Billy Joe Shaver's honky-tonk mystique
Country poet's up-and-down life shows in his
By ANDREW DANSBY
Copyright 2007 Houston Chronicle
If anybody would know the secret to life, it'd be Billy Joe Shaver
— a man who has dealt with death, dismemberment and 68 years
of other dings. His losses and excesses inspired some of the greatest
songs in the English language, country music or otherwise.
He brings it up: "What do you want to ask me? The secret to life?"
Shaver smirks and resumes working on some brisket on a hot August
afternoon at Rudy's Country Store and BBQ just outside San Antonio.
"So really, what do you want to know?" he asks after a few
more bites. "Fire away."
His previous offer lingers.
So, Billy Joe Shaver — honky-tonk hero, old five-and-dimer,
old chunk of coal, Christian soldier — what is the secret to
When he smiles, his eyes disappear into slits. He growls, "It's
a secret, dammit!"
It was worth a try.
Shaver is less secretive about his storied life. It floods his songs.
It informs his banter when he performs. And whether the question is
about music or family members who died too young, he usually responds
with blunt honesty.
"One thing about him," says a friend, singer-songwriter
Todd Snider, "he isn't a bull (expletive)."
That's not to say Shaver isn't a wily charmer. At his hard-ridden
age, he still has the kind of charisma that makes movie stars. When
a woman clears the table next to ours, he playfully flicks a wad of
butcher paper at her with what's left of his right hand. He gives
a flirty wink, and a rascal's smile cracks above his crooked chin.
One gets the sense Shaver doesn't have to work as hard as, say, Mick
Jagger for that pull. His marriage history suggests he's blessed with
and burdened by it. He certainly doesn't sink as much effort or money
into his look as Jagger does his.
Snider calls him "the man in blue" for his permanent outfit:
denim shirt, jeans, boots. Sometimes it's topped by a brown cowboy
hat, other times just his thick white hair. "He wears the same
belt he's wearing on the cover of his first album," Snider says.
"The guy knows what he likes. He doesn't seem to want that mystique,
but he has it in spades."
Shaver wears that outfit through supper. He's dressed the same a few
hours later onstage at Leon Springs Dance Hall. And he'll undoubtedly
be wearing the same thing the following morning when he starts his
If he's buried in anything else, there could be hell to pay.
Shaver doesn't seem terribly aware that he cuts a mythic figure. "I
just like to be comfortable," he says with a shrug.
He admits he's most comfortable touring, which he seems to be doing
most of the time, whether it's a cross-country thing or Texas shows
launched from his home in Waco.
But the road isn't without its potholes. Shaver knows. He wrote "it's
dang'rous as hell on the highway of life." In March he shot a
man outside a saloon in Lorena. He was charged with aggravated assault
with a deadly weapon and a handgun charge. They're sufficiently serious
to carry jail time should Shaver be convicted.
The secret to life is off the table, leaving this elephant in the
room. Because it's a pending case, he can't really comment.
"It was a situation where it was him or me. I was just protecting
myself. That's all I can say."
There's a long pause, the first. Perhaps a change of subject. His
job. Life on the road. Does he still love doing it?
He looks puzzled. "What? Shooting people?" The eyes disappear,
a big laugh. "No, not really."
Shaver's attorney said Billy B. Coker came at Shaver with a knife
that night. Coker told police he'd talked to Shaver for an hour before
they walked outside and he was shot, unprovoked.
Friends say it was no secret Shaver carried a gun; he held a permit.
They also insist he never would've used it if he hadn't had to.
Later, without being pushed, Shaver almost touches on the incident.
"I'm easy to deal with most of the time," he says. "But
there are lines that shouldn't be crossed. People will leave you packages
or things; they'll bother you at home. It can be scary sometimes."
So now Shaver's in a peculiar position. He's a straight talker who
can't talk about a big something going on in his life. He's also promoting
a brand new album inspired by God titled Everybody's Brother
having recently shot a guy in the face.
Shaver's life has always lived in his songs. He burned through the
1970s on a debauchery-filled tear that, in the long run, put some
of his contemporaries in the ground prematurely.
He has scores of Waylon Jennings stories. Jennings' 1973 classic Honky
Tonk Heroes featured nine Shaver songs, putting him on the map.
Shaver tormented Jennings almost as much as he respected him. "He
was a mess, man," Shaver says. "He made it real easy."
Jennings wasn't without his moments, though. Shaver recalls a venue
owner stiffing them at gunpoint. As they drove away, part of the venue
"Did you see that?" Shaver asked.
"I didn't see a thing, hoss," Jennings responded. Later
Jennings revealed his stash of dynamite under the floorboard.
Shaver's talent was red hot during that time. He got his first publishing
deal from country legend Bobby Bare, who admits, "He kind of
spooked me. But then I got to listening to his songs and called him
Those songs — Honky Tonk Heroes, You Asked Me To,
Old Five and Dimers Like Me, the list goes on —
seemed to flow effortlessly. They were stuffed to the seams with his
particular vernacular, lines and phrases that have become iconic,
pronunciations that were so country as to almost sound affected. He
attributes it all to paying attention to what was happening in his
Old friend Kinky Friedman says Shaver reminds him of Hank Williams,
van Gogh and Mozart. "His life and art are so intertwined,"
Friedman says. "As his life would be unraveling, his writing
"And he writes with an economy of words; he's ruthless about
that. It's never flowery. To take something simple and make it complex,
we call that an intellectual. That's what I do. But to take something
complex and make it simple, that's an artist. And he's that in every
sense of the word."
Shaver was born in Corsicana Aug. 16, 1939. His quick-tempered father
split early, so his grandmother and his mother, who worked at a lot
of honky-tonks, were his caretakers.
Hank Williams made an early impression, as did Jimmie Rodgers and
some black singers he'd cross the railroad tracks to hear.
He says he loved the poetry of Robert Service, but Shaver's formal
education, as clearly stated in Georgia on a Fast Train, stopped after
the eighth grade. The Navy didn't work for him, either.
Shaver didn't really have a prayer in Nashville, Tenn., where he lived,
worked, played and fought for much of the '70s. The cover of his 1973
debut, Old Five and Dimers Like Me, was a photo of Shaver
mischievously standing in a doorway next to a sign that read, "No
Standing in Doorway."
His songs similarly were made without regard to rules or perception.
They could be humble or brash, fiery or contemplative. Some —
like Black Rose — were naughty and playful. With the passing
of time, phrases like "honky-tonk heroes" became tenured
pieces of country lingo. Then they were just what popped into his
"It was just some words inspired by what I saw in some of the
places my mother worked," he says.
Shaver seemed on the brink of stardom through the '70s, but the outlaw
movement that he helped push into motion rolled into the mainstream
Friedman calls him the Che Guevara of that movement. "I guess
Willie (Nelson) was its Castro. But Billy Joe was the true spirit
Bare makes a similar observation. "All that outlaw business was
PR stuff, people building Waylon up in that image," he says.
"But underneath, Waylon was a softhearted, sweet person. Billy
Joe was the real deal. He was what everybody thought Waylon was."
Shaver never gained traction as a recording artist, but he also never
quit recording. Tramp on Your Street, released in 1993, marked a sort
of renaissance and rediscovery that has continued to the present.
He found himself a survivor with a new audience, due in part to his
smart lyrics and a bluesy drive, both largely absent from contemporary
country music at that time.
Shaver says several times that he feels blessed. His trials have been
well-documented, and that documentation suggests he's cursed. Despite
numerous label deals that went bust, the forgotten nights of boozing
and carousing, the familial squabbles, the 2 1/2 fingers he lost in
a sawmill accident, the heart surgery, the broken back, the bad times
that stand out span the year he buried his mother, wife and son.
