Ode to Billy Joe
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.
Back at home, Billy Joe clashed with his stepfather and often took off on freight trains or rode his thumb right outta Waco. When he turned 17, his mother signed the papers for him to join the Navy. "I was glad to go, and they were glad to see me go," he says.
The Navy experience didn't turn out too well for the hotheaded recruit, however. Shaver spent the last several months of his enlistment in the brig at Portsmouth, New Hampshire, after he decked an officer at a party. Billy Joe was facing a court martial, but after penning a plea to the commanding officer, explaining his side of the scuffle, Shaver says he was released with an honorable discharge. He's always managed to find the words that would get him out of seemingly hopeless situations.
To know Billy Joe Shaver and not have a story to tell is like coming home from a Willie Nelson Picnic without a sunburn. There are famous Billy Joe stories, like how he lost three fingers at the knuckle on his right hand in a saw accident at Cameron Mills when he was 22. Shaver had read an article about how a man in Asia had recently had his severed fingers reattached, so he gathered up his three lopped digits. "The doctor said we couldn't do anything for me," Shaver says. "I told him that in Japan they just sewed somebody's fingers back together, and he said, 'Well, this ain't Japan.'" He returned to work with his hands bandaged and his fingers in a jar. When a woman at the mill asked for his fingers for some sort of voodoo ritual he gave them to her.
There's also the one about the time he spent six months in Nashville tracking down Waylon Jennings, who had promised to do an entire album of Shaver songs after hearing "Willie the Wandering Gypsy and Me" during an impromptu guitar pull in a trailer backstage at the infamous Dripping Springs Reunion show in 1972. "Waylon asked me if I had any more of them ol' cowboy songs, and I said I had a whole sack full of 'em," Shaver says. But afterward Jennings wouldn't return Billy Joe's calls.
Frustrated and broke, Billy Joe finally made contact with Jennings in the hall of a recording studio late at night. "I told him that if he didn't make good on his promise to record my songs I'd whip his ass right there. I was so [angry] I didn't even notice these two big biker bodyguards at his side." Before the two could pounce on Shaver, Jennings raised a halting hand and sat down with the fuming songwriter to talk about the album that, hey-Hoss-I'm-still-gonna-do-but-I-just-been-busy.
"Waylon asked me if I knew just how close I came to getting a major ass-whipping," Shaver says with a laugh.
When Jennings recorded Honky Tonk Heroes in 1973, he broke enough rules for the album to be considered the opening salvo of the "outlaw country" movement. Besides recording 10 tracks by an unproven songwriter, Jennings insisted on using his touring band in the studio. The result was a record that holds up like Creedence Clearwater Revival, riding a great groove on the title track and then taking a touching turn on "You Asked Me To," Billy Joe's love song to Brenda.
But even as the 33-year-old Shaver finally caught his big break, he fought Jennings every step of the way in the studio. "He wanted to change some lyrics or do the songs a little bit different and I didn't want him to," says Shaver, whose songs are so much a part of him that he never sings other writers' material in concert.
Though he's stubborn about his precious compositions, the word that friends most often use to describe Shaver is "humble." Austin guitarist Stephen Bruton, who played on the 1973 debut Old Five and Dimers, says that whatever success Shaver has attained since then, including writing a top five hit for John Anderson ("I'm Just An Old Chunk of Coal") hasn't changed him a whit. He still carries himself like "the hobo with stars in my crown" of one of his earliest songs "Ride Me Down Easy." Tell him he's the best damn songwriter Texas has ever produced, and Billy Joe will start talking about Van Zandt and Willie Nelson.
Shaver earns a nod as the musical poet laureate of the Songwriter State, not just because Shaver has the ability, like Springsteen, like Waits, like Prine, to nail an entire set of emotions and circumstances with a single line (his most famous: "Well, the devil made me do it the first time/The second time I done it on my own" from "Black Rose"), but also because in Billy Joe's lyrics you can hear music. The rhythm of his words is all the beat you need, as witnessed by this classic chorus: "I been to Georgia on a fast train, honey/I wudn't born no yesterday/Got a good Christian raisin' and an eighth-grade education/Ain't no need in y'all treatin' me this way."
Billy Joe wrote "Georgia On a Fast Train" after repeated snubs by Nashville when he first started hitchhiking there in the late '60s. He had been trying to follow his thumb to L.A. but couldn't get a ride West, so he crossed Interstate 10 outside of Houston and caught a truck driver headed to Tennessee. Unable to afford a demo tape, Shaver tried to play his songs for record execs but was turned away at the front desk. Finally, he got Bobby Bare to listen, and soon Music Row was buzzing about the square-jawed hayseed from Waco who could put complex issues in simple turns as he did with his Vietnam morality ditty "Good Christian Soldiers" ("It's hard to be a Christian soldier when you tote a gun").
Then came the call to come down to Dripping Springs in the summer of 1972, where he would meet Jennings. Eventually, his life and country music would change.
"I really do think that Billy Joe has an angel following him around," says Freddy Fletcher, Willie Nelson's nephew, who played drums for Shaver in the late '70s and early '80s. "We'd find ourselves in terrible predicaments out on the road, but somehow Billy Joe would find a way out of it." Once during a snowstorm near Minneapolis, Shaver's van skidded off the road and was sideswiped by an oncoming truck. The impact shoved Shaver's van back into its rightful lane.
