The Ballad of Billy Joe

Hard times are nothing new to outlaw-country pioneer Billy Joe Shaver -- but they seem to have gotten harder in recent years

Shaver has consistently released top-notch efforts. The acoustic, a cappella Christian-themed Victory, named for Billy Joe's mother, is a gospel-blues testament on which Shaver's voice stands out, stark and soulful. Electric Shaver, from 1999, is more up-tempo and includes "New York City," one of the finest tunes ever on the theme of a country boy relishing life in the big city. Shaver and Eddy had just completed The Earth Rolls On when Eddy died on New Year's Eve.

"We never really did make it," says Shaver of the band's critical success. "Everybody liked us and everybody was in awe of us, but we never really did make it."

Shaver's music could be brutally honest at times, as on "Blood Is Thicker Than Water," from Earth, in which Billy Joe and Eddy trade jabs about Shaver's past affairs ("I've seen you puking your guts and running with sluts while you were married to my mother," Eddy sings) and Eddy's junkie girlfriend ("the devil's daughter," Billy Joe calls her). In "Leavin' Amarillo," Shaver trashes the treeless cowtown where the clubs always stiff him: "I'm down at the station just trying to buy some gasoline/I'm leaving Amariller and I ain't coming back again/You can't buy beer here at the grocery store/But I won't have to worry about that anymore/Because I'm leaving Amariller and I ain't comin' back again/Screw you/You ain't worth passing through."

Billy Joe and Eddy Shaver
Billy Joe and Eddy Shaver

Reflecting on why his career never took off like those of fellow outlaws Willie and Waylon, Shaver comes up with several reasons. "I didn't have management," he says, "and if I did have a manager, he'd be the worst one in the world. And on top of that, I stepped on a few toes here and there. If I used just a little diplomacy -- but then again, that's how my family is. Eddy was that way, and I'm that way. We're all right straight to the point. But that ain't no big deal, because if the popularity had come, I wouldn't have wrote the songs that I've written today, and then if I'd heard them on the radio or something or somebody singin' 'em, I'd say I'd give every penny I have to just write that song. So what are you going to do? I really can't argue about it."

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