He often repeats an unofficial slogan: Writing, recording and performing
are "the cheapest psychiatry you can get." Shaver famously
played a show a day after his son and collaborator Eddy died of a
drug overdose at a Waco hotel Dec. 31, 2000.
"I know he's just devastated by these things," Snider says.
"You can tell in his lyrics. But he's a different kind of cat.
I guess that's what it takes to be the best poet in the world. It
can be cathartic to get to play when things are bad."
At a 2001 New York show, Shaver soldiered through a set of songs from
The Earth Rolls On, the last record he and Eddy made together. His
guitarist that night, Jesse Taylor, has also since died.
"There's times I feel like everybody's gone except me,"
It's not entirely true. While we talk, he gets a phone message from
Friedman, who apparently just lost more than his shirt in Vegas. There's
always Nelson and Kris Kristofferson. But with each year, Shaver's
posse of running buddies gets smaller.
Earth sounds ghostly today. Released after Eddy's death, it spills
with warnings and despair and the strains the father and the son put
on each other.
"We had at each other, didn't we?" Shaver says. He said
they'd sit at the kitchen table and write. They called it Nights at
the Round Table. "Boy, he took a few shots at me. And I reckon
I deserved it."
Nearly seven years later at Leon Springs Dance Hall, a song from that
album, Star in My Heart, tightens the throat. It's unthinkable that
it was written and recorded before Eddy's death.
"Someday our paths may cross again in a better time," goes
one line. "Though we are many worlds apart, I'm still your friend,
and friends will always be friends forever," goes another.
Shaver sings it a capella this night, wringing out the song more than
Earlier in the day, he's equal parts hurt and angry talking about
what happened to his son.
"It's a myth that you can't kick dope, it's (expletive),"
he says. "You can, and I did. But you have to know where the
edge is, especially if you play with that sort of stuff. Some people
walk along that edge and fall. Some don't. Eddy fell."
Hours before the Leon Springs show starts, Shaver walks through the
venue with the leaning lope of a stray dog. He belts back a Red Bull
and hops onstage for a sound-check run-through of Get Thee Behind
Me Satan, a new tune from Everybody's Brother, which will be released
He doesn't talk about the album as a prim gospel artist would, which
is fine, because it's hardly a prim gospel record. The songs spring
from his faith, but they're presented with the same driving honky-tonk
sound he's used for more than 30 years. Mostly Brother sounds like
a new Billy Joe Shaver album.
Even he admits, "I've had gospel stuff on there from the start.
It wasn't the thing to do back then. I guess maybe now it's come around."
If there's a sliver of difference between the old and new songs, it's
that Shaver's faith has taken its knocks and come out stronger. He
says fans often ask to pray with him. He's happy to oblige.
"When I used to score some good dope, I'd call all my friends
and have them over," he says. "It's the same thing with
my faith. I can't help but share."
Shaver points out, "I've been a Christian all my life,"
but he credits a late-'70s awakening with changing his life.
Gone were the drink and drugs. But even in sobriety, Shaver's life
never quite got straight and narrow. There were still tumultuous times
rebuilding relationships with his wife, Brenda, whom he married three
times before she died in 1999, and with Eddy.
Shaver was supposed to marry in April 2005 but called it off three
weeks before. "Thank God," he said at the time. "This
one just blew up. I let her think there was one more in me. . . .
I was bluffing, of course."
By that fall, he was hitched again.
If the shooting incident suggests there's still a wildness left, Shaver
couldn't be called unrepentant about his life.
"If I had it to do all over, I'd change everything," he
says. "There's a lot of things I could've done better with my
wife and my kid. It's nice to be important, but it's more important
to be nice. I've learned that. I've learned that hard."
Despite his trials and a possible trial, Shaver the musician is as
stable today as he's ever been. Houston-based Compadre Records has
given his music a loving home. He's making good coin on the road,
where his shows have grown from the couple of dozen middle-aged insiders
who saw him at Leon Springs Cafe 13 years ago to an audience of a
couple of hundred that spanned three generations at Leon Springs Dance
For some it's Shaver's outlaw allure. For others, there's an emotional
connection to his endurance. He's a twisted thicket of extremes that
represent the best and worst in most of us. He's humble talking about
his faith and proud talking about his talent. He admits he can be
ornery, but he's also warm and approachable. He insists on picking
up the barbecue supper tab for a not-insubstantial entourage. He shakes
hands and smiles at people between the venue and the restaurant.
His autograph is the same as it's been for years: "Bless you
(name), your friend Billy Joe."
Then there's the whole gun thing.
He knows what Jesus would do. Christian Soldier, a song he wrote with
Bare, included the line "it's hard to be a Christian soldier
when you tote a gun." Shaver's the first to admit that at 68
and sober, he's still a work in progress. He said he was blessed,
Bare says the shooting "didn't surprise me at all. My only surprise
was something like that hadn't happened before. Billy Joe is Billy
Joe. And he will continue to be Billy Joe. You've got to love him.
At the same time, you know he's not going to back down. He's very
sensitive. You've got to be to write songs like that. It's very hard
to put your (butt) on the line with every song to where people know
it's coming straight from the heart. Honesty like that is hard to
come by in a writer."
Friedman says Shaver's "not an observer of life, he's a player.
And that's so rare, because those guys don't make it. They don't last,
the James Deans. They always die."
So Shaver goes about his business the only way he knows how, leading
with his chin, his heart close behind. The way he did it 30 years
ago, just without the booze and dope to take off the edge. He says
he enjoys time at home, but he gets restless when he's there too long.
So he stays on the road, where he's never completely at ease.
"There ain't no good reason for me to still be out here, other
than God loves me," he says. "So I might as well do as I
feel. And this is what I feel like doing."
September 20, 2007
Trouble, a .22 and Billy Joe Shaver
Billy Joe shot Billy
By JONNY WHITESIDE
Friday, September 14, 2007 -
country shaman Billy Joe Shaver,
the 68-year-old Texas songwriter whose bluntly sophisticated writing
style jump-started the early 1970s revolution in country music, has
always gone at it the hard way. He’s lost two fingers, quit
the music business five times, married and divorced the same woman
six times (only to lose her to cancer), lost his only son —
and musical collaborator — Eddy Shaver to a heroin overdose.
He’s survived more than one suicide attempt, been screwed out
of royalties and, on his most recent wedding day — Friday the
13th of October — broke his neck in a barroom wrestling match
with his best man.
This dizzying résumé of disaster has never prevented
him from consistently churning out superb recordings, and his latest,
the John Carter Cash–produced Everybody’s Brother
(Compadre), is another lustrous jewel in Shaver’s king-of-fools
crown. A mixture of militant statements of faith (“If You Don’t
Love Jesus [Go to Hell]”) and straight secular country (the
expertly crafted ballad “To Be Loved by a Woman”), the
set also features marvelous contributions from John Anderson and Tanya
Tucker. Shaver’s own journeyman vocal style has deepened, darkened
and toughened up to a degree that lends each track formidable impact.
“He’s just a raging genius, still is,” longtime
cohort, country singer and former Texas gubernatorial candidate Kinky
Friedman declares during a recent phone interview. “In fact,
he’s the only one I can think of who can turn tragedy into poetry.
All the other guys, like Bob Dylan and Willie, these guys are great
performers, stars in their own right, but I don’t think they
are currently writing at the level Billy Joe is, and I don’t
think anybody else is either.”
A legend in the Lone Star state and a cultish figure beloved by old-school
Nashville stars and alt-country whelps alike, Billy Joe Shaver last
spring stepped right into a honky-tonk nightmare. After an impulsive
stop at Papa Joe’s Texas Saloon, a classic lowdown roadhouse
15-odd miles southwest of Waco, Shaver, according to witnesses’
statements in the police report, confronted a man outside of the bar,
produced a pistol, asked, “Where do you want it?” and
shot him in the face. Another witness heard Shaver then say, “Tell
me you are sorry,” and, “Nobody tells me to shut up.”
