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

With no shortage of talent but an abundance of hard luck, Billy Joe Shaver has forged a career as one of country music's greatest songwriters by scribbling and weeping whiskey-soaked honky-tonk masterpieces for decades. Appreciated more by his fellow songwriters than by the record-buying public, Shaver has seen his music covered by Bob Dylan, Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, his good pal Willie Nelson, the Allman Brothers, Waylon Jennings, Kris Kristofferson, Jerry Lee Lewis and Patty Loveless, among others. But the best versions of practically all of his songs are the ones he's recorded himself. With a voice as stately as an old oak tree, Shaver can turn a phrase around a chord like a jazz singer, and his ebullient, Texas-born twang belongs in a state museum. However, for various reasons, Shaver's career has had as many downs as it's had ups. And recently his life has been nothing but tragedy.

"My wife's mother passed away," says Shaver, "and then my mother passed away. And then my wife passed away, and then my son passed away, and now I'm here with these two pit bulls."

If it sounds like the punchline to a bad country-music joke, it's not. Both Shaver's mother and wife succumbed to cancer in 1999, and it was during that awful period that his son, Eddy -- co-leader of their band, Shaver -- first got hooked on heroin, the addiction that eventually killed him.

"It was a shock," Shaver says of Eddy's overdose death at age 38 in Waco, Texas, on Dec. 31, "mainly because he'd gotten straight, but he ran into another girl. He had finally got rid of the one who introduced him to that stuff. Of course, that's his arm. It's just as much his fault as hers. His mother was dying. I caught that girl in there taking rings off his mother's fingers. She finally got her folks to get her out of town. She ran up a big bill with all the drug dealers in this town and split, took a bunch of women's jewelry with her."

Shaver now lives alone in Waco with the aforementioned dogs. Despite his grief, Shaver continues to perform, touring the country in support of the recently released The Earth Rolls On, the last record he produced with Eddy. But then, hard times are nothing new to him.

By the time Shaver was born in 1939 in Corsicana, Texas, his daddy was long gone; his mom got by working at a honky-tonk, serving drinks to a roughneck crowd. Shaver claims he regularly walked 10 miles back and forth -- barefoot, no less -- to see shows at the Wonder Bread Co., where, he says, he caught Hank Williams performing before the country great became famous.

Later, after a stint in the Navy during which he met Elvis Presley (who would eventually record Shaver's "You Asked Me To"), Shaver tried his hand at being a cowboy, even trying a bit of bullriding. Around that time, he met a 16-year-old rider and barrel racer, Brenda Tindell, whom he married. And eventually divorced. And remarried, and divorced again. And, finally, married for a third time.

According to Shaver lore, he went down to the side of Interstate 10 outside Houston in the late 1960s and attempted to catch a ride out west to Los Angeles, determined to make it in music. But he had no luck heading west, so he crossed the highway and went east instead, to Nashville. He eventually made it there in the back of a cantaloupe truck.

Several years and many odd jobs later, folks started paying attention to Shaver's hardscrabble tunes about drifters and losers. In the early '70s, the singer befriended Waylon Jennings, whose career-making album, Honky Tonk Heroes, included nine songs written by Shaver. Considered one of the catalysts for the outlaw-country movement of the '70s, Heroes marks the point at which country music began once again to reflect the lives of the working poor in rural America rather than the timid pop-country sound that had been emanating from Nashville at the time. But somehow, Shaver's success never quite matched that of his outlaw brethren.

"During the early '70s," reflects Shaver, "when Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson and Kris Kristofferson were having their day, I was just running amok. Couldn't nobody tell me what to do. But I figured I was still successful as long as I was writing. I wasn't paying attention to the business."

In 1973, Shaver recorded his own debut, Old Five and Dimers Like Me. The single "Georgia on a Fast Train" is a feisty ass-kicker of a song, with Shaver yelping on the 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."

Eddy Shaver had been playing guitar with his father for some time when they decided to form Shaver in the early 1990s. Eddy, who had been Dwight Yoakam's lead guitar player for three years before joining his father, added some mean blues licks to the Shaver sound. The band released the critically acclaimed Tramp on Your Streetin 1993.

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."

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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