shaver came to the major labels a little too late to capitalize on the outlaw country boom of the '70s. He spent the back half of that decade on Capricorn, more of a rock label than a country imprint, jumping ship to Columbia in 1981 and staying with the label until 1987. During that time, Columbia and its sister label, Epic, turned many veteran country singers into reliable hit-makers -- Willie Nelson, George Jones, Merle Haggard, all ruled the charts -- but Shaver never managed to break beyond his cult audience despite a very subtle polishing of his hardcore Texas country. This may not have resulted in big hits, but it was his greatest, sustained creative record making, with each of his three Columbia albums -- 1981's I'm Just an Old Chunk of Coal, 1982's Billy Joe Shaver, 1987's Salt of the Earth -- offering strong new originals and nimble covers of some of his old classics. All three, plus a non-LP single, are combined on Real Gone's 2013 double-disc set The Complete Columbia Recordings, which brings this material back into print for the first time in years (in the case of the 1982 LP, this is the first time the album has ever seen digital release). Occasionally, the punch of the professional production doesn't quite jibe with the grit of Shaver's voice and songs, but it never overwhelms him -- it does help that he's supported by a crack team, supplemented by a few of his favorite guns, including his son Eddy -- and it's often appealing on its own terms. So, this era winds up as perhaps the most satisfying of Shaver's career, both in terms of sound and content: he revived his core songbook and added to it significantly, and revisiting these three albums on this Real Gone set is a pleasure indeed. ~ Stephen Thomas Erlewine