BILLY JOE SHAVER'S ONE OF THOSE "HONKY TONK HEROES"
Of the Post-Dispatch
December 15, 2002
Cable channel VH1 likes to turn its "Behind the Music" cameras on rock artists whose careers have come back from the dead. But if the network ever documents country legend Billy Joe Shaver, it will show more than a career being resurrected: It will show a man's soul.
Shaver, 63, the hero and songwriter of the outlaw classic "Honky Tonk Heroes," says he's in a better place now. But he'd almost have to be; he really had only one alternative.
In 1999, he lost both his wife and his mother to cancer. Then, on New Year's Eve 2000, his son and bandmate, Eddy, died of a drug overdose.
"Time heals all wounds," Shaver says, his timeworn Texas drawl poking through the hiss of a contrary cell phone connection from somewhere in New York state. "But the pain don't exactly ever go away. Losin' a child, it's just not natural. But I'm a little more able to handle it now than I was."
With Shaver, the songs tell the story. His new CD "Freedom's Child," the first since 1993 without guitar whiz Eddy, contains the harrowing "Day By Day":
"There's many a moonbeam got lost in the forest,
And many a forest got burnt to the ground
The son went with Jesus to be with his mother
The father just fell to his knees on the ground.
Day by day his heart kept on breaking
And aching to fly to his home in the sky
But now he's arisen from the flames of the forest
With songs from the family that never will die."
Shaver says the song took a long time to write.
"I kept having to rewrite it," he says. "People kept dyin', and it kept changin'. It was so hard emotionally to write that I almost put it down."
Finally, during the recording of "Freedom's Child," Shaver got the push he needed from producer R.S. Field, who has worked with Allison Moorer, Sonny Landreth and Todd Snider, and helmed the classic Shaver album "Tramp on Your Street."
"He said, 'Man, you gotta finish it,'" Shaver said. "So I finally finished it in the studio, and (guitarist) Will Kimbrough just set down and he played and I sang. But it was real hard, a real gut-wrenching song to finish."
It's "strange," Shaver says, that after all he's been through, his career has finally achieved a measure of stability and that, for a change, he's recording for a label, Compadre, that isn't likely to fold under him.
"I'm doin' what I do," he says. "I'll bop till I drop. In fact, I almost dropped. I had the heart attack there, and a quadruple bypass. I actually grew another artery, so I got five instead of four. Strange."
The heart attack came between Eddy Shaver's death and the release of "Freedom's Child." Billy Joe, after ignoring warnings from his doctor, was stricken onstage July 4, 2001, at Gruene Hall in New Braunfels, Texas.
A friend drove him home to Waco, where doctors told him his arteries were so constricted he was getting only 5 percent blood flow to his heart.
"To tell you the truth, I didn't really care if I died," he says in his press biography. "I guess I should have gone then, but there's obviously some reason why I'm still here."
In one sense, Shaver says, songwriting is his therapy; he likes to call it "cheap psychiatry."
"But a lot of the time it's just a hobby with me," he says. "I used to fish and hunt and stuff, but I just write songs now. I enjoy writin' songs."
At Twangfest last summer at the Duck Room, where he'll play again on Monday, Shaver's set contained tunes that were understandably dark. But an equal number were hopeful, reflecting the "good Christian raisin'" he writes about in the autobiographical classic "Georgia on a Fast Train."
Most of Shaver's life is in his songs. "It's what I know the most about," he says.
Shaver was born poor in 1939 in Corsicana, Texas. In the late '40s, he was inspired by a Hank Williams concert, but he didn't act on that inspiration immediately. First, he did a hitch in the Navy that ended when he was drummed out for fighting with an officer.
Later, he worked in a sawmill and lost all the fingers on his right hand. A local doctor reattached two of them, but his days as a laborer were numbered. So he learned to play guitar and get serious about the poetry he had always loved to read and write.
He landed in Nashville, Tenn., in 1966, making $50 a week writing songs for Bobby ("Detroit City") Bare's publishing company, and a name for himself among recording artists: Bare ("Ride Me Down Easy," "A Restless Wind"), Elvis Presley ("Just Because You Asked Me To"), the Allman Bros. ("Sweet Mama") and another pretty fair songwriter, Kris Kristofferson ("Good Christian Soldier").
His reputation as a writer grew, but his own albums went, in varying degrees, nowhere. Then, in 1973, three veins came together to produce gold: Billy Joe Shaver, Waylon Jennings and the Outlaw Country movement.
Jennings, who had wrested creative control from Chet Atkins and the suits at RCA, recorded the album "Honky Tonk Heroes." All but one of its 12 tracks were written by Shaver, including "Honky Tonk Heroes," "Old Five and Dimers Like Me," "Black Rose" and "Ride Me Down Easy."
Shaver is asked whether either man would have had the same success had that album not been cut.
"I wonder about that," Shaver says, "but, you know, everything happens the way it's supposed to. I helped him, and he helped me, too."
Then Shaver chuckles.
"It was kind of a kiss of death in a way because after that, with all those songs that Waylon did, no one else would touch 'em," he says. "I couldn't get anyone else to record them, because he'd already sung 'em, and he sung 'em so good.
"I had other songs, and people'd say, 'If they're so good, why doesn't Waylon record them? So I took 'em back to Waylon, and he said, 'I recorded enough of your songs.' I kept tryin', but he just wouldn't do it."
Shaver is laughing now.
"And not because of the songs, but because of that write-up in Rolling Stone that said I was the real hero of 'Honky Tonk Heroes,' and Waylon got p.o.'d. I said I was sorry, there was nothing I could do about it.
"The ('Honky Tonk Heroes') songs were much bigger than I was. At the time, I wasn't a good enough singer. It took someone like Waylon to do them. It was hard enough to write 'em, much less sing 'em.
"I loved Waylon," Shaver said of his friend, who died in February at 64. "I don't think I'd have done as well without him.
"He'll live forever. And I will, too, now."
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