And I just thought I’d mention, my Grandma’s old age pension
Is the reason why I’m standing here today
I got all my country learning, milking and a churning
Pickin’ cotton, raisin’ hell, and bailin’ hay
Billy Joe Shaver is the stuff of legend. Grew up poor and rough in Texas, lost a couple of fingers in a sawmill accident. Apparently born an earthy poet, touched by the finger of God to become a bard of the great 1970s Outlaw movement in country music. Legendary drinker, doper and hell-raiser — mad, bad and dangerous to know. Born-again Christian, dogged by tragedy.
Hell, the man isn’t just one of the greatest of the Outlaw songwriters — he embodies the whole ethos. Waylon and Willie were mavericks, sure enough, but neither of them ever shot a man in the face.
That’s right. In 2007, Billy Joe got into a beef at a bar with a man named Billy Coker and ended up putting a .22 bullet in his face. There are varying accounts of what went down, of course, but you can put it down to a heavy dose of that prickly Texas pride and let it go at that. The two men had words. Coker was apparently belligerent and mouthy and kept stirring drinks with a knife. Billy Joe has a temper and doesn’t like to be told to shut up. You get the picture. They take it outside and Billy Joe lets him have it with a .22 revolver. He claimed self defense, though it seems pretty likely that he at least put himself in the position to need self-defending. As a story in Texas Monthly recounts it, “The .22-caliber bullet entered (Coker’s) upper lip, knocked out a tooth and a crown, and ended up in the back of his neck (doctors left it there because it was so close to his carotid artery). Billy Joe was indicted for aggravated assault with a deadly weapon.”
Billy Joe managed to charm his way into an acquittal.
When the prosecutor asked him why he didn’t just leave when things got heated with Coker, he said — from the stand no less:
“Ma’am, I’m from Texas. If I were chickenshit, I would have left, but I’m not.” … The prosecutor also asked if Billy Joe was jealous because Billy was talking to his wife, and the singer replied, “I get more women than a passenger train can haul. I’m not jealous.”
That’s the way you do it, at least in Texas. Quoting an old Jimmie Rodgers lyric (“T for Texas”) no less. It just don’t get any more Outlaw than that.
That’s the kinda thing that makes a man a legend — but it can obscure what really makes Billy Joe Shaver. He’s simply a great songwriter. A natural-born genius at spinning gold out of three chords and the truth. He wrote all but one of the songs on Waylon Jennings’ “Honky Tonk Heroes,” the 1973 album that could be said to have launched the whole Outlaw bit (which would soon get out of hand as much for Billy Joe as it did for Waylon). Listen to that album today, and it holds up every bit as strong as it did when it hit the staid Nashville establishment like a double-barreled blast of buckshot. The songs are classic, timeless musings on the life of the modern day drifter. Stripped down to the basics — some of ’em had only three instruments on ’em.
Possibly the single most important album in my life.
After falling out of fashion — and into an abyss of drink and drug abuse — Billy Joe Shaver came storming back onto the scene in the 1990s on the strength of that old-time religion, new songs and the rattle and roar of his son Eddy’s Stratocaster. Holy shit that boy could play. With Eddy as his sidekick and co-writer, Billy Joe barnstormed the country and many folks discovered him for the first time as a performer in his own right. But Eddy was a troubled soul and in 2000 he died of a heroin overdose. Willie Nelson — who had lost his own son to suicide — came and got Billy Joe and made him get up on stage. Keep on keeping on or die.
Billy Joe had also lost the wife he had married three separate times to cancer. Hit by loss and tragedy from every direction, he almost checked out. He had a heart attack right on stage. He lived through it whether he wanted to or not, and he’s still on the road.
Texas Monthly Magazine has done a number of fine features on him because, well, if you were a Texas magazine, you would too. There isn’t a man anywhere who makes better copy than Billy Joe Shaver. Read ’em here and here. But what you’ve really gotta do is just listen. Cock your ear to the Oklahoma Wind…