Some years ago when Billy Joe Shaver was in town, Steve Morse, then of The Boston Globe, described him as “an American original.” I don’t know whether Steve invented the phrase; it has become so commonplace of late it sounds hackneyed. But I thought it was true then, and I still do. Billy Joe was as American as Grandma’s Apple Pie (which he wrote about) and utterly unique, an unlikely combination of rustic stumblebum, roustabout Texas bar-fly, and natural poet as you’ll ever find.
Billy Joe left school after the eighth grade, and if he ever paid any attention to literature after that, I haven’t heard. But he had an ear for the Art of the Song, even as a lad. So it was perhaps inevitable that he should end up in Nashville, just when the syrupy Countrypolitan sound was whispering its last gasp, and just when aspiring tough guys like Bobby Bare and Waylon Jennings were aiming to put some grit in Music City’s gravy.
I must admit my colleague and friend Ol’ Sinc (Brian Sinclair) saw a lot more in Billy Joe’s songs than I did. I liked them all right, even admired them, but I didn’t always understand them. I was more of a homebody than Sinc, who really cottoned to the honky-tonk life—no, he wasn’t loud or violent, and he didn’t dance, but he got out to the clubs to enjoy straight bourbon and listen to the music. He liked the idea of the Honky-Tonk Hero, and Billy Joe embodied it. I wasn’t quite sure what one was.
Billy Joe’s songs were personal, like Haggard’s, but less universal, more. . . imagistic. That’s a word Billy Joe wouldn’t use, but you had to know what Thunderbird was to appreciate “When the Word Was Thunderbird.” And who or what was ‘Black Rose’? When Billy Joe sings about firing up his “Ragged Old Truck” and “hauling my self into town,” you have to know that it originally wasn’t ‘ragged’, or for that matter, ‘self’.
Billy Joe was also elusive. You had to reflect a bit to hear what he meant. Sinc’s favorite Billy Joe song was “Old Five and Dimers.” Here are the lyrics:
I’ve spent a lifetime making up my mind to be
More than the measure of what I thought others could see
Good luck and fast bucks are too far and too few between
For Cadillac buyers and old five and dimers like me
She stood beside me letting me know she would be
Something to lean on when everything ran out on me
Fenced yards ain’t hole cards and like as not never will be
Reason for rhymers and old five and dimers like me
It’s taking me so long and now that I know I believe
All that I do or say is all I ever will be
Too much ain’t enough for old five and dimers like me
Too far and too high and too deep ain’t too much to see
And old five and dimers is all I intended to be.
This is a whole ‘nother level past the usual country song, with sentences that run over two, even three verses. What did he mean, “Fenced yards ain’t hold cards and like as not never will be/ Reason for rhymers and old five and dimers like me”? Well, I get it now, and so probably do you, but it’s not exactly the stuff of top-ten lyrics. It’s a personal statement, not exactly sad but genuine, and I think Sinc saw something of himself in it: ambition ain’t all it’s cracked up to be.
Here’s the song:
On November 29th,1995 Sinc and John Lincoln Wright (another musical poet) sat down with Billy Joe for a few minutes in the basement at Johnny D’s Uptown Restaurant and Music Club in Somerville (MA). I don’t know if it ever aired, but I was fortunate enough to find it in a box of ‘HAH Stuff’ last year. Here they are. It starts off with Sinc trying to make sure the mic is working. . .
Billy Joe mentions selling papers in Corsicana as a boy. Much later he wrote a song about it, a wonderful evocation of the power of memory—‘Corsicana Daily Sun’:
Much has been written about Billy Joe’s restless life, which works its way into so many of his songs. There was a documentary made in 2006, called A Portrait of Billy Joe, but it doesn’t seem to be available now. A 2005 autobiography, co-written with Brad Reagan, Honky Tonk Hero, still seems to be in print. Billy Joe Shaver’s recordings were never commercial blockbusters, though many of his songs were hits by others, and arguably it was the whole album of Billy Joe songs (Honky Tonk Heros) that sparked Wayon Jennings’s career as an aspiring ‘Outlaw’ in Nashville. From Bill Friskics-Warren’s New York Times obituary:
Reflecting on this disparity in a 2014 interview with the NPR program “Morning Edition,” Mr. Shaver admitted that he always believed he would never be as popular an artist as the stars who made his songs famous.
“The songs were so big, they were too big for me,” he said of the material he wrote during the heady early days of the outlaw movement. “I couldn’t possibly get them across the way Waylon could.”
Billy Joe’s only child, Eddy became a virtuouso country/rock-’n’-roll guitarist, and touring with his father as the duo called simply ‘Shaver’, really helped to rejuvenate the aging Texan’s career. As you heard in the interview, John Lincoln Wright noted that Eddy’s rocking chops helped bring out a younger crowd, who heard songs already decades old, as if they were new. And Billy Joe kept writing new ones, too, often to a rock-’n’-roll beat.
The act Shaver came to a sudden end in December, 2000, when Eddy died, reportedly of a heroin overdose. Only the previous year, Billy Joe had lost his wife Brenda, after marrying her for the third time. He and Eddy had just recorded what turned out to be their last album together, The Earth Rolls On. Jay Orr reports on a CMT interview:
The poetry presented itself a few days before the interview, on a rainy afternoon in Waco, when Shaver went out to visit the graves of his wife and son, buried next to each other.
“I was really breaking down,” the 61-year-old tunesmith recalled, his blue eyes nearly closed in a squint, his strong chin thrust out and his hair, now white, moving slightly in the wind. “I was afraid I was going to have to go to the VA [hospital] or something and check myself in. I went out there and I was really crying bad.
“When I got to the graves, there was a white dove by Brenda’s grave. And someone had put a little cherub, a little angel, on Eddy’s grave, with a guitar in its hand. There was a Texas flag stuck there. In that white part, it said ‘I will always be around.’
“In the rain, there was a strand of a spider web coming from the top of Brenda’s flower all the way over to Eddy’s flower. I thought, ‘This is enough time for me.’ They’re all right and they’re together and I should go on and do whatever it is I have to do. I don’t feel like I have to do anything but live until I die. I can’t imagine having any grand mission in life. I’ve done what I can.
“Nothing’s as much fun as it used to be,” he continued, his voice wavering slightly, “and it’s not gonna be. It’s gonna be just, endure and go on. Everybody else has to do it too. There’s a lot of people in worse shape than me.”
He did endure and go on, past a heart attack in 2001, induction into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2004, a notorious bar fight in 2007 when he shot and wounded his opponent (acquitted for self-defense eventually), and still writing and singing. It came to an end October 28, 2020, when he died of a ‘massive stroke’.
Father and son were together at the show when Sinc and Lincoln interviewed Billy Joe in 1995. Towards the end Billy Joe talks about his “rough” religious songs, and one recalling his mother: ‘My Mother’s Name Is Victory.’ Eddy plays guitar, and the long coda:
Billy Joe Shaver: That Corsicana Daily Sun is shining bright for you now. /CL
PS If you link to this post from the WHRB website, the interview might not play. Try coming directly to this site.