BY JONATHAN HOULON FOLK MUSIC EDITOR Now that THAT is resolved — and remember, folks, that over here in the C&W ghetto of Phawker, we have absolutely no intention of reaching across the aisle to racist fascists — I would be remiss not to acknowledge the recent passing of Billy Joe Shaver, one of finest songwriters to ever emerge from the Lone Star state. And that’s saying something as that list includes late great Texans Townes Van Zandt and Guy Clark as well as the still very much alive Butch Hancock and Willie Nelson, the latter of whom declared that Billy Joe was, indeed, the very best of them all when it came to writing. Shaver sure led a colorful life: Raised by his grandmother, as a child, he walked 10 miles barefoot to see Hank Williams Sr. who awarded the boy by looking directly into his eyes as he sang. Billy Joe lost several fingers in a saw mill accident as a young man but that didn’t stop him from moving to Nashville to take his chances as a songwriter and performer. He famously threatened to kick Waylon Jenning’s ass if his fellow Texan didn’t have a listen to his songs. Jennings was, in the event, suitably impressed and ended up populating his now legendary Honky Tonk Heroes record almost exclusively with Shaver tunes. Billy Joe endured some rough sledding in the 70s and into the 80s, mostly involving his massive drug and booze intake, but pulled out of it when he accepted Christ, who, according to Shaver, appeared on the edge of his bed, offering mercy and redemption after one particularly savage bender. Shaver later hooked up with his preternaturally gifted guitar-slinging son, Eddy, and would release some of his finest music in the 90s, including arguably his best LP, Tramp on Your Street. Tragically, Eddy died of a heroin overdose on NYE 2000. Earlier that year Eddy’s mother, who Billy Joe had married no less than three times (outdoing even the king of multiple marriages, Steve Earle, in that regard), had passed. But Shaver, in the face of great personal tragedy, pressed on, sometimes violently. He shot a man in the face outside a bar in Waco after thoughtfully inquiring: Where do you want it? Billy Joe had friends in high places: Willie’s lawyers somehow helped him dodge a bullet in that matter and Shaver was acquitted based on self-defense. Where do you want it, indeed! Later, Shaver would actually suffer a heart attack on stage but recovered from that too and continued to perform. When I heard that he had passed — at the age of 81 — at first I couldn’t believe it: BJS had an air of immortality about him.
In any case, it’s not these facts, figures, or fictions that Shaver should be remembered for but, rather, it is his amazing catalogue of songs that will ensure his true immortality. Hank Williams has been called the “Hillbilly Shakespeare” but you could just as easily apply this moniker to Billy Joe. There is a startling originality to many of his phrases but also an incredible economy. Here’s just a few examples: “I declare I feel like Texas when I’m up here Tennessee”; “the highway she’s hotter than nine kinds of hell”; “low down leavin’ sun done did everything that needs done”; “piano rolled blues danced holes in my shoes”; “he’s rosined his riggin’, laid back his wages” etc. If there’s such a thing as honky tonk poetry, this has gotta be it. Even the Dean of Nashville songwriters, Tom T. Hall, a normally sober witness, becomes apoplectic in praise when it comes to Shaver. On the back of Shaver’s first LP, 1973’s Old Fiver and Dimers Like Me, Tom T. gushed: “Billy Joe Shaver is to love or to hate. To know the deep and dark secrets of his mind, and then hate him, would be wrong. So, you’ll have to love him. And if you can’t love him, put the damned album back in the rack and keep your (censored) money and PISS ON YOU!” Testify, Tommy!
I myself first came across Shaver via the aforementioned Waylon Jenning’s 1973 release, Honky Tonk Heroes. This album is oft-cited as the beginning of the Outlaw Country movement in so far as Waylon insisted on using his road band vs. Nashville studio musicians and drew, but for one song, on the repertoire of an almost then entirely unknown songwriter in Billy Joe Shaver. If you’ve never heard a Shaver song, start here! I didn’t catch up with Billy Joe himself until the early 90s with the release of Tramp on Your Street. This album which was credited to simply “Shaver” (thus, in effect, giving son Eddy co-billing) stood out as the real item in the sea of faux honky tonk associated with the alt-country scare of the so-called No Depression era. I was lucky enough to see Shaver out promoting Tramp in a small club in L.A. and was so transfixed by the chemistry Billy Joe had with Eddy that it wasn’t until show’s end that I realized that Dave Alvin, quite a tunesmith himself, had been standing next to me the whole time, equally amazed. Songwriters knew. Later I would see Billy Joe at the Tin Angel with Jesse “Guitar” Taylor from the Joe Ely Band in tow. But it wasn’t the same without Eddy. Why’d it have to be Eddy? The last time I caught the legend was in Sellersville and after the show I bought a bumpsticker with the following words attributed to Shaver: “If you don’t love Jesus, go to Hell!” Sure, Bill, whatever you say.
