by Jim Caligiuri
photograph by John Carrico
Billy Joe Shaver is a big man, an imposing presence. His hand wraps around yours when you shake it even though he's missing two fingers from a saw mill accident many years ago. His blue/gray eyes twinkle at times, as if to let you know that, despite his hardened outer appearance, inside he's a kind, honest, and generous person. A Texas native, born in Corsicana, he's been quietly living in Austin off and on for five or six years now.
"I lived here for a while in the early Seventies," says Shaver. "It's such a wonderful town. I lived in Nashville and did pretty well, but up there, there's a lotta smoke, but not a whole lot of fire. I like the people and the attitude in Austin. I like the whole deal. I'm not trying to make a statement by living here. I live here 'cause I like to."
For more than 25 years, Shaver's words and music have been an important part of country music. His songs have been recorded by the likes of Elvis Presley, Bob Dylan, Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson, Johnny Cash, the Allman Brothers, John Anderson, David Allan Coe, and a long line of others. He'll tell you that he's proudest of a recent posthumously released recording of "Georgia on a Fast Train" by Roy Acuff.
"Roy Acuff was my grandmother's favorite artist," he beams. "It meant so much to me when I heard that he recorded one of my songs. That was my award and I'll take those kind of awards any day. You know how other people get CMA awards and Grammys and stuff? When I heard the other day that Roy Acuff had recorded one of my songs and it was actually released the same day as my album Victory, that to me was my award. Money can't buy that kind of recognition. In that way, I've been real lucky."
Even so, Shaver remains an outsider to the world of country music for reasons that are not fully understood, yet accepted with a shrug.
"That's all right. It ain't my choice. I'm kinda always between 'em. In Nashville, they consider me a Texas guy. But I just move around a lot, so yeah, I guess I'm kinda an outsider. If I had to describe it, I'd call what I do down-home, Americana, blue-collar. Sounds like country, doesn't it?"
At the age of 59, Shaver continues to make spine-tingling albums. In recent years, he's been working with his son, Eddy, a young buck of a guitar slinger in a band they call Shaver [see sidebar]. The recently released Victory is as personal a statement as has ever been recorded. An acoustic collection of spiritual songs that Billy Joe has written over the years, it's a family album of sorts - the title of the disc is his mother's name. It succeeds precisely because of the intimacy it provides, proclaiming the strength of Christian faith the family has found in the face of Billy Joe's wife Brenda's battle with cancer.
As he recalls, it was during the filming of the recent Robert Duval movie, The Apostle, in which he had a part, that he got Brenda to drive to see him on location in Lafayette, Louisiana.
"I hadn't seen her in a while and when I saw her she was hurting and wasn't feeling good," he relates. "Then I had to make a trip to Atlanta and we went in her truck. When we got back to Texas she was hurting pretty bad and I called a doctor. I finished the movie and called her doctor here in Austin, and it turned out she had cancer. She had 25 radiation treatments in Waco. Then she had two operations. She was almost to the point of no return. She's been doing chemo for over a year now. Brenda and I have been divorced since 1986. We're looking to get married again on my birthday (September 15) so I'll remember when the anniversary is.
"Her being sick brought the family closer together and both Eddy and I decided that it was time to do this gospel thing. Now my mother's in the hospital with cancer. She's 79 years old and three days after she had an operation she's up and walking around. My momma, she'll kick your ass. But she's a sweet woman, she's got Jesus in her heart."
Eddy and Billy Joe Shaver
photograph by John Carrico
In 1978, after a notable amount of success, Shaver reached a turning point in his life. He recollects a harrowing time in his life.
"I was in Nashville with my family, but I was chasing women, doing drugs, smokin' Camel cigarettes. I was almost dead. I got so I couldn't even put a sentence together, much less write a song. My family was going all to hell over it. This one particular night, I had a vision of Jesus sitting on the edge of my bed. There was like this white fluorescent light. It was the middle of the night and I got in my pickup truck and went out to this place called the Narrows of the Harper. I went out there 'cause I'd been out there with my son and he'd told me that this place was real spiritual. There's a bunch of trails out there that wind a lot and there's a pretty big cliff.
"I went up to the top of the cliff and there's like a big altar close to the edge of the cliff. I knew there was two ways to go: either off the cliff or get on my knees and give it up. For a long time there, I wasn't sure what happened, but it all hit me. I had my talk with God and asked him to give me my life back again. As I was coming down from that cliff, I started writing `I'm Just an Old Chunk of Coal.' Not long after that, I loaded up my family and we moved back down to Houston.
"It's been burning me all my life to do this record," proclaims Shaver. "It's what I call gospel. Since I started making music, I wanted to make this record. Songs like `I'm in Love' and `Presents From the Past,' they're songs that you may not have heard before, but I wrote them a long time ago. I've been waiting for this record to put them on. I just didn't know where to put 'em! And they were great songs. I feel real good about it now that I've got them out there."