Fifty-year-old Billy B. Coker, the man on the business end of Shaver’s
.22, was treated and released from a hospital within hours. The bullet
passed clean through his cheek. Shaver could face a number of felony
charges, including aggravated assault with a deadly weapon.
Like Jerry Lee “Look Down the Barrel of This” Lewis, Johnny
“I Don’t Like You, I’m Gonna Mess You Up”
Paycheck and George “See If Your God Can Save You Now”
Jones, Shaver has entered the pantheon of point-blank hillbilly mayhem.
Texas-based performer Dale Watson has already penned a song on the
shooting (titled, of course, “Where Do You Want It?”)
and country music observers are awaiting an indictment with the same
queasy fascination that has accompanied Phil Spector’s trial.
Apart from a police officer’s affidavit and the initial press
reports on the shooting and Shaver’s flight, surrender and arrest,
most of the story has yet to be told.
“I was kinda raised in them honky-tonks,” begins
Shaver, on the phone, post–Farm Aid, from the lobby of a New
York hotel. He and his most recent wife, Wanda Lynn Canady (they married
last year, divorced, remarried — by ZZ Top’s Billy Gibbons
— and have since divorced again), had been taking photographs
for Everybody’s Brother in graveyards around the Waco area when
they decided to stop in for a beer at the saloon. “We’d
been in there a time or two before, and the lady [owner Gloria Tambling]
there was real nice. Everybody was real nice.”
The couple made themselves at home, and were in the middle of conversations
when, recalls Shaver, “this old guy comes in. Seemed like a
nice enough guy. I was talking to him, and he pulls this knife out
and starts stirring drinks — with his knife — and he reaches
over and is stirring my drink. And I’m having a beer, [and I
said,] ‘Ain’t no need stirring my beer. You ought to put
that weapon away.’ He just looked at me real funny, and he took
his knife and run it down my arm three times, and that’s enough
to, you know, it’s a threat — there it was.”
The scene had already morphed into something resembling a Texas Chainsaw
Massacre outtake, and it only got weirder. “Then Wanda comes
over and she says, ‘I know you,’ and he says, ‘I
know you too.’” Canady used to be married to Coker’s
cousin, but that union ended suddenly when the man shot himself to
death. Shaver says the Coker family still blames her for it.
“He was all hot under the collar,” continues Shaver, “and
I said, ‘Well, honey, let’s just go.’ And he turned
to me and said, ‘Why don’t you shut the fuck up?’
And, man, I ain’t never had anybody do me that way. I mean,
I was being nice and everything. He had his knife in his hand, and
I just backed off, went into the restroom. I was looking at the wall,
man, and just thought, ‘I can’t take that,’ so I
went back out there and said, ‘Fella, now what’s it gonna
take for you to just apologize and we’ll be friends again?’
He started cursing me, and telling me he was gonna kill me and all
that shit, so I just headed for the back door.” The tension
— and adrenaline levels — drastically escalated. “I
thought, ‘Gol’ dang, I know what’s goin’ on.’
And I just skidded on out there to my car and got my little pistol
and put it in my pocket.”
Shaver, who routinely carries large sums of cash, is licensed to carry
a concealed weapon, a time-honored practice in country music. “I
don’t go in the clubs with the firearm, but I’ve had all
kinds of things come up,” he explains. “I’ve been
followed many times, to my motel room — been busted in on once,
and I handled that all right, but it made me really aware of what’s
Born in Corsicana, Texas, Billy Joe Shaver truly was
raised in a beer joint where his mother worked as a waitress, Green
Gables, the same spot famously mentioned in his signature tune “Honky
Tonk Heroes.” A raggedy aspirant when he first hit Music Row
in 1968, Shaver resorted to guerilla tactics to get the industry’s
attention. He was infamous for leaping out from behind bushes or parked
cars to collar passing song publishers and A&R men, demanding
to know, with hot, beery breath, when they were going to buy one of
Bobby Bare recognized Shaver’s potential (allowing him and Kris
Kristofferson to alternate nights on Bare’s office couch) but
Billy Joe, at the time living almost exclusively on a diet of alcohol
and amphetamines, craved immediate results. He once broke up a Waylon
Jennings session by confronting the singer and threatening “to
kick your ass right here” unless Jennings made good on a promise
to cut some of his songs.
Waylon subsequently included almost a dozen of them on his groundbreaking
1973 Honky Tonk Heroes album, which proved a critical moment
for Jennings, Shaver and country music as a whole.
“Billy Joe was the snowplow for the whole outlaw movement,”
says Friedman. “If Willie is the Fidel Castro, then Billy Joe
is the Che Guevera. But, in a sense, Billy Joe’s motivations
are purer than anybody else’s. These guys with all their gold
records, sure, they’re important, but Billy Joe’s significant,
and there’s a big, big difference. You can’t set out to
be significant — it has to happen.” Soon, Shaver’s
songs were being recorded by, among many others, Tom T. Hall, Johnny
Cash, Elvis Presley and Kristofferson.
Shaver also began releasing his own albums in 1973, yet despite some
excellent tracks and high-profile producers like Kristofferson, Bare
and Nelson, the albums not only didn’t generate much heat, they
seemed to be a curse for the companies: Monument, MGM and Capricorn
Records each went out of business shortly after releasing a Billy
When he mended an oft-bitter, ongoing rift between himself and son
Eddy, a genuine monster of guitar, their band, Shaver, released 1993’s
Tramp on Your Street, a hard-rocking, soul-scouring and very-well-received
masterpiece. It seemed as if Billy Joe, keeping his beak mostly out
of the booze and crank, had finally achieved personal and professional
security. But his son overdosed on New Year’s Eve, 2000, and,
several months later, Brenda, the wife he frequently divorced and
remarried, died. It seemed as if Billy Joe had been hit with some
weird terminal whammy. He never faltered, though, kept working on
the road and in the studio, treading a hard country path that eventually
led him to the parking lot behind Papa Joe’s, with a .22 stuck
in his pants, awaiting a showdown with Billy B. Coker.“
He had a bunch of demons in him,
I’ll tell you that,” says Shaver. “I feared for
my life. I sure didn’t want to go out that way, but it just
came down to it, and I had my little pistol out in my car and I had
the time to go out and get it.” Time passed, but Coker did not
appear in the parking lot. “I guess he was borrowing a gun,
or getting his gun together,” Shaver speculates. “They
said he was in the place digging in his pocket. For some reason or
another he couldn’t get it out. I don’t know. Everybody
Shaver claims Coker eventually came outside, then lunged at him. “I
knew he was man enough and I knew what he was doing, and he was pointing
this weapon at me, and he took too long to aim. I saw it — I’m
sure I saw a gun — and I just went ahead and got off a lucky
potshot. Thankfully, it didn’t really hurt him. It just went
in and out, but it hurt him enough that he dropped everything. And
then — of all things — he said, ‘I’m sorry,
I’m sorry.’” Coker, who could not be reached by
telephone, told police the attack was unprovoked.
(Shaver denies asking, “Where do you want it?” Rather,
he claims to have said, “Why do you want to do that?”
He also acknowledges that no gun was found on Coker. The police confiscated
Shaver and Canady took off immediately after the shooting. He dropped
her at home in Waco.
“I made her stay there,” recalls Shaver. He didn’t
want her to be an accomplice. He told her, “Don’t be packing
no clothes or any shit like that. Just sit over there and shut up
and I’m going on and I’ll see you later.”
