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THE LIFE AND TIMES OF BILLY JOE
by John T. Davis
photograPhy by Matt
I
=
SHAVER
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il
couitrsy of Bilb Joe
Shawr
=
sunnER 20ro rExAs
Mu'lc *
a5
Along titne ago,
No shoes on my feet
I
walked 1O rniles of train track
to hear HankWilliams sing
His body was worn,
but his sPirit was free
And he sang eq,erJ song
l,ooking
right stroight at
nre
...
"ft21np On Your Street"
-
c
Which bridgel Oh, he explained, the old
1870 suspension bridge in downtown Waco, the
first bridge to span the Brazos River.
Yeah. The guy who is arguably the Lone
Star State's greatest living songwriter lives in
into town from their home in the outlying farm
town of Bellmead and swing from the bridge's
cables ("them cables got wires that'll cut your
hands up") and jump into the swirling brown
sic songs, but at such a steep cost.
But, as Shaver noted in one of his more
recent songs, "the earth rolls on." And, even
in the worst of times, he has always persevered,
doing what he does best-practicing the elusive
alchemy of matching chords to words to create
enduring magic. (And make no mistake, not
Waco.
waters of the river the Spanish explorers called
"Los Brazos del Dios"-the arms of God.
Shaver has resided in Nashville and Austin
and, of course, on the endless highway, but he
as a metaphor
all of Shaver's songs are tales of autobiographical woe. Some, like 'You Asked Me To" and
chosen field, of high regard by his famous peers,
fully crafted love songs. Others, like the rocking
"The Hottest Thing In Town" and the tongue-
always comes home to'!Vaco.
"I like \faco," he
"I like
the people
in it. Always have. I mean, Jesus, I've lived here
since I was 12 years old. It's hard to impress people here. They're mostly all Christians." Most of
says.
all, he adds, Waco is a place where he can live
in mostly unencumbered anonymity. "This is a
town where nobody really knows me. At least,
they didn't know me until this incident. . .."
"This incident ..." That would be the
event whose particulars might have been drawn
from a Billy Joe Shaver song: a dark barroom,
an argument involving a woman, the flash of a
blade and the crack ofa pistol shot ...
But more about that later.
For now, here comes Billy Joe, ambling
up to meet a visiting repofter and photographer
standing
in the
scant shadow of one
of
the
venerable bridge's suspension towers. The day
is blazingly hot, but Shaver is in his customary
uniform-jeans and boots, a crumpled brown
cowboy hat and
a blue denim shin
whose
sleeves are crudely hacked off above the elbows.
He is rail thin, following a hospital stay to put a
stint in a vulnerable anery.
Billv Joe regards the span fondly. He and
his boyhood buddy Larry Smith used to walk
a6 *
TEXAS
iluSlc suilmER 20lo
One may, if one chooses, regard the bridge
for music, Shaver's muse-music
as a bridge that links rwo halves of a life. On the
one shore is a life of success and acclaim in his
of contentment found in his blackland prairie
in-cheek "You're as Young as the \Voman You
roots and his faith in Jesus.
On the other bank, however, is a landscape of almost unfathomable tragedy: a lifetime
of brawling, boozing, drugging and
(as unflinchingly chronicled
carousing
in his 2005 auto-
biography, Honky T onk Hero) ; a cruel, absentee
father; a hardscrabble childhood; and,
in
a
trifecta of almost cosmic misfortune, the deaths
of his beloved mother, his first wife and his only
son within less than a year of one another.
Cancer took the two women. His son,
Fidv. with whom he had a musical as well as
parental bond, died of a drug overdose in 2000.
Billy Joe lost parts of four fingers on his right
hand in an early sawmill accident. He had a
hean attack onstage, for Christ's sake.
Then there was his latest run-in with the
law, an altercation that could have buried him
in the Texas penal system for decades.
To
outsiders, Shaver's
like the Book of Job
as
life might
read
filtered through Hank
lVilliams.
It
"Cowboy Who Started the FighC' are beauti-
was the raw material for a fistful of clas'
Feel," are just downright fun.)
"l've got some dangerously good songs.
It'll be the best record I've put out," he says of
a forthcoming project. Shaver may be hard on
himself, referring to himself over the years as a
hick, a redneck and a "dumbass," but he's never
doubted the worth of his product.
