Billy Joe Shaver: His Songs Are the Key to His Survival
Interview and story by Don Wilcock
Willie Nelson talked Billy Joe Shaver into performing on New Year’s Eve, 2000 at Poodie’s outside of Austin, the same day Shaver’s son Eddy died of a heroin overdose. Shaver was on stage the night his mother died, and he also performed the same day he was acquitted of murder in 2010 after shooting Billy Bryant Coker in the face at Papa Joe’s Texas Saloon in Loredo. On Tuesday night, country music’s first outlaw plays the Ale House in Troy.
Even if Shaver hadn’t written all but one of the songs on Waylon Jennings’ Honky Tonk Heroes album, you could say that he epitomizes the country outlaw image. But he did, and that album – released in 1973 – today is generally considered the cornerstone of that whole sub-genre of country music.
Billy Joe’s dad beat his wife so badly when she was pregnant with him that it’s a miracle he was born. Brought up by his grandmother, Billy Joe only made it through the eighth grade before he had to go to work to keep food on the table. He married the same woman three times, the last time to nurse her to her death by cancer. The only consistency in his life has been his songs. In fact, he says songwriting has saved his life. He’s 73.
“I knew what I had when I was young. I started talkin,’ I started writin,’ makin’ stuff up in songs, you know. Or listening to other people singing what they’re singing. It just came to me. I just assumed it was a gift from God, and I was damn lucky to get it, and that’s the way I treated it. I’ve done the best I could with it, and if it’s a gift from God, then I’m lucky to have it.”
He plays guitar in spite of losing parts of three fingers in a saw mill accident. His latest album, Live at Billy Bob’s Texas, includes originals made famous by everyone from Willie Nelson and Johnny Cash to Kris Kristofferson. “Georgia on a Fast Train” alone (on the new album) has been covered by Tennessee Ernie Ford, the Allman Brothers Band, Johnny Cash, Dickey Betts & Great Southern, Commander Cody & His Lost Planet Airmen, Twangbangers, Two Cow Garage and at least 17 others…