Shaver says one of his concerns at the time was the relationship between
Coker and the local police. “There’s a bunch of lawmen
in his family,” claims Shaver. “I knew that if I didn’t
get out of town that night, I might get done in.” So he called
Willie Nelson, then spent most of the night hiding out in his truck.
“Willie got the lawyer out on to me, and when I got with him,
I felt safe, and we went and tried to turn ourselves in.”
Nelson dispatched his own attorney, Joe “Mad Dog” Turner,
a well-known figure in Texas jurisprudence. Turner has said it’s
a clear-cut case of self-defense, and, according to Shaver, some of
Papa Joe’s employees are finally “coming up with the truth.”
Almost six months later, McLennan County District Attorney John W.
Segrest still hasn’t indicted the singer. (Segrest’s office
refused to comment, citing a policy of not discussing ongoing investigations.)
“The longer it goes, I think, is better for me,” Shaver
“It just sounds out of character,” says Friedman of his
colleague’s run-in. “I’d say Billy would have to
be very much provoked. I’ve known him for a long, long time.
He’s a peaceful kind of a giant, and whenever he got into a
fight, his fists were always the weapon of choice.”
Shaver explains that he’s sick of keeping quiet about the incident,
especially since Coker’s spinning a different story. “He’s
going around telling people a whole lot of bullshit, but that’s
all right,” says Shaver. “But I’m fine, man. I’m
entertained. It’s like riding a bull. The only thing that keeps
me going is something trying to stop me — and if something pushes,
I’m gonna push back.”
NEWS “60 MINUTES” with DAN RATHER (transcript)
Aired June 1, 2005
A Honky-Tonk Hero: Billy Joe
Just about every country singer you can think
of – from Waylon Jennings to Johnny Cash to Willie Nelson –
has turned the songs of Billy Joe Shaver into hits. Even Elvis Presley
and Bob Dylan have recorded Shaver's songs.
Those songs have an edgy, raw style that grew out of the music of
Texas bars and honky-tonks, where Shaver misspent a good deal of his
youth. His songs, not so much his voice, have made Shaver a honky-tonk
hero, and a troubadour of the human condition.
His philosophy can be summed up in a few words: "The devil made
me do it the first time; the second time, I done it on my own."
Correspondent Dan Rather and a 60 Minutes
Wednesday crew went to the Piney Woods Pick’n
Parlor, in the east Texas town of Minneola, to meet this unsung hero
of country music.
Shaver says he's probably written between 300-400 songs: "Not
that many, maybe. But they're all good."
His life is a lot like a country music ballad, and it has provided
material for many of his songs. Abandoned by his parents, he was raised
poor by his grandmother in Corsicana, Texas, a farm town where long
freight trains roll through on their way to unknown destinations.
"When I was just a kid, I would go across the railroad tracks.
There was an African-American settlement over there, the cotton-pickers,
and they had a stand-up piano on one of the porches there, and I would
go over and I’d listen to that bottleneck they’d play
and all that," says Shaver, who ended up writing "Georgia
On A Fast Train."
Sixteen different singers have recorded that song, including Johnny
Cash, Tennessee Ernie Ford, Willie Nelson and Commander Cody.
One of the things that’s hard to miss when you meet Shaver is
his right hand, his picking hand. He explained that when he was 21,
he worked in a sawmill in Waco, Texas. One day, his right hand slipped
and a fast-whirling blade cut off two of his fingers. Shaver hoped
a medical miracle would save them.
"So I just took my fingers, and drove over to the doctor’s
office. He says, 'Got a little trouble there, ain’t you?' I
said, 'Can you sew these fingers back on?' He said, 'What?'"
says Shaver. "I said, 'I read a Japanese article that they sewed
‘em on, and they worked. He said, 'Hey, this is Waco.' You know,
made that clear real quick [that he was not going to sew the fingers
How can he play a guitar with two missing fingers? "Not very
well," says Shaver, laughing. "But I do get by."
Shaver "gets by" performing his own music at least 200 nights
a year. He also regularly records new CDs.
He invited 60 Minutes Wednesday to watch
him work last month at a small recording studio outside Austin, Texas.
Shaver was working with singer Kimmie Rhodes on his song, “West
Texas Waltz.” They worked out the lyrics, and the arrangement
with the band, and then they put it all together. They got it right
on the second take.
That song will be on Shaver’s new CD. His 17th CD is a testament
to his enduring popularity in the world of country music.
Back in the '60s, Shaver was just another hell-raising country wannabe
when he moved to Nashville. But he soon learned that his songs were
more popular when others sang them.
"I thought, 'Sure, I’d make it singing.' Then I got involved
with these producers, and they start telling me how to sing, and I
got kind of off-key a little bit," says Shaver.
Is that when he started writing songs? "Yeah, so I decided that
writing, they won't, nobody mess with me on that, because I was real
good at it," says Shaver.
But he was getting nowhere, until he rode up to the house of Harlan
Howard, one of country music’s most famous songwriters, on a
"I rolled up on that thing and I hit his front porch. And, boy,
he comes bouncing out of there, and he’s a big old guy. And
he said, 'What the hell’s going on? Who are you?'" says
"I says, 'Oh, I'm Billy Joe Shaver. I'm the greatest songwriter
ever lived. And he said, 'Well, I thought I was.' And he said, 'Well,
park that thing and come on in.' We drank some whiskey and got to
be real good friends."
With Howard’s help, Nashville’s biggest stars soon began
listening to Shaver’s songs. His big break came in 1973, when
Waylon Jennings recorded nine Shaver songs on one album, called "Honky
Tonk Heroes." It became a big hit.
That album soon made Shaver the favorite songwriter of many country
music stars. Elvis Presley even recorded one of Shaver’s songs
"He has the face of a whatever, but the soul of a poet, this
guy," says actor Robert Duvall, who's been friends with Shaver
for more than 20 years. "I think he's one of, like Willie Nelson
said, he may be the best songwriter alive."
Duvall cast Shaver in a small role in his 1997 movie, “The Apostle."
Shaver, in turn, asked Duvall to appear in his "Freedom's Child"
music video in 2002.
Duvall's wife, Luciana Pedraza, was so taken with Shaver that she
made a documentary about him. "He will not lecture at you,"
she says. "He will tell you about his life stories, and you can
take it or leave it, but for sure you will learn something."
Pedraza learned that Shaver is always willing to take chances, when
her camera caught him trying his luck at a betting game that –
on family television – can only be described as ‘Chicken
But the documentary also showed Shaver’s dark side, particularly
his long, tortured relationship with Brenda Tindell, about whom he
wrote the song “We.” They met as teenagers, married and
had a son.
"We were wild and crazy. I’m telling you we’d get
up in the middle of the night, get on our horses and ride bareback,
naked, just haul ass all over the farm and everywhere and come back
and hose down," says Shaver.
But it was no simple love story. Shaver struggled for years with drugs,
alcohol and even suicide. He often left Tindell for other women. The
couple divorced, re-married, and divorced again. They married for
a third time when Tindell was diagnosed with cancer. She died in 1999.
Many of Shaver’s songs are laced with pain and loss, especially
the loss of his son, Eddy, a promising musician in his own right.
Eddy died in 2000 from a drug overdose.
Here are lyrics from a song that Shaver wrote with his son: "Nobody
here will ever find me, but I will always be around. Just like the
songs I leave behind me, I’m gonna live forever now."
"He was a victim of heroin abuse and crack cocaine," says
Shaver, at a concert. "I thought I gave him a good look at what
not to do, but then again, that ain’t no way to be a father.
But I'm OK with God about it, so I reckon it’s all right. He
Shaver has never made much money from his music. But after writing
hundreds of songs that others have made famous, he is finally getting
some attention in his own right, from fans and from the country music
Last fall, Nashville tipped its hat to Shaver by voting him into the
Country Songwriters Hall of Fame.