"l'm thinking I'm fixing to be working
with Levon Helm and going up there and stay'
ing at Woodstock," Shaver says. Helm, best
known as the former drummer of the Band, has
his home and recording studio there.
"He wants us to come up and just camp out
in the recording studio, like they used to do with
the Band, and just record when we feel like it,
and I think that's a great idea.
"I've got all my stuff together, but it never
huns to give me a couple of more month's.
During the time that I'm doing the album is
when I come up with my best songs. Something
about the pressure."
Been a good month of Sundays
and a guitar ago
Had a tall drink of yesterday's wine
Left a long string of friends,
some sheets in the wind
And some satisfied wornen behind ...
-
"Ride Me Down Easv"
Shaver first
came onto the radar as the author or co-author
of 11 of the 12
songs
on Waylon
Jennings'
groundbreaking 1973 album, Honky'Tonk
o
o
I
o
Heroes. That hard-rocking, hard-country album,
which the website allmusic.com aptly describes
as "a defiant, ballsy blend of mythmaking and
truth-telling," was almost certainly the first
outlaw country album. It not only cemented
Jennings'sound and image for the rest of his life,
it delivered a definitive kick in the balls to the
hidebound "Nashville Sound" that had ruled
Music Ciry for years.
"Chet (Atkins, the epitome of the
Nashville establishment and the head of RCA'
o Waylon's label) was really against that album,"
I Shaver recalls. "But Chet tinally came around.
I
it helped Nashr-ille. They thought it
o Because
o was gonna ruin Nashville, t'ut it rvound up giv-
o
6
ing them a real good foundatitrn" for the future.
Shaver, who had been inducteJ r:--: tlre Nashville scene by Bobby Bare' s.r' .ujdenly a go.to songwriter on Music Ros-' K;--:
Kristofferson, another renegade Texan, ri'r' :-'
the midst of one of the hottest writing streal' :
his career, but he still plucked one of Shaler',
tunes, "Christian Soldier," for his second albun
Shovergre. -c rsESllY FLC:=c.
3:rltr
;,- -: :fs !.r- ,e rsoge over the r:
-,=- <
r* i-r ;= - with lhe ore *_- n"
r -orr with Willie \esr
-,:m. l-:s
-
5rr-€ 2arc
TEXAS
rsuslc t
17
Kristofferson even put up his own money to
finance Shaver's recording debut, 1973's Old
Fiue ad Dmers ljl,z Me, which Kris produced
his own name.
also.
at large.
The contrast tetween the two is instructive. The best of Kristofferson's lyrics lope along
like thoroughbred pacing mares: "Take the ribbon from your hair/Shake it
loose and let
it falV
Layin' soft agairst vour skinl-ike the shadows
on the wall."
Many of Billr Joe's songs, on the other
hand, are like tough little half-broken
mustangs. Rough stock, as the rodeo
saying goes. "l been to Georgia on
a fast train, honerl wasn't bom no
yesterday/l got a gsrJ Christian rai-
He says it doesn't bother him that
he's
handedly. "l dunno. Everything I've dont'as far
as writing is concemed, it seems hkg it's kind of
songwriter."
like having an unexpected bqby or something.
It's all been different. Sometimes it's drastically
different. I can't tell you how different it is.
"You've got to lean them [the lyrics] down
so they mean something in just a little bit," he
But don't ask him about process. Gry
Clark, for example, is a methodical craftsman
continues. "You have to mash it all down to less
than two or three minutes and it's got to mean a
who goes down to his basement workroom and
systematically carves finely wrought, indelible
whole bunch, too."
Mash it down so it means a whole bunchl
better known among his peers than the public
'No, no, no, no, no," he Protests, waving
his mangled hand. "My main game is being a
sin'/And an eighth-grade educatiory'
Ain't no
need in v'all treatin' me this
waY."
I
realize nout after all those
hard times
And l-ord knoerrs,
we've had us a few
Together foreaer,
whetever u)e ctre
I
-
couliln't
be me
"I Couldn't
uithout you ...
