God Loves Ya When You Dance
Billy Joe Shaver's no wacko
Billy Joe Shaver isn't in the Country Music Hall of Fame.
A thick padlock hangs from the front door of the songwriter's modest house, tucked into a quiet neighborhood on the edge of Waco. In the driveway sits a white 1998 Dodge van with more than half a million miles on the odometer and a sticker slapped across the front bumper declaring, "If you don't love Jesus, go to HELL!"
The mailbox is emblazoned with an eagle amid streaks of red, white, and blue, though Shaver has his mail delivered to a post office box in nearby Hewitt.
"I get a lot of checks, written a lot of songs," he laughs in explanation of the padlock and PO Box.
Shaver, 73 on Aug. 16, hasn't just written lots of songs. He's penned some of the most indelible tunes in all of country music. His canon helped change the course of Nashville, most notably when Waylon Jennings cut his material on 1973's Honky Tonk Heroes, considered a foundational document of outlaw country.
"I came down here to get away from Nashville," offers Shaver. "I was getting into some heavy drugs and stuff, so I moved back down to Texas."
Clad in his hallmark jeans and blue denim shirt, Shaver ambles down his front hallway past a gallery of crosses and Native American dream catchers on the walls. In the tidy living room, only a photo of Shaver with his now-deceased dogs stands on the mantle. There are no family pictures. Those are clustered on the walls of his bedroom. Photos of his son Eddy, who died of a drug overdose in 2000, mix in with paintings of Jesus.
A wooden plank hangs above his bed, brandishing a phrase familiar from his performances: "God Loves Ya When You Dance."
"Waco's a polite bunch of people," surmises Shaver as he settles down at the kitchen table. "They don't bug you. Then again, you can't do hardly anything to get their attention unless it's something bad.
"Nobody noticed me until that shooting incident."
"That shooting incident" is the infamous 2007 shooting outside of Papa Joe's Texas Saloon in nearby Lorena – where Shaver shot Billy Bryant Coker in the face with a .22-caliber pistol. In the subsequent 2010 trial, the singer was acquitted of aggravated assault on grounds of self defense. Shaver offers his take on the events that night in his new single, "Wacko From Waco" (see sidebar).
"It's just a play song," says Shaver dismissively. "I hope it don't make a hit. God I'd hate to do that every night. I shouldn't be doing that. It's almost like bragging. I've been trying to wean off of it, but it's gotten popular."
Shaver's ambivalence toward the song encapsulates much of the songwriter's complex personality. He's a self-taught, hard-raised Texan with fierce bravado, but still often cast, even by himself, as the humble underdog. He's a fatalist to the past and forces beyond him, yet confident in his own capacity and in his deep faith in God.
"I'm just a really spiritual, kinda hardheaded religious guy," he ponders. "I'm constantly wondering if I'm doing the right thing. Every day and every second just about. And I realize now that people are listening to me, so now I'm very careful about what I write, because I don't want to hurt nobody. Actually, most of my songs, they were written trying to stay alive.
"The rest of them were written trying to get back in the house," he laughs.
Shaver's always been an outsider.
"I was not even born yet when my father first tried to kill me," he writes in the opening line to his 2005 autobiography, setting the stage for a life of tough endurance and close blessings.
Raised by his grandmother in Corsicana until she passed away, he was sent to Waco at age 12 to live with his mother and stepfather.
"I would run off though, because my stepfather and I didn't get along, and my mother didn't particularly like me either because I looked like my dad," recalls Shaver. "I'd go off sometimes and hitchhike all the way to Arizona or somewhere, just for the heck of it. I'd be gone for a week or two sometimes."
It's a personal history told throughout his songbook: "Georgia on a Fast Train," "Ain't No God in Mexico," "L.A. Turnaround," "Honky Tonk Heroes."
He joined the Navy at 16 and returned home to marry Brenda Tindell, whom he'd divorce and remarry twice. At 21, after a sawmill accident cost him two fingers on his right hand, he turned to what he felt was his true calling. Leaving Brenda and Eddy behind in Texas, Shaver planted himself in Nashville in 1966, securing a job as a songwriter for Bobby Bare's publishing company for $50 a week, and signing away the rights to some of his biggest hits in the process.
"It still puzzles me how people can be that goddamned cruel," bites Shaver. "They always believed that in Nashville, though – that a skinny dog would outrun a fat one, so they kept songwriters starved. It was pretty much slavery up there."
In Nashville, Shaver was rough-hewn and lacked business savvy, but his songs dealt in a hard-earned authenticity. Kris Kristofferson recognized Shaver's kindred talent, and recorded Shaver's "Good Christian Soldier" on his 1972 sophomore album, The Silver Tongued Devil and I.
Kristofferson also convinced Shaver to play the now famous Dripping Springs Reunion, forerunner to Willie Nelson's Fourth of July picnics. Backstage, Waylon Jennings heard the young songwriter and drunkenly promised to record an album of his songs. It took Shaver six months of harassing Jennings back in Nashville before he finally cornered the fellow Texan in a studio.
"I gave Waylon those songs, because I couldn't possibly deliver them like they were," notes Shaver. "They were too big for me. But Waylon had the experience and know-how. Now I can sing them, but then I couldn't. They were overpowering.
"I'd write 'em and think I was gonna die."
The success of Honky Tonk Heroes, with nine of its 10 songs penned by Shaver, signaled a new era in Nashville.
"It changed everything," laughs Shaver. "Chet Atkins had a fit because he knew. All those sequins and things kinda went out the door and we'd go in places with our blue jeans on. I caught all kinds of hell from old songwriters, claimed I hadn't paid my dues. I'd just say, 'Look [holding up his maimed right hand], where you have to pay your dues at anyway? Tennessee have a corner on that or something?'
"And I stepped on a lot of toes, rubbed people the wrong way," admits Shaver. "I was my own worst enemy. And like Townes [Van Zandt] and all these guys, we'd get messed up in a deal where they'd say these guys are unmanageable. So that hurt all of us. I guess I was kinda the ambassador of ill will there for a while, because I was causing trouble for everybody.
"I did a lot of it by just being me."