So here’s a half dozen Shaver tunes to get you started. A couple by the man himself and the rest by his Texas peers cuz, let’s face it, the Lone Star state takes the prize when it comes to producing great songwriters. To be sure, when it comes to politics, Texas has — with the exception of Beto O’Rourke and Ann Richards — produced some of the worst shit stains around (I’m looking at you, Ted Cruz). We mustn’t get too exercised about bolo ties and armadillos!
“I Been To Georgia On A Fast Train”: Sort of a origin story for Billy Joe with a wink at Woody. “I’ve been to Georgia on a fast train, mama // I wasn’t born no yesterday // I got a good Christian raising and an eighth grade education // ain’t no need in y’all a-treatin’ me this way.” I’d say. This looks like a promotional video for the version of this song (my favorite) that appeared on Tramp on Your Street. I hope this gives you some sense of just how badass the combination of father and son Shaver was. And if you need anymore proof, check out Unshaven, a live album recorded around the same time in Smith’s Olde Bar fittingly in Atlanta. Throw down, Eddy!
“Ragged Old Truck”: My personal favorite BJS composition. Here’s the plot: Billy Joe considers suicide but instead cranks up his ragged old truck and hauls himself into town. Hillbilly therapy, probably more effective than the couch. Eddy looks like he was still a teenager in this video but his chops were already super sharp. And this will also give you a good idea of Billy Joe’s Joe Cocker-like dance moves. As he sings in this song: “I may be as ugly as an old mud-rail fence but I’m loaded with hillbilly charm.” Yes you were.
“Honky Tonk Heroes”: Ole Waylon himself. Singing Shaver’s signature song which basically became Waylon’s signature. If you’ve ever wondered what all the fuss is about Waylon Jennings, this should do the trick. It if doesn’t: PISS ON YOU. Steel enthusiasts: you’ll want to stick around for Ralph Mooney’s solo. Lord have mercy!
“Live Forever”: Possibly Billy Joe’s most well known song, this one has become somewhat of a standard in Texas. Joe Ely, one of many great musicians (including Waylon) from the Panhandle, does Lubbock proud with his version. Ely’s light touch teases out the hymn-like quality of “Live Forever.” In case you missed it, here is an interview I did with Ely just about a year ago today.
“Old Five And Dimers Like Me”: As if wasn’t bad enough losing Billy Joe, Jerry Jeff had died just a couple days before. Yes, I know that JJ was actually from upstate New York but his Lost Gonzo Band records from the 70s are as good anything that came out of Austin during those glory years. Old Scamp Walker (as he called himself) lived pretty hard back then: 25 DUIs and Fleetwood Mac-like cocaine consumption. Many were amazed he made it through. A formidable songwriter in his own right (you have heard “Mr. Bojangles”, right???), Walker was great at identifying masters like Guy Clark and Butch Hancock and recording their songs before anyone else took notice. Here Jerry Jeff does justice to another frequently covered Shaver classic tho, in this instance, he got to it after Waylon.
“Black Rose”: We gotta wrap this up with Willie who was undoubtedly Billy Joe’s greatest advocate. Shit, if it wasn’t for the Red Headed Stranger’s lawyers, BJS may very well have lived out the last decade of his life in prison. Moreover, Willie always kept Shaver’s name in the public eye, making sure that he was invited to the annual Picnic in Dripping Springs back in the day and later putting him on the Farm Aid bill. As far as “Black Rose” goes, Shaver sure had some balls writing about an inter-racial relationship in early 70s Nashville. Not to say the lyric is problem-free: “The Devil made me do it the first time // the second time I done it on my own.” Uhhhhhhhh. Still, Shaver was never one to try to box in.
As for our fellow countrymen who seemed to have stepped into shit not once but twice, lemme paraphrase Billy Joe: The devil made them do it the first time, the second time they did it on their own. Thus: no reconciliation. No hand across the aisle. No quarter. LOCK HIM UP!