Recognition has come late in life for Shaver, after some very tough
"You lost your wife, you lost your son, you lost your mother
all in a year, and had a heart attack," says Rather.
"And I'm still cooking," says Shaver.
"But you've been knocked down, but not knocked out," says
Rather. "Why is that?"
"I'm hard-headed, I guess," says Shaver, laughing.
But despite his losses, and the years of obscurity, Shaver says he
never gives up, which is reflected in his song, "Try and Try
"If at first you don’t succeed, just try and try again.
If all you do is lose, you better find a way to win. If at first you
don’t succeed, try and try again."
songwriter and a survivor:
Dog-loving, God-fearing Billy Joe Shaver weighs in on
tragedies and tributes
By TIM GHIANNI
Billy Joe Shaver, still jet-lagged from a whirlwind European tour,
admits he's eager to get back to Waco, Texas.
''I'm picking up Shade at the veterinarian,'' says the legendary singer-songwriter,
referring to his ''8- or 10-year-old'' pit bull mix.
''Born in the shade of a rose bush. She's white. Has a little ring
around an eye. Cute as she can be. Little, old ball of fire.''
On this day, as soon as Shaver is able to shake the road dust from
his eyes in the Austin, Texas, Red Roof Inn, he's going to drive the
100 or so ''hard'' miles back to Waco. You get the sense he's been
counting the days he's been apart from Shade.
The honky-tonk hero, who appears at tomorrow's Opry Plaza Party and
who also will sing ''a song or two on the Opry ,'' loves dogs almost
as much as he loves his religion.
Both were there for him during a time of profound sorrow. In a few
short months in 1999, leading up to New Year's Eve, Shaver was awash
His wife, Brenda — ''we'd been married three times,'' cutting
to the quick one of country music's great love stories — died
in July 1999 after a long struggle with cancer. His mother, Victory
Shaver, and Brenda's mother, Mildred Tindell, died of cancer as well
around that time.
And then on New Year's Eve 2000, his son, Eddy Shaver, a rocker with
inherited musical chops, died of a heroin overdose in a motel at the
edge of Waco.
''I didn't even know he was in town,'' his dad says, voice breaking
Billy Joe Shaver blames ''bad companions'' for Eddy's death. He also
''I had to forgive myself at first. I'd done a round or two of that
stuff myself. Back in 1977, I went completely cold turkey on smoking,
booze, drugging. I lost down to 172 pounds from 230. Almost died,
because I couldn't keep anything down.''
While he admits to some on-and-off problems in the years since, that
self-imposed year of cold turkey also was the year he was ''born again.''
''The old man died'' that year. A ''younger'' Billy Joe Shaver moved
ahead, he says.
''At first I jumped around like a rabbit (and preached Christianity),''
he says. ''Then I figured I'll just settle down and live my life.''
That faith helped him cope with the calamities of his life in 1999
''We were planting them right and left. If it hadn't been for my Lord
and Savior Jesus Christ, I wouldn't have made it.''
''My dogs helped me out a lot,'' he says.
Even here there is sadness. Back when he was coping with those losses
in the house outside Waco, he had two dogs. There was Etawna (''Brenda
was Indian, you know, and she named the dog that. Her name meant 'wanderer,
a gypsy-type' dog.'') And the brindle-colored pit bull had the pup,
''They really helped me. I love my dogs.'' Then he pauses. ''I had
to put the old mama dog down this summer. She was 16. Couldn't walk.
It was the humane thing to do.
''But I cried like a baby.''
This dog-loving Christian perhaps is best known as a writer. With
good reason, he is the guy who penned 10 songs that are on Waylon
Jennings' classic Honky-Tonk Heroes album.
That album — a beer- and nicotine-stained ''country music opera''
about lovable losers, no-account boozers and the Lower Broadway life
— is still a high-water mark of the Outlaws movement in Nashville.
The writing side of Shaver was cherished by Johnny Cash, who employed
him as a staff writer for a couple of years. (Brenda was Cash's hair
stylist, ''she also worked for Dean Martin''). And Shaver, the writer,
is held highly by guys such as Kris Kristofferson and Willie Nelson,
who both know something about penning country classics.
Some of Shaver's writing may have chased away personal demons. But
on his latest recording, Billy and the Kid , due later this month,
he reconnects with his late son.
The album is something of a tribute, bringing father and son together
one more time on record. The two had recorded together before as ''Shaver.''
But Eddy Shaver left behind several tapes of songs he had done before
his death. So, a few months ago, Billy Joe Shaver came to Nashville
and recorded ''with'' his boy.
''It was a labor of love,'' he admits. ''Wanted people to realize
what a great songwriter Eddy was.''
The self-effacing giant of a musical hero laughs at his own ''abilities''
to carry off his son's songs. ''It's rock 'n' roll. In rock 'n' roll,
you just kinda go for it. I don't know if I could sing anyone else's
rock 'n' roll songs.''
His preference, what you'll hear on the Opry and at the Plaza Party
is simple: ''I'm country as an onion.''
And then when he goes back home, he'll get Shade and likely go to
the cemetery where his loved ones await him. ''I go out there every
ODE TO BILLY JOE:
Billy Joe Shaver lost his wife and his mom the same year his
beloved son died of an overdose. He never made any money, and he lives
in obscurity in Waco, Texas. But the man Willie Nelson says "may
be the best songwriter alive today" is still keeping on.
By Brad Reagan
May 11, 2004 -- In an early scene from a new documentary about his
life, Billy Joe Shaver is dressed head-to-toe in denim and standing
on the linoleum of his kitchen floor. He looks, as he always does,
like he just came in off the ranch, and he takes a slug from a plastic
gallon jug of water that he pulled from the refrigerator. "I
usually just drink from this," he says to the camera. "Ain't
nobody else here."
Shaver, the original country music outlaw, is alluding to the fact
that his mother, wife and only son have recently died, leaving him,
at age 64, almost entirely alone. The film, "The Portrait of
Billy Joe," debuted in March at the South by Southwest Film Festival
in Austin, Texas, where Shaver's reputation as a songwriter preceded
him -- as did his Job-like biography of trials and tribulations. That
the film, currently making the festival rounds across the country
and overseas, was produced by Robert Duvall and directed by Duvall's
girlfriend, Luciana Pedraza, added to the buzz around the sold-out
The 57-minute film is affecting and surprisingly funny, largely because
Pedraza chose her subject well. She allows Shaver to tell his story
in long, self-effacing monologues without cuts to interviews of famous
friends or music critics. Where the film occasionally falls short
in providing context for Shaver's life and career, it compensates
with remarkable intimacy.
Shaver admits in the film that his dreams of stardom died years ago,
but the documentary is part of a growing recognition that Shaver has
been overlooked for too long. In the liner notes to his posthumous
box set, Johnny Cash writes that Shaver was his favorite songwriter,
while Willie Nelson claims in a blurb accompanying the documentary
that Shaver "may be the best songwriter alive today." The
love-fest transcends generations: Longtime fan Kid Rock recently volunteered
to produce Shaver's next album.
Still, you may be forgiven for wondering: Who the hell is Billy Joe
I've spent a lifetime, making up my mind to be
More than the measure of what I thought others could see
Good luck and fast bucks are too far and too few between
There's Cadillac buyers and old five and dimers like me
-- From "Old Five and Dimers Like Me," 1973
Shaver lives in a tattered two-bedroom house outside of Waco, Texas,
with a rusted wheelbarrow in the yard and a handwritten sign taped
to the front door that reads: "Do Not Disturb: I Have Not Slept
in Two Days." He wrote that sign three years ago after his only
son and lead guitarist, Eddy, died of a heroin overdose, and every
late-night honky-tonker in Central Texas felt the need to stop by
and pay his condolences. He's kept it there ever since.
