By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Alice Laussade
By Scott Reitz
When Billy Joe Shaver gives directions to his modest house on the outskirts of Waco, he says to disregard the handwritten sign on his front door. "Please do not disturb I haven't slept in two days," it says.
"That's just so some ol' drunks don't come by at 5 in the morning to talk," Shaver explains. "'Course I used to be one of 'em, so I really can't complain too much."
The self-effacing "lovable loser and no-account boozer" left the bottle behind long ago and has returned to his honky-tonk hero status with a stunning new album, The Earth Rolls On, released on New West. The old chunk of coal has become a diamond in the eyes of critics, who are gushing over Shaver like they haven't since 1993's Tramp On Your Street. Fans are packing his shows and lining up afterward to shake his two-fingered right hand and give him homemade gifts.
But the 61-year-old in the blue work shirt, whose face is the map of Texas music, can't fully enjoy the attention. He doesn't even listen to the record because hearing it just reminds him of the hole in his band, the hollow in his heart, where his son Eddy used to be. The 38-year-old ex-prodigy, who started playing professionally with his dad at age 12 with a guitar Dickey Betts gave him, died of a heroin overdose on December 31, 2000. When Billy Joe first got the call from Waco police at 3 a.m., he said there was a mistake: His son was in Austin. But Eddy and his new wife had checked into the Lexington Motel off Interstate 35 hours after receiving an advance to record a solo album for Antone's Records.
"We knew going in that it was our last record together," Shaver says. "So we worked really hard to make it a good 'un. I really think that Eddy did some of his best playing ever on this record." The theme of the album, which opens with the positively bouncing "Love Is So Sweet," is that life is hard but worth it. Often accused by Texas singer-songwriter purists of overplaying, Eddy shows relative restraint, finger-painting the moods of songs such as "Star of My Heart," which his father wrote last year while Eddy was in treatment for heroin addiction. The album ends in soaring possibility, as the guitarist finally cuts loose on the title track about finding a light in the darkness of tragedy. A great singer leaves behind his songs and his voice, but when amazing guitarists die, they're gone, and all the posthumous releases in the world won't bring back the thrill of being in the same room with them and their guitar.
"It's just such a loss," says Shaver, the deeply religious man who has known great blessings and, it seems, great curses as well. A year before losing his son, Billy Joe knelt at the deathbed of Eddy's mother, Brenda, the woman he married three times (and divorced twice) since they met at a high school football game in Bellmead when she was 16 and he was a 20-year-old just back from the Navy. "She was my first love and my last," Shaver says, showing a photo of a beautiful young woman with light brown hair and softly biased eyes that would be passed on to Eddy.
The Shavers weren't always on the same page as far as Billy Joe's career was concerned, and he let Brenda convince him that being on a record called The Outlaws, which went platinum in the late '70s with Tompall Glaser in the Billy Joe slot, was not the image he wanted to cultivate. Much of the couple's conflict arose when Billy Joe took off for days, especially when he was running with that drunken rascal Townes Van Zandt. "Brenda hated Townes with a passion," Billy Joe says. When she was dying of cancer, Billy Joe says he tried to keep Brenda alive as long as possible by telling her that when she got to heaven, Townes would be waiting.
A few months before Brenda died of cancer, Billy Joe's mother, Victory, passed away. Her name was the title of a gospel album Billy Joe and Eddy recorded in 1998.
"I always figured I'd be the first to go," Shaver says, and looking back on a rough-and-tumble life of bare feet and bare knuckles and bared soul, you believe him. His father, who had another family, bailed on Billy Joe before he was born. With his mother having to work two jobs, baby Shaver and his older sister were raised by their grandmother in Corsicana. "She gave us reality," Shaver recalls. "Our grandmother told us straight out that there wasn't no Santa Claus, but just play along with the other kids. Unless the Salvation Army dropped off something, we didn't get no Christmas presents."
When his grandmother died, 12-year-old Billy Joe moved to Waco to live with his mother, who worked as a waitress at a honky-tonk called the Green Gables. "I was barefoot, wearing overalls held together by safety pins, and people would give me nickels for the jukebox," he says of nights spent with the bouncer as his baby sitter.