To say that the words on The Earth Rolls On mean something is an understatement on the order of "Genghis Khan liked to ride ponies with his buddies." Billy Joe Shaver lost his mother, wife and son in the space of two years. Others, in a similar situation, might see themselves as cursed. Others' hearts might have shattered under the awful barrage.

But Billy Joe Shaver, like the biblical Job, has faith.

With vocals that range from reflective to zealous to yearning to shattering, Shaver offers a private message to each listener on The Earth Rolls On. It's a healing letter from someone who has been around, "a low-life loser," as he describes himself, who has recently been to hell.

Lots of songwriters can turn a good phrase. A smaller number can tell a good story, but precious few grapple with the elementals of pain and death the way Shaver can. Still fewer can make you believe everything's going to be all right when it's obvious their world is crumbling around them. The number is so small, in fact, they could be counted on Shaver's mangled right hand.

Take "Blood Is Thicker Than Water," for example. The song is a dialogue between Shaver and his son Eddy. Billy Joe chastises Eddy for carrying on with "the devil's daughter," a wicked woman who steals rings off the hands of Eddy's dying mother. Eddy wonders how father can dare rebuke son when the elder once puked his whiskey-soaked guts out nightly and ran with sluts while married to his mother. "I need a friend / I'm your son / And you'll always be my father" challenges Eddy. Father and son resolve the conflict with the chorus "blood is thicker than water," a line that takes on Christian symbolism as the song progresses into the valley of death.

"Blood…" segues into "Star of My Heart," originally written for Eddy when he was in rehab, but now dedicated to his memory. The song flies true as an arrow and pretty as a prayer. There is, in fact, a recurring theme here of relationship as a form of prayerful communion.

The old-time country singers lived in a world that mixed the sacred and the secular. You danced in church on Saturday night and prayed there on Sunday morning. Death was a constant companion, if only as a hope to be reborn into a better life. From the Carter Family through Hank Williams through George Jones, there was always a sadness and resignation in the voices of great country singers.

Billy Joe Shaver is one of the few remaining great country singers, not to mention songwriters. The Earth Rolls On is a finely engraved testament of those skills and a heartbreaking farewell to a son of equal though differing talents.

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Aaron Howard