More From Steve Crawford In Memory of Billy Joe Shaver – The Wacko from Waco
Billy Joe Shaver has never had, nor sought, a life of comfort. He was born in Corsicana, Texas in 1939, two months after his father had brutally beaten his mother while Billy Joe was in utero. His mother left him behind in Corsicana as a baby to work in a bar/honky tonk in Waco named the Green Gables – it was not the type of establishment that one visited to enhance their reputation in the community. He was raised by his grandmother, who died when Shaver was 12 years old, but ensured that he always went to church. During Shaver’s life he has actively sought out fistfights, dropped acid, shot a man in the face, and wasn’t allowed to reenlist in the Navy due to his natural aggressiveness, but he’s always professed a strong Christian faith.
His love of music came at an early age. Before he was ten years old, he snuck out of his home to see Hank Williams and the Light Crust Doughboys perform. Shaver dropped out of school after eighth grade (as referenced in his song “Georgia On A Fast Train”), but receiving positive comments on his poetry writing from his high school literature teacher was encouragement that he never forgot. After losing his virginity at a Waco brothel, Shaver worked as a truck driver, joined the Navy, lost almost three fingers at a sawmill job, worked as a rodeo cowboy, sold cars, and developed a songwriting and alcohol based friendship with Townes Van Zandt.
Shaver went to Nashville in 1966 and worked for years as a staff songwriter for Bobby Bare’s publishing company. He didn’t receive his first break until 1971, when Kris Kristofferson recorded his composition “Good Christian Soldier.” It was also his first major lesson in Nashville songwriting – Kristofferson changed one word of the song and took a co-writing credit. The next year, Shaver recorded his first album, “Old Five and Dimers Like Me,” but Monument Records provided no support for the record. Still, the title track as well as “I Been to Georgia On A Fast Train” and “Willy the Wandering Gypsy and Me” became some of Shaver’s best known compositions.
1973 was a pivotal year for Shaver and the outlaw country movement. Waylon Jennings had promised to record an album of Shaver’s songs, then quickly made himself invisible. After tracking him down outside a studio, Shaver threw down this gauntlet: “Waylon, you said you were going to do a whole album of my songs. I’ve got those songs, and you’re going to listen to them – or I’m going to kick your ass in front of God and everybody.” After tensions eased, Waylon became excited about the material and recorded the “Honky Tonk Heroes” album. Filled with Shaver material, the album married the attitude of rock ‘n’ roll with hard country traditionalism. Countrypolitan was being ushered out the door. Waylon and Willie got the credit, but Shaver was a key factor in country music’s evolution during the 1970s. Still, Waylon’s ego took a beating when “Rolling Stone” magazine referred to Shaver as “the real hero of the record.” He never recorded another Shaver song.
According to Shaver, he was asked to participate on the 1976 album “Wanted! The Outlaws,” which became country music’s first certified platinum album. His wife nixed participation on the project and his slot went to Tompall Glaser. Although Bobby Bare had a major hit with the Shaver composition “Ride Me Down Easy,” Elvis recorded a version of “You Asked Me To,” (which had been a Top Ten country hit for Waylon), and The Allman Brothers Band recorded “Sweet Mama,” Shaver never fully capitalized on the success of “Honky Tonk Heroes.” He spent most of the late 1970s in a haze of drugs and alcohol and road gigs. His two 1970s albums were quickly forgotten, but he was back on the charts as a songwriter in 1981 when John Anderson had a major hit with “I’m Just an Old Chunk of Coal (But I’m Gonna Be a Diamond Someday).”
During the 1980s, Shaver pulled his teenage son out of high school and Eddy Shaver, inspired and taught by Dickey Betts, gave new life to Shaver’s song. Their 1993 album “Shaver” featured what where by then standards from the songwriter’s collection and new material like “Live Forever,” one of the most beautiful songs ever written about Christianity. The pull of sin and salvation was as strong in Eddy as it had been for his father. Despite touring with Dwight Yoakam and being revered in the outlaw country community, Eddy never received the recognition he deserved as a guitarist. He died of a heroin overdose on New Year’s Eve in 2000. Every Billy Joe Shaver concert I’ve seen includes a tribute to Eddy (“Star in My Heart”) and an anti-drug speech.
The man who wrote “You Just Can’t Beat Jesus Christ” proved he had not significantly mellowed in 2007, shooting a man in the face after a bar altercation. With free representation from Dick DeGuerin, known as one of the best criminal defense lawyers in Texas, he was acquitted of charges and determined to be acting in self-defense. Shaver would later comment on the incident, stating, “I shot him right between the mother and the fucker.” I’m sure that makes sense in Waco. In 2012, Shaver recorded a double live CD at Billy Bob’s, Fort Worth’s famous tourist honky tonk. As a gig, it was a bit too long, but the resulting artifact provides a solid overview of his career.
Shaver has had to cancel a number of gigs this year due to health reasons, so let’s all pray that he will be back on the road cussing and drinking and praying soon. After living in Texas for eight years, I would say my proudest moment was shaking the two and a half fingered hand of Billy Joe Shaver. He gave me a warm smile and did not shoot me. What more can one ask from a Wacko from Waco.