The house, a low-slung brick structure with a creaky front-porch swing,
sits about 20 yards from Interstate 35 on the south side of town.
Known these days as the breeding ground for apocalyptic cults and
homicidal basketball players, Waco is actually a city of 100,000 or
so working-class folks, where Sunday-morning piety is matched by reckless
carousing in beer joints on Friday and Saturday nights. Shaver is
not famous here: He says his neighbors don't even know that he is
a musician -- or, if they do, they don't care to talk about it much.
Shaver greets me at the front door with an explanation about the sign
and a warning to avoid sudden movements around his two pit bulls.
It's clear from the disarray in the living room that the dogs have
been using the sofa and recliner as chew toys, and blood droplets
on the floor mark the site of a recent tussle. To discourage this
behavior, he reads to them from the Bible. "They say if you read
the Bible out loud, it'll scare off all the bad spirits," he
says, a grin spreading across his broad face as he rubs Shade, the
younger and meaner of the two. "My dogs, they got some bad spirits
Shaver's face, carved by years in sun-drenched fields and smoky bars,
is drawn and tired -- he's been battling pneumonia -- but he laughs
easily and often until the subject turns to his family. In 1999, the
same year he lost his son, his wife and mother died of cancer. He
stands before the mantel that holds their pictures and acknowledges
that he has not yet recovered from the terrible trifecta of that year.
He spends most holidays, including last Christmas, alone at home with
"I'm lonesome, yeah," he says. "I don't do much of
nothing around here really. I don't fish or hunt or anything anymore.
I just write songs."
There are thousands of them, jotted down on notepads or sung into
a microcassette and stuffed into a box in the back room. He's been
writing since he was 8, and he'd be doing it even if the dogs were
the sum total of his audience. The process is cathartic, as if by
documenting his traumas they will somehow start to make sense. Dozens
of artists, including Elvis, Johnny Cash and the Allman Brothers,
have covered his songs even though they are unabashedly autobiographical.
The lyrics, like the man, are entirely unvarnished. After a concert
not long ago, a man approached Shaver and told him that he was John
Steinbeck's son and that Steinbeck was a big fan. In retrospect, it
seems unlikely -- Steinbeck died before Shaver released his first
album -- but not inconceivable. Both writers share an affection for
the dispossessed and forgotten, even if Shaver's temperament is significantly
In 1973, Waylon Jennings used nine Shaver songs to create "Honky
Tonk Heroes," the seminal album that Country Music Television
recently ranked as the second-best country album of all time. But
Shaver's influence stems as much from his attitude as his music. "Without
Billy Joe, there wouldn't have been a Waylon, at least not a Waylon
as an outlaw," says Kinky Friedman, an acclaimed songwriter before
he became a best-selling mystery novelist. He says Shaver "was
the Che Guevara and Waylon was the Fidel Castro who got all the money
and the power."
Indeed, thanks to a succession of bad contracts, bad choices and bad
luck, Shaver is far from financially secure.
"I don't know what [record companies] do with that money, I really
don't," he says. "Don't much care, really. Songs mean more
to me than money. If I heard one of my songs on the radio and I didn't
write it, I'd have a fit. I'd give everything I own just to have written
that song. They're little time capsules, and when I sing 'em I almost
feel like I'm there."
Taken together, those time capsules form an outline of his life: the
hardscrabble childhood, the hard-living honky-tonking and the drama
of recent years. It's all there -- sometimes explicitly, sometimes
obscured in the verse. But when he tells his story over hamburgers
and tater tots at a nearby greasy spoon, he goes even further back:
"My father actually tried to kill me when I was inside my mother."
Put snow on the mountain, raised hell on the hill
Locked horns with the Devil himself
Been a rodeo bum, a son of a gun
And a hobo, with stars in my crown
-- From "Ride Me Down Easy," 1982
Shaver's father, Buddy Shaver, was a violent bootlegger who beat his
wife and left her for dead in a backwoods pond. He thought she was
running around on him even though she was seven months pregnant with
Billy Joe at the time. She recovered from the beating, but refused
to raise that man's son and left soon after Billy Joe was born. He
was raised by his grandmother in Corsicana, Texas, a small town of
about 20,000 about an hour southeast of Dallas.
As soon as he could understand, his grandmother steeled him to the
reality of their situation: There is no Santa Claus, she told him,
nor anyone else who is going to give you something for nothing. She
would walk him down to the general store where the proprietor, with
a wink, promised to give them groceries on credit if the boy would
sing a few songs. And he would, standing on a cracker barrel believing
he was literally singing for his supper.
His grandmother died when he was 12 and his mother, by then a honky-tonk
waitress in Waco with a new husband, reluctantly took him back. As
he grew into a man, he displayed a wild streak that would make his
father proud. He dropped out of school after eighth grade, hitchhiked
around the country working odd jobs, and eventually joined the Navy.
Not surprisingly, his stint in the military was short-lived: He was
kicked out for punching an off-duty officer, so he went back to Waco.
At 21, he met Brenda Tindell, who was 17 and pregnant when they married
later that year. She was as headstrong as he was, if not more, and
they made a rambunctious pair. Eventually, they would divorce twice,
marry two more times, and break up and get back together more times
than they could count.
Brenda's family owned a ranch, so Shaver worked there breaking horses,
but also worked in a sawmill to support his young family. He played
guitar and wrote, but a music career was nothing more than a distant
dream. He was building a book of songs that he thought were better
than what he heard on the radio but, by his mid-20s, he had yet to
perform a single one of them in front of an audience. He spent most
of his time in bars fighting with men who took a second glance at
Brenda, and there were plenty of them.
Then, in 1966, at age 27, he mangled his right hand when it got caught
under a blade at the sawmill. He drove himself to the doctor, where
they took parts of three fingers and barely saved his arm. Shaver
got divorced for the first time shortly thereafter, in part because
Brenda thought he was an idiot for cutting his fingers off and in
part because she thought his fantasy of becoming a big-time songwriter
was one of the most ridiculous things she'd ever heard. He hopped
a cantaloupe truck headed to Nashville, Tenn., and set out to prove
The devil made me do it the first time
The second time I done it on my own
-- From "Black Rose," 1973
The late 1960s and early 1970s were the heyday of the Grand Ole Opry
in Nashville. The music was heavily produced and overtly commercial,
saccharine pop far removed from country music's origins in the blue-collar
confessionals of Jimmie Rodgers and Hank Williams. Male singers wore
sequined suits and kept their hair short, and their songs were thematically
and politically conservative. A few iconoclasts, like Willie Nelson
and Kris Kristofferson, chafed at the system but generally met with
stiff resistance from label execs.
Shaver fared even worse. For his first several years in Nashville,
he slept in his truck and washed dishes to make ends meet. Eventually
he opted to make an impression with Harlan Howard, a prolific songwriter
who wrote Patsy Cline's "I Fall to Pieces" and had 15 songs
in the top 40 in 1961 alone. In 1968, Shaver drove a motorcycle onto
Howard's front porch and announced, "My name's Billy Joe Shaver
and I'm the greatest songwriter in the world!" Howard replied,
"Hell, I thought I was," but after a quick listen, he sent
Shaver over to Bobby Bare with a recommendation. Bare was an established
songwriter and performer who collaborated with Shel Silverstein, among
others, and had a reputation for appreciating unconventional talents.
He gave Shaver a job writing songs for $50 per week.
For three more years, Shaver scraped to get by, living out of his
truck and gobbling amphetamines so he could stay up all night writing.