Another time, Shaver escaped unscathed after baiting a crowd in Baton Rouge. "It was at a place called Jim Beam Country, during the Urban Cowboy craze, and the audience wasn't listening to a single word Billy Joe was singin.' They wanted to hear Johnny Lee covers or whatever," Fletcher says. "At one point Billy Joe announced, 'There ain't a cowboy among the whole bunch of ya. Y'all look silly with your feathers in your hats.'" A few roughnecks had to be held back by their buddies after the set, but soon Shaver and band were on the road to the next adventure.
These days, the mellower Shaver carries an attaché case wherever he goes, even if, on a recent Wednesday afternoon, it's just to Griff's truck stop near Crawford for chicken-fried steak. His usual lunch partner when he's not on the road is mechanic Jim Hollingsworth, his friend since seventh grade. "After he started getting some fame in Nashville, some people asked me if I knew Billy Joe Shaver," Hollingsworth says. "They said I went to school with him, he was in my class, but I told 'em I didn't know any Billy Joe Shaver. Only Shaver I knew was Bubba Shaver."
Billy Joe was always Bubba Shaver until he started signing his poetry with his real name after he dropped out of school. "It was considered a sissy thing to write poems, so I made them print them anonymously in the school paper," Shaver says. His words made an impact on his ninth-grade homeroom teacher at La Vega High, who was the first to tell Bubba he had real talent. Hollingsworth and Shaver recently paid a nursing home visit to Mrs. Legg, now 101 years old, and she recited one of Billy Joe's old poems from memory.
On the way back from Griff's, Shaver pulls his white van alongside Chapel Hill cemetery and gets out. "I prayed every day to Jesus, asking him how I could help my son," Shaver says as he takes a slow walk to the middle of the graveyard. "But that heroin is stronger than love." Eddy is buried next to his mother, whom Billy Joe said he never really got over losing in 1999.
The father and son had their share of squabbles. "Blood Is Thicker Than Water," from the new album, even contains some salacious details. After Billy Joe goes after Eddy's new wife as "the devil's daughter," portraying her as someone who'd steal the rings off his dead grandmother's fingers, Eddy takes a verse out on his old man. "I've seen you puking your guts and runnin' with sluts while you were married to my mother," he sings before coming around with, "But you're always gonna be my father."
"Eddy was always straight with me," Billy Joe says of the son who was also his best friend. "He told me after he'd first tried heroin that he didn't know what the big deal was." Some of Eddy's friends were using regularly, according to Billy Joe, and it wasn't long before the son was hooked.
"I don't blame Eddy because I've been there myself, but I still can't believe he would do that to himself." Billy Joe runs his fingers across the letters of Eddy's name, the closest he can come to touching his only son.
Later, Shaver tells the story of how drugs and alcohol almost drove him to end his life. It was in the late '70s, and the family of three was living in Nashville. He says one night he awoke from a drunk to see Jesus sitting at the foot of his bed, shaking his head. "I got up and got in my pickup and just started driving." He ended up standing on a cliff and contemplating jumping off. Like the Robert Duvall character in The Apostle, featuring Shaver as the best friend, Billy Joe asked Jesus for direction. After dropping to his knees and praying, Shaver headed back down the trail and started humming a song that had just come to his head: "I'm just an old chunk of coal," he sang, "but I'm gonna be a diamond someday." The next morning he and Brenda started packing for Houston, where he would be away from his accomplices in sin.
As he kicked his habits cold turkey, living off random royalty checks and wasting away, Shaver got a call out of the blue that would put him back on track. It was from Willie Nelson, whom he'd known since the late '50s honky-tonk circuit. Nelson and Emmylou Harris were about to start a tour of arenas and, although there wasn't time to put his name on the bill, Shaver could open the shows and make a few hundred bucks a night.
"I can't tell you all the times Willie's bailed me out of situations, but that was a big 'un," Shaver says. "I wasn't sure if I'd ever get up on a stage again."
It was a call from Nelson on the morning of December 31, 2000, that helped Shaver get through his most difficult day. "When Eddy died, Willie said I needed to be among friends." Shaver had a New Year's Eve gig scheduled at a club near Nelson's Pedernales ranch outside of Austin, and Billy Joe was finally able to convince himself that Eddy would want the show to go on. It was, Billy Joe says, the toughest gig of his life, the memories flooding each song until Nelson and pals had to take over. But he got through the night, thanks to some advice from Nelson, who lost a son to suicide several years ago. "Willie told me that there are just some thoughts that I'm gonna have to learn to let go, like 'What could I have done differently to save him?'"
At Eddy's grave, Billy Joe picks up a little Texas flag that somebody stuck in the dirt, not yet covered with grass. "You will always be around," it says. "That's from 'Live Forever,' that song we wrote together," Billy Joe says. Eddy had that beautiful melody and the guitar part, and after he played it for me it just stuck in my head. I thought, 'Man, I gotta really come up with something special for this one.'"
A few months later, Billy Joe was driving the band back from a gig one night--he always drives--and he started thinking about how some songs seem to have lives of their own.
With Eddy's melody in his head on that long drive home, Billy Joe came up with the verse that brings context to the crazy life of a drifter with a sack fulla "cowboy songs."
"Nobody here will ever find me/But I will always be around/Just like the songs I leave behind me/I'm gonna live forever now."
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