It is no surprise, then, that he judges the intimate nature of the songs to be a release of sorts. What is surprising, however, is that he never considered the idea that letting his listeners in on personal matters might lighten his burden.
"The lyrics are very close," he allows, "but for me that's what makes it a good record, you know? I'm pretty reckless, and I always have been. As long as I stay honest and the truth don't change, I'm fine with it."
Reckless or not, Shaver has a way with lyrics that enables him to speak the truth in ways others can't. Some might even call them poetry.
"My lyrics are they way I talk. It's my computer," he lets out a laugh. "That somehow throws those things together. No telling how long they've been rolling around in me. I speak for a lotta people. And I know I do, 'cause a lot of people come up to me and say, `I know exactly what you're talking about.'"
The conversation veers toward the difference between lyrics and poetry. On the surface a poet and a songwriter are out to achieve the same goal, the truth. Shaver has been known for speaking the truth to the common man for decades, but won't dare call himself a poet.
"A poet is a very, very great title. That's what some other people would say, `I'm a poet,'" he ventures. "I can't give myself that high a mark. Someone up there's gonna have to give it to me. I never really thought about it. Is there a difference between a poet and a songwriter? I don't think there is. Take someone like Buck Owens. You can read his words and they sing to you."
It's easy to see how Shaver can connect so readily with working-class folks when he starts speaking of his upbringing, the places he's been and how he got where he is today.
"In the Forties, Corsicana was a cotton gin town and the railroad surrounds it," he recalls. "My uncles were all farmers. My father left when I was young and my mother was a cotton picker. She'd have me on her back while she was picking cotton. Then she went to work in Waco, and my grandmother raised me 'til I was 12. My mother went to work in a honky-tonk called the Green Gables with a girl named Blanche Williams. That's where a lot of my background musically comes from. I kinda grew up in that honky-tonk.
"There was music all around me when I was growing up. We didn't have a radio, but I'd pick up pieces of songs and I'd sing 'em and make the rest of it up. I didn't even play an instrument, but I knew one day I'd be able to do that. Unlike most people, I said, `Well if I don't make it working, I'll have this to fall back on,' because I knew that I could do it. I had it kinda backwards."
Shaver spent some time in the Navy, and after he was discharged he worked a series of dead-end jobs (including the one in the saw mill) before heading out on the road.
"I just started hitchhiking. I was down in Houston and I was headed to L.A. I didn't have a penny in my pocket when I decided to do this, but I couldn't get a ride going that way. Instead, I got a ride all the way to Memphis. I thought that was a good sign. The guy fed me and took me all the way to the other side of Memphis and gave me $10. He wouldn't take it back when I tried to refuse it. He just said, `No, somebody did the same thing to me, just pass it on.' And I have - several times, you know.
"The next ride I got was on a cantaloupe truck to Nashville. It took me a while to get a job and find a place to settle down, but finally in 1969, I ran into Bobby Bare and he gave a me job, paying me $50 a week to write songs. It wasn't a lot of money, and I've made some good money in my day, but $50 a week could get me through. It freed me up to do what I loved to do and that was great. But, of course, every once in a while his checks would bounce, because he wasn't in much better shape than I was."
He lets out another laugh at the thought.
"Then I had a couple of hits and Waylon recorded a whole album of my songs, Honky Tonk Heroes. In the early Seventies, it was just coming out of me. We got lucky; Kris Kristofferson did a song ("Good Christian Soldier"). Seemed like all the help I got was from Texans that were already up there. But Texas and Tennessee are like brothers and sisters in a way, you know."
Getting others to record his songs led to a recording deal of his own, but as he readily admits, he had no luck with record companies.
"I started out on Monument Records in the early Seventies. They went out of business. Then I went to Capricorn Records and did two with them. They went out of business. Then I went to MGM. They went out of business. Everybody I went with went out of business. Then I went to CBS and did two records with them and they dropped me. Then I made a record that never got put out. Then I went with Zoo for Tramp on Your Street, which was a real good record for us. We called it Shaver, but it was me and Eddy mostly. I went with Justice Records for one record and now we're with New West with this new record."
Owing to the fact that Shaver seems to have been whittled down to just Billy Joe and Eddy on Victory, fans might wonder if the band still exists.
"What happened was that the people that were gonna play on Victory didn't show up," explains the elder Shaver. "I don't know what happened to them. It just didn't work out. I don't have any trouble connecting with Eddy, and as far as I can tell he doesn't have any trouble connecting with me. Most of all of the record was just one take. It was just like, `There it is.' We were very lucky. We used to sit around the kitchen table and play. It was just like that."
Both men are emphatic about the fact that the band is still an important part of what they do, though. They are extremely enthusiastic about a band record that is scheduled for release later this year.
"We did it with Ray Kennedy [who with Steve Earle goes under the production moniker Twang Trust] up there in Nashville. It's more of a band record and it's the best we've ever done. It's gonna be called Thunderbird."