Billy Joe Shaver (1939 – 2020)
Men don’t come more complicated than Billy Joe Shaver. On the surface he was often the classic teddy bear. Bubbling underneath that surface was a penchant for raising hell that often collided with one of the fiercest temper’s God ever placed on this earth. Billy Joe was born in Corsicana, TX and split his time between there and the Waco area for the bulk of his life. Raised mostly by his grandmother while his mother worked a series of menial jobs, Shaver quit school in the 8th grade and set out into a wide world as apprehensive of him as he was of it. After a short stint in the Navy, Shaver returned to central Texas and aimlessly bounced from job to job. His problem being he discovered he really wasn’t that great at anything other than kicking ass in a honky-tonk and getting really drunk.
Shaver had always had a penchant for turning a phrase and loved listening to the radio. When nothing else was working out, he thought “hell, I might as well try to write some songs.” And write he did. He had a handful in his pocket, when one day while working at a lumber mill, he succumbed to a vicious accident that robbed him of two of his fingers on his right hand. Undeterred, after a grueling healing process and rehab, he taught himself how to play guitar with his remaining digits.
Kicking around Waco and with no solid prospects in sight, Billy Joe decided to stick his thumb in the wind and hithchike with fate. His original intention was to head west to California. As the story goes, he sat on the westbound side of the highway for several hours without any luck. He figured he might as well move over to the other side and see if someone would take him eastbound. Someone did. Straight to Memphis, TN. He wasn’t in Memphis long before a gentleman pushed him on over to Nashville. Destiny had arrived.
The songwriter with missing fingers, an 8th grade education and a flexible disposition was hired as a songwriter within days and offered $50/week for his services. Before long artists such as Elvis Presley and Kris Kristofferson discovered Shaver’s unique downhome, straightforward lyrics and became enamored. But, it was a fateful drug-induced encounter in a tiny camper at Willie Nelson’s 1972 picnic with Waylon Jennings that would change Billy Joe Shaver’s (and country music) forever.
Waylon overheard Billy Joe singing “Willie the Wandering Gypsy and Me” and asked “Do you got any more of them cowboy songs?” And there it went. By July 1973, Jennings was releasing his Honky Tonk Heroes album. Coming alongside Jerry Jeff Walker’s Viva Terlingua and Nelson’s Shotgun Willie, the album went on to become a benchmark of Outlaw Country and a beacon for the rest of the decade.
The springboard writing a generation album defining gave him never translated to recording success. Yet, that never stopped Billy Joe from hitting the studio. He recorded throughout the 70’s and into the 80’s while still receiving cuts from mainstream artists (“Old Chunk of Coal” for John Anderson comes to mind). During this time, his son Eddy was coming into his own as a hotshot guitar player. Eddy had been taught to play by famed Allman Brothers Band guitarist Dickey Betts and was a natural. Perhaps the universe was trying to balance out having taken two of Billy Joe’s fingers by making Eddy’s fingers work like he had extras. The father and son formed a duo. Billy Joe’s words delivered the message and Eddy’s guitar punctuated them. They recorded a seminal album titled Tramp On Your Street in 1993. It was mostly a reworking of songs Billy Joe had previously recorded, but with Eddy’s shredding on top of it; the songs and Billy Joe were given a new life.
Eddy Shaver’s guitar playing was incendiary and singular. Nobody played like him. He was inventive, creative and at times reckless. Unfortunately, he carried those attributes over into his personal life. Drug addiction followed and Billy Joe struggled to keep his son clean and show on the road. On a cold New Years Eve in a dingy motel on the outskirts of Waco, Eddy met his end due to heroin overdose. Despite his grief, Billy Joe was on stage the next night. Billy Joe Shaver was nothing if not an oak.
Billy Joe Shaver plowed ahead. He formed a new band, wrote some more songs and recorded more. He even suffered a heart attack onstage at Gruene Hall in 2001 and was gigging again within a month. Shaver had many vices, but the one he could never run from was women. He was married upward of seven times, three times to the same woman. His wandering eyes led him to nearly shooting a man between the eyes at Lorena, TX dive bar Papa Joe’s. The ensuing trial and media coverage made Billy Joe Shaver a household name at the wrong costs. A highly respected legal team was assembled and paid for by Willie Nelson and Robert Duvall that ended up helping Shaver avoid jail time. Ever the good humorist, Billy Joe turned the entire event into a new song he titled “Wacko From Waco”.
Billy Joe Shaver was never in bad spirits. Even when he was in the midst of a crisis, fight or legal issue he was more concerned with those around him. He greeted folks with a bear hug and a smile. In his later years he could often be found around Waco in his standard Canadian Tuxedo made of Dickie’s and Levis. Some seventeen years ago or so after a show at Cheatham Street Warehouse I was talking to Billy Joe Shaver after his gig about an upcoming charity auction Galleywinter was hosting. He said “Say no more son.” He proceeded to take his sweat drenched denim shirt off and sign the pocket with a Sharpie. “That oughtta raise some money, you reckon?” Of course it did. Just last year I was with my kids taking in Frozen 2 at the cineplex by our house. On the way out, we walked behind an elderly man tottering in all denim and heading toward a beat up van haphazardly parked half on the curb. Now, I see Billy Joe Shaver all over town at places like HEB… but knowing that he took in Frozen 2 with us is definitely the most outlaw thing he’s ever done.
Son: Daddy, is that guy famous?
Me: You bet he is, son.