Ode to Billy Joe

Billy Joe Shaver has a stunning new album in stores. But he can't enjoy it.

Then came the call to come down to Dripping Springs in the summer of 1972, where he would meet Jennings. Eventually, his life and country music would change.


"I really do think that Billy Joe has an angel following him around," says Freddy Fletcher, Willie Nelson's nephew, who played drums for Shaver in the late '70s and early '80s. "We'd find ourselves in terrible predicaments out on the road, but somehow Billy Joe would find a way out of it." Once, during a snowstorm near Minneapolis, Shaver's van skidded off the road and was sideswiped by an oncoming truck. The impact shoved Shaver's van back into its rightful lane.

Honky-tonk hero Billy Joe Shaver.
Jim Herrington
Honky-tonk hero Billy Joe Shaver.
Shaver, with his late son, Eddy: "I always figured I'd be 
the first to go."
Jim Herrington
Shaver, with his late son, Eddy: "I always figured I'd be the first to go."

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Scheduled to perform with the Halfwaymen, on Wednesday, June 20. Showtime is 8 p.m.
Nita's Hideaway in Tempe

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Another time, Shaver escaped unscathed after baiting a crowd in Baton Rouge. "It was at a place called Jim Beam Country, during the Urban Cowboy craze, and the audience wasn't listening to a single word Billy Joe was singin'. They wanted to hear Johnny Lee covers or whatever," Fletcher says. "At one point Billy Joe announced, 'There ain't a cowboy among the whole bunch of ya. Y'all look silly with your feathers in your hats.'" A few roughnecks had to be held back by their buddies after the set, but soon Shaver and band were on the road to the next adventure.

These days, the mellower Shaver carries an attaché case wherever he goes, even if, on a recent Wednesday afternoon, it's just to Griff's truck stop near Crawford for chicken-fried steak. His usual lunch partner when he's not on the road is mechanic Jim Hollingsworth, his friend since seventh grade. "After he started getting some fame in Nashville, some people asked me if I knew Billy Joe Shaver," Hollingsworth says. "They said I went to school with him, he was in my class, but I told 'em I didn't know any Billy Joe Shaver. Only Shaver I knew was Bubba Shaver."

Billy Joe was always Bubba Shaver until he started signing his poetry with his real name after he dropped out of school. "It was considered a sissy thing to write poems, so I made them print them anonymously in the school paper," Shaver says. His words made an impact on his ninth-grade homeroom teacher at La Vega High, who was the first to tell Bubba he had real talent. Hollingsworth and Shaver recently paid a nursing home visit to Mrs. Legg, now 101 years old, and she recited one of Billy Joe's old poems from memory.

On the way back from Griff's, Shaver pulls his white van alongside Chapel Hill cemetery and gets out. "I prayed every day to Jesus, asking him how I could help my son," Shaver says as he takes a slow walk to the middle of the graveyard. "But that heroin is stronger than love." Eddy is buried next to his mother, whom Billy Joe said he never really got over losing in 1999.

The father and son had their share of squabbles. "Blood Is Thicker Than Water," from the new album, even contains some salacious details. After Billy Joe goes after Eddy's new wife as "the devil's daughter," portraying her as someone who'd steal the rings off his dead grandmother's fingers, Eddy takes a verse out on his old man. "I've seen you puking your guts and runnin' with sluts while you were married to my mother," he sings before coming around with, "But you're always gonna be my father."

"Eddy was always straight with me," Billy Joe says of the son who was also his best friend. "He told me after he'd first tried heroin that he didn't know what the big deal was." Some of Eddy's friends were using regularly, according to Billy Joe, and it wasn't long before the son was hooked.

"I don't blame Eddy, because I've been there myself, but I still can't believe he would do that to himself." Billy Joe runs his fingers across the letters of Eddy's name, the closest he can come to touching his only son.

Later, Shaver tells the story of how drugs and alcohol almost drove him to end his life. It was in the late '70s, and the family of three was living in Nashville. He says one night he awoke from a drunk to see Jesus sitting at the foot of his bed, shaking his head. "I got up and got in my pickup and just started driving." He ended up standing on a cliff and contemplating jumping off. Like the Robert Duvall character in The Apostle, featuring Shaver as the best friend, Billy Joe asked Jesus for direction. After dropping to his knees and praying, Shaver headed back down the trail and started humming a song that had just come to his head: "I'm just an old chunk of coal," he sang, "but I'm gonna be a diamond someday." The next morning he and Brenda started packing for Houston, where he would be away from his accomplices in sin.

As he kicked his habits cold turkey, living off random royalty checks and wasting away, Shaver got a call out of the blue that would put him back on track. It was from Willie Nelson, whom he'd known since the late '50s honky-tonk circuit. Nelson and Emmylou Harris were about to start a tour of arenas and, although there wasn't time to put his name on the bill, Shaver could open the shows and make a few hundred bucks a night.

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