Watch Willie Nelson, Billy Joe Shaver Perform on 'Letterman' - Rolling Stone
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Watch Willie Nelson and Billy Joe Shaver Bring Outlaw Spirit to ‘Letterman’

Country renegades perform raw, rugged version of “Hard to Be an Outlaw”

Willie Nelson and Billy Joe Shaver stopped by The Late Show with David Letterman last night, bringing with them more than 95 combined years of renegade attitude and trend-bucking country music. Backed by a lean band cobbled together from Shaver and Nelson’s touring outfits, included harmonica wiz Mickey Raphael, the two traded verses, harmonies and grunts on “Hard to Be an Outlaw,” a track that appeared on both of their solo albums — Shaver’s Long in the Tooth and Nelson’s Band of Brothers — earlier this year. 

Shaver penned the song himself, turning his back on country’s longstanding tradition of co-writing with other musicians. Inspired by a series of text messages exchanged with Nelson — yes, the two text each other on a regular basis — “Hard to Be an Outlaw” is a dark, deliberate anthem for the left-of-center legends whose music stands in stark contrast to the glamor and glitz of contemporary country radio. Shaver, who famously shot a man in the face during a barroom disagreement seven years ago, focuses his crosshairs on a different kind of enemy: the modern-day country stars who “get too far off the ground/Singing ’bout the backroads they never have been down.” 

“It’s not harsh enough, I don’t guess,” he told Rolling Stone Country back in May 2014, three months before Long in the Tooth‘s release. 

Indeed, it’s hard to be an outlaw… but it’s hard to be a senior citizen, too. Shaver and Nelson — 75 and 81 years old, respectively — aren’t as spry as they used to be, and the Letterman performance relied as much on grit and swagger as actual execution. Still, broadcast across the same prime-time airwaves that showed the lackluster American Country Countdown Awards earlier this week, the pair’s performance was a welcome reminder that raw, real music doesn’t need confetti cannons and smoke machines to pack a punch.


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