A diamond, someday
Billy Joe Shaver, last of a breed of two-fisted Texas songwriters
These days Texas is getting more than its share of bad press, at least in California. Which is too bad, because so many of the people responsible for that—you know, the ones who recently relocated to the District of Columbia —are really carpetbaggers from such places as Connecticut, Wyoming and Utah.
Real Texans are cool. Especially the ones who play music, the ones who cut their teeth singing and playing guitar in front of barrooms full of rowdies. In fact, whenever country music gets too polluted by some mutant suburb and western variant emanating from Nashville, you can count on a Texan or two to bring the music back to its senses.
Take the early 1970s, when much of Nashville’s output had congealed into a syrupy concoction they were calling “countrypolitan.” In Texas, Willie Nelson and a few others, who’d had checkered careers as Nashville songwriters, were playing a uniquely Texan hybrid that combined classic honky-tonk with folk, Mexican and even jazz, and were writing lyrics that were more poetic and introspective than the typical country tune, yet paradoxically more forthright.
One of those others was Billy Joe Shaver. At one point, Shaver had got drunk with a former member of Buddy Holly’s band, Waylon Jennings, and he got Jennings to promise to record an album of songs he’d written. Later, Shaver threatened to kick Jennings’ ass if he didn’t make good on the promise.
The result, Jennings’ 1973 album Honky Tonk Heroes, launched country music’s outlaw movement, which pretty much saved the genre from what a later Shaver song would describe as “those cookie cutters up in Tennessee.”
Almost three decades later, Shaver is still writing and singing, and he’s still an outsider. He’s 61 now, and the past two years haven’t been kind to him—first his mother then his ex-wife, the mother of his son, died of cancer. Then, last New Year’s Eve, his 38-year-old son and musical partner Eddy, who with him formed the nucleus of a band called Shaver, died from a heroin overdose.
Eddy’s guitar playing, while heavily influenced by the likes of Duane Allman and Eric Clapton—i.e., way more rock than country—nevertheless had settled down over time into the kind of intuitive accompaniment that his father’s songs required. You can hear it on their latest and final album together, prophetically titled The Earth Rolls On.
And you can sense the father’s loss, even over the phone from the Hitone Club in Memphis where Shaver is getting ready to play, with former Joe Ely Band guitarist Jesse Taylor filling Eddy’s spot.
“I’m OK … “ Shaver’s voice trails off. “Still try and try again, you know? Just keeping on. You don’t really know why, but you just keep on going.”
One song on the new disc is an eerie collaboration between father and son, “Blood Is Thicker Than Water.” First Billy Joe sings: “You come dancing in here with the devil’s daughter,” before describing his daughter-in-law as a witch who’d steal rings off her dying mother-in-law. Not to be outdone, Eddy sings: “I’ve seen you puking out your guts and running with sluts when you was married to my mother.” It’s a hard-core take on family dynamics, but it finishes with a message of Christian redemption.
Writing songs seems to have provided Shaver with its own saving graces over the years. “It’s the cheapest psychiatrist there is,” he says laughing, “so I keep on doin’ it.”
Not all of his songs, however, are so inward reaching. The “cookie cutters” line comes from “Leavin’ Amarillo"—"a true story,” Shaver chuckles—which also rails on a woman with “an ass about 13 axe handles wide.” The song also has a memorable chorus: “Screw you,” he sings.
It’s in character with one of Texas music’s more salient qualities. "There ain’t a lot of beating around the bush," Shaver sums up. "It’s pretty much straight ahead."