Music News

Ode to Billy Joe

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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.

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.

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."

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Michael Corcoran