Be \'1e
Without You
[email protected]
short order, Shaver's rough-hewn tales
of rural Texas childhood, roustabout
honky-tonk life anJ love going every
which way but straight were record'
ed by some of the biggest names in
music: Johnny C-a..h, Jerry Lee Lewis,
Emmylou Harris. George Jones and
even Elvis Presler'. Upon meeting him
Ray Price joshed
for the first
Shaver, "You mu-.t not like me; you
haven't given me any of your songs."
Artists as diverse and incongruous as
Carol ("Hello, Dollr'") Channing and
Zamfir, the pan flute guy, cut his stuff.
Even artisL. rr'ho had no need
to lean on other .ongwriters-think
\Tillie Nelson, Bob Dylan and
Kristofferson-trieJ Shaver's songs on for size.
Shaver was poised to have a hit with the
confessional "l'm -lust An Old Chunk of Coal"
("But I'm Gonna be a Diamond Someday),"
but John Anderson beat him to the punch and
notched the hit srrgle. As highly regarded as he
is as a composer, Shaver's never had a
/lA *
TEXAS
hit under
nUSIC SUrfll'lER 20lo
couplets out of the undifferentiated detritus of
the day-to-day.
Shaver, on the other hand, is dismissive
when it comes to his routine, if you can call it
that.
"Aw, it's liable to come to me while I'm
hanging from
a
swing or something," he
says
ofl
Really?
He laughs with delight, knowing he's off
the hook. "That's high-tech stuff, I guess," he
guffaws.
But don't for a moment think he doesn't
take his craft--or his gift, as he describes itseriously.
"But it's a joy to do it," he
"because
continues'
I'm gifted--Cod gave me this gift and
I'm using it the best I can. I mean, I'r-e made
a lot of money off of them. Still do. But those
will be here for a long time because they're
well written. I worked hard on them."
If God gave Shaver a gift, it's a Joubleedged razor of a present. Using his life as the rarv
material for his music means taking the L'rutal
songs
with the sublime, and lingering long ri'ith the
most painful of memories.
and when he was about 1'5, he became his daJ''
"official tuner" ("1 always struggled with tuning," the elder Shaver recounted) and set out on
the road with his old man.
In short order, Eddy became a blazinglr
adept blues-rock guitarist in the Duane Allman'/
Dickey Betts mode. His presence orstage (the
two toured and recorded as "shaver") kicked Billv
into the stratosphere' But as srong
as the musical bond beween the two men was'
the bond offather and son was stronger still'
Joe's shows up
: -,-; -. =e ..ther up ani -- - n]t --r
-, -=:-, i -- : =-: :-- ':te this way.*
'---= :t his mother:
11
lafft! t':
':-<
:.neral high.r- i;rs' rc i
.i--;:, { ':
'-:i.
:-cTanion. As : :"ag m- 'l
:e=:,< = :sn sins ha.i :€ E;rrlbh:;--:'=:; l-.
S-- .:'= :--=,:, :::er and son i{ a-r:€ llrI[I
':tg
round tabo n- 4f,1lE'
e::i^- *,.: ;: :-<
lI. j -1:::l::i - rrgtfiting 5a1 g- i r',; :
th::s.: :t-=:- -'':.:. rhey agreed' -i :il' nqm
rhe ; .--! :-: i.- and the blo.{:,:**: te"'
--: -'.
ro
Goo'o FoR PFr:
}ce
s.finger stumPs
lE S ior
Take, for instance, the song "Blood Is
Thicker Than Water," \\'hich Billy Joe wrote
with Eddy for their
lNl
album, TheEarthRolls
"\ffe had this big old round oak table that's
soill at my house, and we used to call it the
'Nights at the Round Table,"' Billy Joe recalls
"And we'd get around that
table and throw down on each other pretty
hard. We were alwaYs honest with each other'
with
On.
Eddy began t..llou'Lns in his father's musi-
cal footsteps at an e:r.r ::e- In his book, Billy
guitar,
Joe recounts that Ejj'. :-:::i^-: hrrn--elf
a rueful laugh.
If one of us had an argument with the other, one
Eri-'.
i
),'.
-:
SOme
OCrr'lE
r i+
= ;=r.-
rt
i--e-s in hzre uF.-
]lD.
