By Lauren Wise
By New Times
By Amanda Savage
By Jason P. Woodbury
By Troy Farah
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Back at home, Billy Joe clashed with his stepfather and often took off on freight trains or rode his thumb right outta Waco. When he turned 17, his mother signed the papers for him to join the Navy. "I was glad to go, and they were glad to see me go," he says.
The Navy experience didn't turn out too well for the hotheaded recruit, however. Shaver spent the last several months of his enlistment in the brig at Portsmouth, New Hampshire, after he decked an officer at a party. Billy Joe was facing a court-martial, but after penning a plea to the commanding officer, explaining his side of the scuffle, Shaver says he was released with an honorable discharge. He's always managed to find the words that would get him out of seemingly hopeless situations.
To know Billy Joe Shaver and not have a story to tell is like coming home from a Willie Nelson picnic without a sunburn. There are famous Billy Joe stories, like how he lost three fingers at the knuckle on his right hand in a saw accident at Cameron Mills when he was 22. Shaver had read an article about how a man in Asia had recently had his severed fingers reattached, so he gathered up his three lopped digits. "The doctor said we couldn't do anything for me," Shaver says. "I told him that in Japan they just sewed somebody's fingers back together, and he said, 'Well, this ain't Japan.'" He returned to work with his hands bandaged and his fingers in a jar. When a woman at the mill asked for his fingers for some sort of voodoo ritual, he gave them to her.
There's also the one about the time he spent six months in Nashville tracking down Waylon Jennings, who had promised to do an entire album of Shaver songs after hearing "Willie the Wandering Gypsy and Me" during an impromptu guitar pull in a trailer backstage at the infamous Dripping Springs Reunion show in 1972. "Waylon asked me if I had any more of them ol' cowboy songs, and I said I had a whole sack full of 'em," Shaver says. But afterward Jennings wouldn't return Billy Joe's calls.
Frustrated and broke, Billy Joe finally made contact with Jennings in the hall of a recording studio late at night. "I told him that if he didn't make good on his promise to record my songs I'd whip his ass right there. I was so [angry] I didn't even notice these two big biker bodyguards at his side." Before the two could pounce on Shaver, Jennings raised a halting hand and sat down with the fuming songwriter to talk about the album that, hey-Hoss-I'm-still-gonna-do-it-but-I-just-been-busy.
"Waylon asked me if I knew just how close I came to getting a major ass-whipping," Shaver says with a laugh.
When Jennings recorded Honky-Tonk Heroes in 1973, he broke enough rules for the album to be considered the opening salvo of the "outlaw country" movement. Besides recording 10 tracks by an unproven songwriter, Jennings insisted on using his touring band in the studio. The result was a record that holds up like Creedence Clearwater Revival, riding a great groove on the title track and then taking a touching turn on "You Asked Me To," Billy Joe's love song to Brenda.
But even as the 33-year-old Shaver finally caught his big break, he fought Jennings every step of the way in the studio. "He wanted to change some lyrics or do the songs a little bit different and I didn't want him to," says Shaver, whose songs are so much a part of him that he never sings other writers' material in concert.
Though he's stubborn about his precious compositions, the word that friends most often use to describe Shaver is "humble." Austin guitarist Stephen Bruton, who played on the 1973 debut Old Five and Dimers, says that whatever success Shaver has attained since then, including writing a Top 5 hit for John Anderson ("I'm Just an Old Chunk of Coal"), hasn't changed him a whit. He still carries himself like "the hobo with stars in my crown" of one of his earliest songs, "Ride Me Down Easy." Tell him he's the best damn songwriter Texas has ever produced, and Billy Joe will start talking about Van Zandt and Willie Nelson.
Shaver earns a nod as the musical poet laureate of the Songwriter State, not just because Shaver has the ability, like Springsteen, like Waits, like Prine, to nail an entire set of emotions and circumstances with a single line (his most famous: "Well, the devil made me do it the first time/The second time I done it on my own" from "Black Rose"), but also because in Billy Joe's lyrics you can hear music. The rhythm of his words is all the beat you need, as witnessed by this classic chorus: "I been to Georgia on a fast train, honey/I wudn't born no yesterday/Got a good Christian raisin' and an eighth-grade education/Ain't no need in y'all treatin' me this way."
Billy Joe wrote "Georgia on a Fast Train" after repeated snubs by Nashville when he first started hitchhiking there in the late '60s. He had been trying to follow his thumb to L.A. but couldn't get a ride West, so he crossed Interstate 10 outside of Houston and caught a truck driver headed to Tennessee. Unable to afford a demo tape, Shaver tried to play his songs for record execs but was turned away at the front desk. Finally, he got Bobby Bare to listen, and soon Music Row was buzzing about the square-jawed hayseed from Waco who could put complex issues in simple turns as he did with his Vietnam morality ditty "Good Christian Soldiers" ("It's hard to be a Christian soldier when you tote a gun"). Kris Kristofferson, who only recorded his own material at the time, laid claim to the song, thus kicking off Shaver's career as a Nashville songwriter.