Billy Joe Shaver
“Writing’s the cheapest psychiatrist there is.”
Willie Nelson calls him “the greatest songwriter alive today” and Kris Kristofferson, Johnny Cash and Elvis Presley have all recorded his songs. Bob Dylan mentioned Mr Shaver in his song I Feel a Change Comin’ On from the album, Together Through Life and recorded three versions of Old Five And Dimers Like Me in 1986.
“I have kind of cornered that simplicity thing. It’s easy for me to be simple because I haven’t gone to college or even finished high school, so you’re not going to get any of them big 10-dollar words from me. And consequentially it’s easier for dumbasses like myself to understand it, and of course the real smart people understand it and they appreciate it because it’s real simple. And it says so much in so few words. That’s what I got when I didn’t finish school and I picked up my language from the street and from farms.”
Billy Joe Shaver’s life reads like a novel.
His father tried to kill his mother while she was pregnant with him and he left school after the eighth grade to help his uncles pick cotton.
He sometimes accompanied his mother, Victory Watson Shaver, to her job at a local nightclub, where he began to hear the country music that would inspire him to write his songs.
“I saw Hank Williams one time when I was a kid. I walked down the railroad tracks about 10 miles to see him. I didn’t know he was goin’ to be on the show… this was before he was a star. He didn’t play but one song. People wasn’t payin’ no attention to him ’cause they never heard of him. And that’s the way people are. But he saw I was listening and he looked up at me straight in the eye and just sung to me.”
Shaver joined the US Army, worked on farms, lost two fingers in a sawmill accident and grew a reputation as a drinker and brawler.
“I got all my country learning picking cotton, raising hell, and bailing hay.”
He hitched to Nashville in 1966 with a desire to break into the music business. He found a job as a songwriter for fifty dollars a week and his work came to the attention of Waylon Jennings:
“I got up there and chased him around for about six months. He’d avoid me, in other words. Finally, one night I had my guitar with me and I was at one of his shows and there were people in there just lining the walls. Waylon got wind that I was there, and he gives someone named Midnight a hundred dollar bill folded up, and Midnight comes back there and says, “Waylon said to give you this.”
And I took the hundred dollar bill, gave it back to him, and said, “You tell Waylon to stick this up his ass.”
He went in there and told Waylon – well, Waylon got mad as hell. Now Waylon can get mad. He’s crazy, too. And he had two bikers on each arm. And he said, “Hoss, what did you want?”
And there are people all along the walls everywhere. And I said, “I want you to at least listen to these songs, or if you don’t I’m gonna kick your ass right here in front of everybody.”
And I had no idea if I could or not, I didn’t know, I just was at the end of my rope and kinda crazy. And those bikers started coming towards me, and Waylon knew they’d tear my head off, so he grabbed them and held them back.
He says, “Come here, hoss,” and he took me in this room that was vacant.
He said “I’ll tell you what I’m gonna do for you. I’m gonna let you play one of them songs, and if I like it, I’ll let you play another one. If I don’t like it, I’m gonna say I don’t like it, and you’re gonna hit that door and we ain’t never gonna see each other again.”
He must have liked them, because Jennings recorded 10 of his songs on his next album – Honky Tonk Heroes.
Other artists, including Elvis Presley and Kris Kristofferson, began to record Shaver’s music, which led to his own recording deal.
Shaver’s debut album, Old Five and Dimers Like Me, was produced by Kristofferson in 1973. Along with the title track, it was filled with classic Shaver songs: Willie the Wandering Gypsy and Me, Georgia on a Fast Train. In 1978 Johnny Cash recorded I’m Just an Old Chunk of Coal (But I’m Gonna Be a Diamond Some Day), a song Shaver wrote after he gave up drugs and alcohol and turned to God for help.
Shaver became a well-respected writer and performer, doing shows at the famous Grand Ole Opry:
“I never had any problems. I’ve been on it many times. I got along with Porter Wagoner. He didn’t get along with very many people but he got along with me pretty good.
One night he was tellin’ (the audience), “Billy Joe Shaver has songs recorded by Elvis Presley, Waylon Jennings, Bobby Bare, and Bob Dylan (Wagoner pronounced it “Die-lan”).
And I said, “Naw, it ain’t ‘Die-lan’, his name’s Dylan!”
And Porter said, “I said his name was ‘Die-lan!’
And I said, “Naw, it’s not either, it’s Dylan!”
And people were laughin’ like hell, and Porter got a kick out of it, too. So we became pretty good friends.”
Of course, life is rarely a fairy-tale. In 1999, Shaver buried his mother, shortly followed by his wife, Brenda – they were divorced twice and married three times. Both women died of cancer. Then, on New Year’s Eve 2000, his son, guitarist and friend, Eddy, died of a heroin overdose.
Through all this very real tragedy and pain, Mr Shaver continued to write, record and play shows.
In fact, he had a heart attack on stage on 4th July 2000 that nearly killed him.
The Americana Music Convention awarded him their 2002 Lifetime Achievement Award in Songwriting and in 2006, Shaver was inducted in the Texas Country Music Hall of Fame.
He has written some great songs, that is beyond dispute, but he also possesses a hell of a stage presence and his cracked, dusty voice can wring every drop of emotion or humour from a lyric. Try And Try Again is a perfect example of why I like his music – it makes a virtue out of his vocal limitations, is well-written and is an uplifting testament to faith and fight. It Just Ain’t There For Me No More is as clever and well-crafted as any break-up song, and The Devil Made Me Do It The First Time (The Second Time I Did It On My Own) makes me want to drive too fast and get into a fight. His 2007 recording of Old Five And Dimers Like Me is as good, if not better, than Johnny Cash’s American Recording albums and showcases why his voice deserves to be heard.
This man is the real deal – no posturing, no pretense.
In 2007, at Papa Joe’s Saloon in Lorena, Texas, he shot a man who had been rude to his wife.
On March 31, 2007, Shaver stopped into the bar for a beer with his wife, Wanda. Shaver testified that a Mr Coker was rude to Wanda and the two men started to argue.
After the two went outside, witnesses testified Shaver asked Coker, “Where do you want it?” then pointed a gun at Coker’s cheek and pulled the trigger.
“He fired on me before I fired on him…and I only shot once, just a little old .22 and that was it. He had some other kind of gun. I don’t know what it was, but he shot at me three times, and I thought, ‘Well I better do something.’”
When asked in court if he shot Coker because Shaver was jealous the victim was talking to his wife, Shaver laughed: “I get more women than a passenger train can haul”.
Even though he faced up to 20 years in prison if found guilty, Shaver carried on booking gigs as usual. On 9th April 2010, he was found not guilty and played his show on the same night.
“[The guy I shot] has still got the damn bullet in his mouth. I wasn’t really sour about it, but I just want my bullet back.”
Interviews with Patrick Doyle for Rolling Stone – April 12, 2010 & July 23, 2012.
1 To Jonny Fritz, January 9th, 2013 – from American Songwriter.