When he ran out of money, he'd drive back to Texas to work construction
for a while and then head right back to Nashville when his pockets
were full. He got several songs recorded -- Kristofferson put Shaver's
"Good Christian Soldier" on his first album -- but after
more than five years he was still looking for the proverbial big break.
It came in 1972, when Waylon Jennings overheard Shaver playing some
songs in a trailer before a concert in Dripping Springs, Texas. (The
show featured a mix of country, rock and folk performers in a field
outside of Austin -- two years later, Willie Nelson adopted the concept
as his annual Fourth of July picnic.) Impressed by what he heard,
Jennings agreed on the spot to record a collection of Shaver's songs
about restless cowboys and no-account boozers. But Jennings got wrapped
up in other projects and, after six months of waiting, Shaver was
desperate. He tracked Jennings to a Nashville studio, where he was
partying with an assortment of groupies and bikers and ostensibly
recording an album.
When Jennings heard Shaver was waiting, he sent a messenger out with
a $100 bill. The message was clear: Take the money, small-timer, and
quit bugging me. Shaver sent a message back: Shove your $100 up your
When Jennings emerged from the booth accompanied by two bikers, Shaver
pounced. "Waylon," he yelled, "I don't care if you
do an album of my songs or not but you're going to listen to them
now or I'm going to whip your ass in front of everybody."
The bikers started toward Shaver, relishing the idea of tearing this
hayseed to shreds, before Jennings talked them down. He hustled Shaver
into a nearby room, and said, "Hoss, don't ever do something
like that again. You could've gotten killed."
Shaver pulled out his guitar and played three songs. Jennings was
hooked. Over the objections of the RCA brass, he made those songs
the centerpiece of his next album. The record was called "Honky
Tonk Heroes," after the title of one of Shaver's songs. Of the
10 tracks on the album, Shaver wrote nine. Eventually selling more
than 5 million copies, it became the touchstone of the Outlaw movement,
which infused country music with a rock 'n' roll attitude and provided
the blueprint for a series of performers to follow, including Jerry
Jeff Walker, David Allan Coe and Hank Williams Jr. (The movement's
next great record, Willie Nelson's "Red Headed Stranger,"
came out two years later.)
It also made Shaver a commodity. He reconciled with Brenda, who came
to Nashville with their son, Eddy. Shaver recorded three solo albums
in the 1970s, all of them critically acclaimed but commercially disappointing.
It didn't help that he was with a different record company for each
record, and each went out of business within a year of the record's
release. Still, he was a sought-after performer and fans would stuff
$100 bills in his shirt just for showing up at a club. Now that he
could afford to, he spent most of his time drinking, snorting and
brawling his way around Nashville, reinforcing his reputation as the
wildest of the Texas outlaws.
"It was like the Old West," Shaver says. "It seemed
like there was always somebody coming to town looking to prove they
were tougher than me."
Other songwriters revered him, and worried about him. Tom T. Hall
voiced his concern with a song, "Joe, Don't Let Your Music Kill
You," and Kristofferson weighed in with "The Fighter,"
saying: We measured the space between Waylon and Willie/ And Willie
and Waylon and me/ But there wasn't nothin' like Billy Joe Shaver/
Where Billy Joe Shaver should be.
By 1979, Willie, Waylon and Kris were well on their way to becoming
legends, while Shaver was strung out and barely hanging on. He burned
out for good when an angel appeared at his bedside after a long night
of partying. It didn't say anything, he recalls, just sat there shaking
its head. He wasn't sure if it was a hallucination or a vision, but
he took the hint and drove off in his pickup. That night, while wandering
the cliffs above the Narrows of the Harpeth River, he came up with
the phrase, "I'm just an old chunk of coal, but I'm gonna be
a diamond someday." That became the title of one of his most
enduring songs. (John Anderson took it to No. 1 in 1981 and Johnny
Cash later told Shaver that he sang it to himself each morning during
a stint in rehab. It is also featured in the powerful closing scene
of Pedraza's documentary.)
Shaver moved back to Texas the next day, quit drinking and confused
the hell out of the music establishment. "It hurt me professionally,
but I most likely would have died if I'd stayed. I had to walk away
from it," he says now.
Shaver spent the next decade cleaning up and reordering his life.
With little fanfare, he released three more solo albums and played
around Texas with his son, Eddy, who had learned his guitar chops
from Allman Brother Dickey Betts. Father and son formed an indelible
bond. They called themselves Shaver, and Eddy's wailing solos gave
the band's tunes a jolt of energy.
In 1993, the duo produced a rollicking roadhouse album, "Tramp
on Your Street," that earned critical raves. They released two
more albums in quick succession -- one of which, "Unshaven: Shaver
Live at Smith's Olde Bar," was produced by Brendan O'Brien, who
had worked with Pearl Jam and Stone Temple Pilots -- and a whole new
generation of fans was turned on to Shaver's tunes. He was sober and
playing music with his son.
That seems a lifetime ago now, the days before Brenda got sick and
everything fell apart.
I went up on the mountain and looked down upon my life
I had squandered all my money, and lost my son and wife
-- From "Try and Try Again," 1998
It was 1997, and Shaver was in Louisiana, acting like a movie star.
Duvall, who first met him in the late '80s while shooting "Lonesome
Dove" around Austin, gave him a speaking part in "The Apostle."
It's easy to see why Duvall is drawn to Shaver. Take Duvall's character
in "The Apostle" and merge it with the self-destructive
country singer he played in "Tender Mercies" and you've
got a decent rendering of Shaver.
Duvall set him up in a suite, so Shaver invited Brenda to come stay
with him. They were divorced for the second time, but he'd heard she
was not doing well. When she showed up overweight and grumpy, he forced
her to go to the doctor: She had advanced rectal cancer, which required
multiple surgeries. Shortly thereafter, when her diagnosis became
terminal, they married for the third time. Shaver put his career on
hold and stayed with her, cleaning out the wound in her side and holding
her hand as she slowly died.
"It was rough, man, but I was glad to do it," he says. "I
loved her, you know? We both realized we loved each other, after all
that time of bouncing back and forth." (Other times, Shaver says
he wonders if Brenda truly loved him, a doubt exacerbated by a cache
of letters he found after she died. He says he asked her before she
died, and she merely smiled at him.)
At the same time, Shaver's mother, who lived across town in Waco,
was also suffering from cancer. Within a month, Brenda died at the
age of 54 and Shaver's mother, Victory, died at 80. As hard as the
loss was for Shaver, it was harder for Eddy, who was already outpacing
his father's hard-living footsteps. After his mother died, Eddy started
shooting heroin. One stint in rehab didn't take. Shaver says he wanted
to enroll Eddy in a new treatment center, but Eddy's new wife wouldn't
In late December of 1999, Eddy signed a contract with an Austin-based
label to record a solo album. On New Year's Eve, while celebrating
his new deal, Eddy overdosed and died in a Waco motel room. He was
That night, Shaver was scheduled to play with Eddy at Poodie's Hilltop,
a bar outside of Austin owned by Willie Nelson's road manager. Nelson,
who'd lost a son to suicide on Christmas Eve several years before,
filled in on guitar. When I ask Nelson about it, he chooses his words
slowly, careful to protect a private moment between friends. "It
was as sad as you can imagine," he says.
When our time has ended
And our race is over, run
We will melt into the likeness of our own beloved ones
-- From "Son of Calvary," 1998
Roseanne Cash, who knows of such things, once wrote that "at
the heart of real country music lies family." It's certainly
the heart of Shaver's music today. His recent songs are consumed with
his performance as a father, husband and son. His last album, "Freedom's
Child," features a song, "Day by Day," that might be
his most personal to date. It tells the story of his family in nine
verses, and it's so personal that Shaver has yet to perform it live.