.L{L
dau$uz
S:r-;: :e- -=i
Joing
fiin-: t-ru
ru,ar' ;
orrgiu-:
\':- :t--c'r-
^^-t. -'-J&:
uN'-,
--
r.c.kin' the sner=
:-reTil
-t
-'
tultEl
2OlO tExAS muslc t
tlD
Nou she's sarlrE
dyin'mohn ...
rings off dvhonds of
pn
To which EdJr nposted:
Can'
t
you
see
I'm duun m dw ground, I can' t
And he tumed around and looked at me and
One of his best-known songs, "I'mJust An
he said, 'Doctors have patients.'And from then
Old Chunk of Coal," came at a similarly low
on. I never messed with him again. A kid that
ebb.
smart,
I
getrnlautu
I' ue sem yan
p*m'
out
yan
gus
If
all you do is lose,
iou better find a waY to win
md ntrmin'
with sluts
'When
yan uw, nm'ried
n
-"Try
Eddy Shaver fatally overdosed on heroin
on New Year's Ete. l.'\CO. He and Billy Joe were
scheduled to play *rat night at Poodie's Hilltop
audience?
& Grill, a beer joint outside of Austin
owned by rVillie \elson's stage manager, the
late Poodie Locke. Billy Joe played the show,
with Nelson-wh.-- had lost a son of his own in
l99i-sittrng in anJ helping Shaver carry the
ghastly weight.
"Eddy was als-ar;s so adamant about doing
a show whether ren w€r€ sick or anything,"
Shaver says by wat ..t explanation. "He said the
show must go on.
"One night ms mother was passing awayI knew she was dying-but we had a show to do'
Fidy said, "Hey, we got to go do this show and
we'll come back." -\nd when we come back, she
was dead. But that'= s'hat I got ftom him. People
get so disappointel '*'hen you don't show up."
ttr a while then.
During the ruking of ZCf/'s Bih and dle
Kirl, an album of urrcompleted tracks featuring
Eddy, Shaver said he received "visits and irumrctions" from Eddv r the tracks were recorded' He
he still receir-c rhem, in a manner of speak-
mg.
"I feel like xlren people
pass away
that you
of
really care about anl admire-I
good
things
like
the
things about hirn-l feel
that they possa\ it melts into you. And you
become a better rerson for it because you loved
them so much. Ycu pick up their ways. And you
admire a lot
get guided that uar'."
Billy Joe admia that his son "had some
bad habits I u-.el to get onto him about."
"He'd take his ptajamas and just stomp them
down onto the flcur," Shaver says, laughing at
tl're anticlimax aner that foreboding buildup'
"And I do that nos'."
"The fint *ring he ever told me that
knocked me out r-as when he was about ? years
old, and he was working on his bicycle. And
he staned hitting it with a wrench! And I said,
'Eddy, Eddy, EdJr'. you gotta have patience"
50 *
tExAs
nuslc
sullMER 20lo
it . .. I felt
sick all the time."
After an all-night bender in Nashville, Shaver
had what he described as a bom'again experience on a cliff overlooking the Harpeth River.
and Try Again"
the sing:er.songwriter: Is
fun to write a great song or to play it for
question
Bar
4
women, you name
H:;ff;T',1:p'f"'i:,*ffi't"nl
ft's forthe [email protected]
it more
pened."
says
I
...
m1 mother
Now tlre powrs Aube arehadingyw atd
me hl<e wo lambs m fu slauf,ter ...
"It's a hard orr' but it's a good one," says
Shaver with a sigh tcriay. "All them things hap'
Shaver was quiet
As he recounted in his autobiography, "By
the end ofthe 1970s, I rvas wom out. I was doing
everything shouldn't: drugs, booze, chasing
ain't gonna mess with him."
Shaver has his own take on rhat
an
conun.
..W'hen you get up and play it for the
drum:
folks, it's already been created. And you get to
live that moment over again. lt's like a little
dme capsule-when you play it you kind of drift
back into that time
again."
coal .. . but I'm gonna be a diamond someday"'
Years later, he explains, "The first half of it was
given to me; I was just the vehicle' And the sec'
ond half, I had to live through it and it took me
a year. I went cold turkey after I wrote that first
part----cold turkey on everything; quit smokin',
drinkin', dopin', everythrng' We went down to
Houston and all I could keep down was Melba
toast and diet root beel. I was down to about 150
har- pounds-I looked like a refirgee.
