Billy Joe Shaver took off his beat-up cowboy hat, ran his fingers through his long white hair and let out a good-natured chuckle after forgetting his lyrics for the second time Friday night at the Kessler Theater.
"How come I can't remember [expletive]?" he said with a big grin. "It's because my head's full of songs."
Fair enough explanation. The Corsicana-born country outlaw has written enough gems over the last 50 years to fill Willie Nelson's tour bus twice over. Aside from a senior moment or two, Shaver did his repertoire justice, doling out two dozen classics over the course of a salty and thoroughly entertaining two-hour show.
He first came to semi-fame in 1973 by writing the bulk of the tunes on Waylon Jennings' Honky Tonk Heroes LP. He bookended Friday's show with the title track and "Old Five and Dimers Like Me," a song poetic enough for Bob Dylan to cover in concert on occasion.
In between, Shaver ran the gamut from comic honky-tonk tunes like "That's What She Said Last Night" to poignant numbers like "Live Forever" and the timeless cynic's view of life "The Git Go." Shaver isn't afraid to drill into to the dark side of human nature in a Townes Van Zandt kind of way.
But his shows are always a celebration: He was having a blast as usual, punching the air with all eight digits (he lost two in a lumber mill mishap), slapping his hands together in joy and dancing a Latin boogie with as much fervor as his old knees would allow during "If the Trailer's Rockin' Don't Come Knockin'."
Shaver got expert backing from a trio led by guitarist Jeremy Woodall, whose metallic-twang solos gave several songs the spit and vigor of 1980s cowpunk. At 76, Shaver has lost some of the color in his singing voice and he occasionally sounded off-kilter and slightly off-key.
Yet he sounded totally at home between songs, spinning tale after tale about his rocky life, including his battles with drug addiction - his son and touring partner Eddy Shaver died of a heroin overdose in 2000 - and the infamous 2007 bar incident in Lorena, Texas, where Shaver shot a man in the face but was acquitted after testifying he acted in self defense. That story led into his wryly autobiographical "Wacko from Waco."
The funnier the story, the more outlandish the tale got — especially during his "little Shaver" childhood stories, including the one where his pugilist grandma beat the living daylights out of a storeowner in Corsicana.
But if Shaver was taking some artistic license, he certainly wasn't about to cop to it. "I'm a tough son-a-bitch. I don't have to lie about anything," he said.
Seeing how he'd just got done with his story about shooting that guy in Lorena, nobody in the audience dared to quibble with him.
Thor Christensen is a Dallas writer and critic.