When I reach him by phone at his home in Hawaii, Kristofferson says
it is the best exposition of family grief he's ever heard. And then
he recites the lyrics from memory: There's many a moonbeam got
lost in the forest/ And many a forest got burned to the ground/ The
son went with Jesus to be with his mother/ The father just fell to
his knees on the ground.
"The simple eloquence of that thing is just heartbreaking,"
Shaver's continued brilliance as a songwriter, when most of his peers
are retired or simply singing the same old hits night after night,
is drawing notice. In 2002, in Nashville, he received the Lifetime
Achievement Award from the Americana Music Association, and stunned
the assembled audience by announcing that it was the first award he'd
ever received for his music.
Though he considered retiring after Eddy died, he eventually turned
the other way and now works more than ever. He's on the road more
than 200 days this year, despite suffering a heart attack onstage
several years ago that culminated in a quadruple bypass. "I'm
happiest when I'm playing," he explains. "It's a departure
from the ordinary, I guess."
He is working on the songs for his next album with Houston-based Compadre
Records, and plans to go into the studio with Kid Rock later this
Pedraza, an Argentina native, met Shaver eight years ago on the set
of "The Apostle." She says she was captivated by the songs
he played for the cast and crew, even though she does not consider
herself a country music fan. "His music really moved something
inside me," she says. "I just had to know: Who was this
man who writes these amazing songs?"
The message of the film, she says, is the lesson of Shaver's life:
perseverance and survival.
"You have to keep trying in life. The challenge is what you do
with what you have. I find him a very humble guy, without bitterness,
when he has every right to be bitter. His life could be so much more
tragic. He takes it for granted but you have to have a lot of strength
to come through all that."
Shaver is becoming something of a Hollywood favorite. Luke Wilson
cast him in his upcoming film "The Wendell Baker Story"
and has become a regular at Shaver's shows, frequently with other
celebs in tow. Wilson didn't show for the after-party for the documentary
at an Austin restaurant, but Duvall and Pedraza welcomed Dennis Hopper,
Janine Turner and a crowd of about 100 other friends.
Despite a voice sore from four days of traveling around the state
promoting the film, Shaver played an energetic 90-minute set with
his band, dancing and waving his chocolate-brown cowboy hat in the
air. Those who know him well agreed that he was in better spirits
than he'd been in some time. "I want to thank Robert and Luciana
for everything they've done for me," he said during his final
encore. "I feel like a new man. I don't know if it's a better
one, but at least it's a new one."
Billy Joe Shaver
Everyone knows you can't teach an old dog new tricks. Sometimes they
just have to teach themselves.
''I didn't know I could sing rock 'n' roll!'' Billy Joe Shaver tells
The Rage , talking about his new Compadre Records release, Billy And
The Kid . ''But I really like to change things around. If I had a
hit with one song, I want to do something different.''
Shaver, the embodiment of the words ''Texas music legend,'' has had
to fend off more than his fair share of hard times over the past few
years, culminating with the death of both his wife, Brenda, and his
son and musical partner, Eddy, in 2000.
Billy And The Kid brings some closure to the latter loss. Eddy posthumously
collaborates with his father on a set of rock-oriented tracks. Originally
intended for an Eddy Shaver solo album, the tracks were rescued by
Billy Joe and producer Tony Colton from various sites around the world.
''They had it over in France somewhere, and they were going to put
it out,'' Billy Joe says. ''[The record company] sent him the cover,
and it was called Baptism By Fire and had a cowboy on there running
from a bunch of Indians and leanin' back, shootin' at 'em with a rifle.
''And Eddy said, 'That looks like a dadgum Red Rider B-B gun. To hell
with that!' and he just got off it, even though it was great.''
Colton and the elder Shaver finished the tracks, polishing Eddy's
vocals on some, recording Billy Joe in the lead slot for others, and
all the while showcasing Eddy's phenomenal guitar skills. ''It was
a labor of love, and the people are going to get to hear what a world-class
player Eddy was,'' Billy Joe says.
Meanwhile, at an age when some folks are thinking about retiring,
Billy Joe's busier than ever, with a just-completed autobiography,
several film roles and concert appearances on the docket for the rest
of 2004. ''It keeps my mind off of stuff. You can't ever really forget
all that's happened, but everybody's got bumps in their lives, some
of 'em bigger than others, but you just deal with it and go on.''
- Lucas Hendrickson
Billy Joe Shaver celebrates 65th birthday
Updated: 8/16/2004 9:59:24 PM
By: Andy Langer
Billy Joe Shaver
Austin singer-songwriter Billy Joe Shaver celebrates his 65th birthday
on Monday and other musicians are coming together to pay tribute:
Guy Clark, Robert Duvall, Robert Earl Keen, Jack Ingram, Jimmy Dale
Gilmore, Kinky Friedman, Cory Morrow and many more.
“I had a fortune teller told me I would maybe make it ‘til
21 and then that was it. And I believed her, but I just kept on coming.
Looks like I’m gonna live forever whether I want to or not,”
Shaver said of his long life.
Everyone at the event isn’t just there to celebrate Shaver’s
birthday, but his songs as well, referring to Shaver as the poet laureate
of Texas. There’s just something about a Billy Joe Shaver song.
“It must be the simplicity. Simplicity don’t need to be
greased I’ve always said and then two, I’d like to say
as few words as I can and as plain as I can, uncomplicated as I can
what I’m gonna say. And that way the dumb ones will get it,
like me. And the smart ones will get it easy. So, I’ll keep
it there. I know my limitations and I’m into simplicity. That’s
where I’m at,” Shaver said.
Shaver feels everyone’s presence is more about the cancer charity
he supports than himself.
“That’s why I’m here. That’s why I do this
because, otherwise I wouldn’t do it. When you get past 60, you
don’t really want to celebrate them darned old things, forget
‘em, get out, but the alternative’s not too good. But
it’s a happy day. Hopefully, everybody comes,” Shaver
Proceeds from the concert at the Paramount Theatre go to the MD Anderson
Cancer Center in Houston.
Billy Joe Shaver put out his first album in 1973, and he's still releasing
albums today. His songs have been covered by everyone from Bob Dylan
to Jerry Jeff Walker.
LOS ANGELES DAILY NEWS
BILLY JOE SHAVER: "Billy and the Kid" (Compadre)
Outlaw country legend Shaver - he's the hard-living, born again
writer of such classics as "Ride Me Down Easy" and "You
Asked Me To" - lost his guitar-slingin' son, Eddy, to a heroin
overdose on the eve of the millennium. He's been mourning Eddy musically
ever since, and this particular act of closure involves the father
completing several tracks the son was working on at the time of his
death, as well as a few of Eddy's unreleased recordings and Billy
Joe's own crusty, elegiac composition "Fame." That cut aside,
it's a hard-rock album, but one infused with a cross-generational,
tougher-than-leather love that is unmistakably Shaver all the way.
-- Bob Strauss
Posted on Sun, Aug. 29, 2004
Billy Joe Shaver
Billy and the Kid
Eddy Shaver's drug-overdose death on the last day of 1999 not only
cut short the life of a supremely talented musician, it also abruptly
ended his magical collaboration with his father, Billy Joe, the great
Texas troubadour whose career Eddy helped revive with his electrifying
guitar-playing. Billy and the Kid brings them together one more time.
The album balances songs Eddy had completed for a solo set with unfinished
tracks to which Billy Joe has added vocals and lyrics - the father
also contributes the new acoustic meditation "Fame." Eddy's
songs are as brutally elemental as their heavy riffage, although the
highlight is the solo "Necessary Evil," a wrenching slow
blues. Billy Joe, meanwhile, mourns "a dream cut down in its
prime" (in "Eagle on the Ground"), but his rough-hewn
poetic grace reflects a spirit that is bent, not broken.