"And I did that for about six months, and
Try
Again,"
and
rowing ro willingly recal|. "Try
I finally finished that song.
then
wiG,
first
his
for instance, was wrirten when
"The next moming I said to Brenda' 'Fix
was
times),
Brenda (whom he married tluee
eggs or something' I'm hungry'' She
me
some
dying.
,'I was with Brenda the last three years said, 'You can't keep it down'' And I said, 'l
I kept it down
of her life and she had cancer real bad. I had believe I can.'And sure enough,
that song,
Finished
on.
then
got
from
just
well
and
was
hit a wall with the whole thing, and
got
well'"
to
do
exhausted about everything. I was trying
Oddly, given the universal emotiors that
something with the car, I don't remember what
songs elicit, Shaver says he's never given
his
best
that's
it was. And it just came to me-I said,
to pitching them to other artists
thought
much
I
then
it, I'm through messing with it. And
songwriters' especially in
producers'
Many
or
thought, 'Try and try again.'
Some of those times would seem too
[email protected]@[email protected]@ry,'
I waE [email protected] to @sE Inb EEenOa w-,as
ffiffeffi$W#ffie.'
-
BJS on wriiing "TrY an'd TrY Agoin"
"I think everybody's heard that' But
nobodv wrote it, so I decided I'd write it' It
came so easy to me,
it
was
like I was preaching
Nashville, regard promoting their catalog to
be of paramount importance-as lmportant as
pennrng the tunes themselves. Shaver, admit'
tedly never much of a businessman ("1 believed
then-and still do-that an artist shouldn't
myself-I told myself,'Keep trying, man' You
can do it.' And sure enough, I did. There was
a little bitry part back in there and my fingers
were too big to get to it, and I kept trying and
worry too much about business or he stops
being an artist") prefers to let the songs speak
trying and trying and trying, and I got it'
"That song saved my life, really' I was
ready to cash in' Brenda was about gone, and
when she passed, I was just about ready to give
for themselves.
"I never did pitch them. Mostly I'd rather
they come and get them. If they want them
bad enough, they'll come and get them. They're
it up."
grown-up songs."
to
But, with a sly srnile, he admits, "There's
certain ones that
I
wanted real bad-E1vis
D'lan, Kris Kristofferson, and of
course Willie, anJ lTaylon-all the ones I really
wanted, I went after. And I got them. I don't
have to see R!)r'ne, I can just go ahead and die
Presley, Bob
now."
He was r,rsing "die" as hyperbole just then,
ofcourse. But ..ne \larch night in 2007, Shaver
looked into uhat he thought were the eyes
of death, pulled a pistol, pointed the gun and
^,,ll-..1
.l-- '"i--.,
There's one in eaery crowd
for crying out Loud
Why uras it always turnin' out to be me7
"Honkl Tonk Heroes"
-
It's hard to be a Christian soldier
when you tote d gun ...
-
"Christian Soldier"
; l.'-::ch
R"p.*" "fl,,gP]g'-,.
Texas beer joins. Located on the nonhir-i-:,:
{iontage road of I-35 in the tiny town of L'r.:-:
about 12 miles south of Waco, it's a riindos,o.
with an Americn tlac ir:
fiont, a gravel parking lot and a lattice-co'erej
prefab metal building
deck out back.
Inside, the darkness is of the Stygian vanety, broken only by the requisite neon beer signs.
video poker machines and a light over the 3'.'l
table in back. As the eyes adjust, a short t'ar.
a vest-pocket bandstand and a cement dancefloor become visible. George Strait is amplrrepresented on the jukebox; Billy Joe Shaver is
not. Beer and set-ups only-no Cosmo or apple
martini drinkers need apply.
But, ironically, there is a banner draped
behind the bandstand that reads, "A Real Texas
Saloon-Home of the Honky Tonk Heroes."
One of the few undisputed facts surround-
31,
2t\-
--
:._.l:-
: , i'-vear-old e-----"---
-j: ----
'Ti:.'::'
1-: r :l,
urside beh::.: ." - E
--. Coker
ir.t --:::
, r :- --:: -' run'ived-::-. -lh --*:EI
: ^....--^-1,. :'- -:-- ':-.:lS
uPPer lll. r-, ur--- '-l
,:--:
:- :-i! neck. Sh'. - i e ---.#
:-;
ri:-.- :::: t-\iult_a Se!.- r-;-:ts*r- ::
::i :, -s:r r- ..f a firear::- I . -uirro
:. -r :-r---r'er is lice:-=: : t:::
-
.
