"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.
"I can't tell you all the times Willie's bailed me out of situations, but that was a big 'un," Shaver says. "I wasn't sure if I'd ever get up on a stage again."
It was another call from Nelson on the morning of December 31, 2000, that helped Shaver get through his most difficult day. "When Eddy died, Willie said I needed to be among friends." Shaver had a New Year's Eve gig scheduled at a club near Nelson's Pedernales ranch outside of Austin, and Billy Joe was finally able to convince himself that Eddy would want the show to go on. It was, Billy Joe says, the toughest gig of his life, the memories flooding each song until Nelson and pals had to take over. But he got through the night, thanks to some advice from Nelson, who lost a son to suicide several years ago. "Willie told me that there are just some thoughts that I'm gonna have to learn to let go, like, 'What could I have done differently to save him?'"
At Eddy's grave, Billy Joe picks up a little Texas flag that somebody stuck in the dirt, not yet covered with grass. "You will always be around," it says. "That's from 'Live Forever,' that song we wrote together," Billy Joe says. Eddy had that beautiful melody and the guitar part, and after he played it for me it just stuck in my head. I thought, 'Man, I gotta really come up with something special for this one.'"
A few months later, Billy Joe was driving the band back from a gig one night -- he always drives -- and he started thinking about how some songs seem to have lives of their own.
With Eddy's melody in his head on that long drive home, Billy Joe came up with the verse that brings context to the crazy life of a drifter with a sack fulla "cowboy songs."
"Nobody here will ever find me/But I will always be around/Just like the songs I leave behind me/I'm gonna live forever now."