= :r'-: -:ldrge Camd = -:- -:::--=
__'-.:._: -a -:-.: ;.13y€'1-\r'il-. :c :- -- -.
.:,i i :.- --- :- i:--<-. Dick DeC:-<:, rE r :(
::i:--- r ,: r l::.-.'Iegal por.i-.----::-c- {:
j<:::-r- .. ---. ,. +-::drreatenol':-- ir'::- . i:jk
-j-: :j: :=--:- - l ---- -'fe. Shaver'. =-,,';::: ; .;u.:*
r.:- .i - ..-:- : :-' :i rlte bar. . :. i-r rL I
C. r:: - : ,--: j.i re three hai .. -.: :. --'
:- - (-,,<..*rerPapa- r- -::-,.
Lt-i. : i.:-:: :---: : ime affid-.- :- ...i-* -.:i:
m. :.'.. :-:-.:. :i .iere exchan--:: -.'-* -::--
SUMI ER 2OlO TEXAS raug
a t
'l
to others, that wa-qr't *re case. Witnesses said
they saw Coker stin:ng his mixed drink with a
pocket knife and urprng it on Shaver's sleeve.
Shaver said he onls hal half a beer to drink.
"You know fr..w people are," Shaver
ter warbled an a capella version of Billy Joe's
anthem, "Live Forever" in last year's Academy
Award-winning film, Crary Hearc. Duvall's wife
also did a documentary about Shaver.
explains, long after tire thct. "'You ain't too good
to drink with me, are voul' ... I usually pour it
in a flowerpot or rrnething, but I went ahead
and took a sip or t o. then all that other stuff
Most outsiders didn't give Shaver a snowball's chance in hell of beating a multi-year bit
in Huntsville, courtesy of the strictly conservative Baptist jurors ("Potential jurors . .. include4
multiple references to church and a disdain for
happened."
alcohol," according
"That other snnt'-whatever it was-led
to Shaver walkirg .rrt back of the bar with
Smtesmmr).
Coker. Shaver saiJ ie knew Coker had a knife
and thought he mr$rr have a gun.
Shaver was rr r-ear of his life, DeGuerin
and his client told dre jurors. Other witnesses,
however, claimed thel saw Shaver confront
Coker and say, "\Itrere do you want it?" before
pulling the trigger. rShaver testified his actual
words were, "Where Jo you want to do this?
Why do you wanr t.-
lo
to the
Ar.rsgin Anwrican-
In the end, Shaver was acquitted of the
felony assault charge after the jury deliberated
for less than two hours. He would plead no contest to a misdemeanor gun charge and be fined
$1,000 nearly two months later. Coker, said the
Austin paper, "looked stunned." For his part,
Shaver took off down the road for a gig he was
booked to play in Houston that night. The show
must go on,
as
he
says.
this?")
Whatever the rurh, the events of the day
put Shaver at the derendant's table in the 1902era Renaissance revrval Mclennan County
Courthouse in doulr.rgrn Waco early in April.
The four-dar rral was attended by, among
othen, Willie NeL-n and actor Robert Duvall,
a friend of long saxling who cast Shaver in
his 1997 film, TL -{posde, and whose charac-
I'm gonna liae forever
I'm gonna cross that river
I'm gonna cdtch tornorrow now ...
-"Live
ForeveC'
I0l1&mry,ffi)neas
surprised as Coker at the outcome, given the
complexion of the jury Shaver faced and the
contradictory testimony presented. But the boy
with the'good Christian raisin'/And an eighrhgrade education" professes, a month and a half
after the verdict, to never have been in doubt.
"l still know I'm not in the wrone. I did
what was right," he asserts.
More to the point, he cites his own faith
and the abiliry of the communiry of the devout,
so to speak, to see the sin apart from the sinner.
ffl2otY. HwY
52 *
IEXAS nU5rC SUMMER 20tO
290 ' AUsTrN. TEXAS 7S737 . 512-288-7776
`