(This article was originally published on August 19, 1993.)
Personal growth frequently involves a sense of loss, but rarely is that loss as literal and painful as it was in the instant that Billy Joe Shaver decided to devote his life to songwriting. Earlier, he'd had premonitions. There was the boyhood experience of walking 10 miles barefoot to hear Hank Williams, recounted in the title song to Shaver's riveting new Tramp On Your Street album. There were the earlier memories of his grandma rocking him to sleep in their dirt-poor Corsicana home, telling him that one day he'd be a singer with the Grand Ole Opry.
But it wasn't until Billy Joe got his fingers caught in the chain of the sawmill, severing the first two on his right hand just below the knuckle, that he realized that the creative life was the life for him.
"I'd been writing poetry and stuff, but not letting anybody see it," said Shaver on a recent morning at the Continental Club, where a video crew was preparing a shoot for Shaver's The Hottest Thing in Town, with Joe Ely, Rosie Flores and other Lone Star honky-tonkers waiting to serve as extras. "When I pulled my fingers out of the chain, I realized right then that I wasn't doing what I was supposed to be doing."
Having read an article about Japanese doctors surgically reattaching various appendages, Shaver grabbed the fingers from the floor, jumped into his pickup truck and rushed to the doctor, hoping that he could sew them back on.
"The doctor said, `Man, you've had a little accident,' " remembered Shaver.
"And I said, `Yeah, a little bit, but I've got the fingers and I want you to sew 'em on.' "
"He looked at the fingers and said, `Kid, you can't sew fingers back on and have 'em work like that.'"
"And I said, `Well, I read this article about how they do it in Japan.'"
"And he said, `Well, this ain't Japan,' " continued Shaver with a hearty laugh.
Thus began the evolution of one of the foremost songwriters in progressive country (as well as one of the more rudimentary eight-finger guitarists, since Shaver had never played the instrument before the accident). There has never been any doubt that Shaver has lived the hardscrabble life about which he writes. In the "outlaw" heyday of the early '70s, it was said more than once that "What Waylon Jennings' image is is what Billy Joe Shaver really is."
At a time when Nashville was more receptive to writing that cut closer to the bone, Shaver's brand of white-man's blues found quick acceptance. After Bobby Bare, Kris Kristofferson and Tom T. Hall recorded early Shaver covers, Waylon Jennings released an album-length celebration of Shaver's songwriting with 1973's Honky Tonk Heroes, a defining moment in musical outlawry. Shaver followed with Old Five and Dimers Like Me, which was also hailed as a classic.
Though other artists continued to score with Shaver's rough-hewn material - both John Anderson and Johnny Cash made his I'm Just an Old Chunk of Coal their own - both the trends of the times and business considerations beyond Shaver's control worked to his detriment. When the Monument Records for which he recorded went out of business, Shaver switched to Capricorn, which also went belly up. His songwriting catalog was bought by Michael Jackson, whose publishing administrators didn't seem to have much of an idea who Billy Joe was, let alone what to do with him.
During this same period, country music was becoming Urban Cowboy-ed, and no one was likely to mistake the weathered Shaver for John Travolta. And there was all sorts of talk about how Billy Joe was too busy living the outlaw's life to turn his experience into music.
"I was pretty much out there, but if I hadn't been living that way, I couldn't have written those songs," said Shaver. "Honky Tonk Heroes and Ain't No God in Mexico, and that whole album that Waylon did was songs that came out of hard living.
"I always wonder if someone looks at a songwriter and thinks that he should just be all cleaned up and pretty like them guys that sing the songs, and still be able to write the songs. And it's just not possible. You've got to live 'em in order to write about 'em."
How wild was he?
"I guess you'd have to ask Willie or Waylon or some of them," said Shaver.
So I did.
"Fortunately, none of us remember," said a laughing Nelson, calling from upstate New York. "There were about 10 blurry years back there. Whether we really had to live like that is debatable, but everybody from Hank Williams on thinks they got to half-kill themselves before they can be successful."
Such a backdrop makes Shaver's recent turnaround all the more remarkable. Mostly sober and clean through the '90s - "I slide back every once in a while, but I get up real quick," said Shaver - he had been playing freebies at Grizwald's less than a year ago, working as an acoustic duo with Jesse Taylor, when the Praxis label in Nashville offered him a deal through Zoo Records for the first Shaver album in six years. Zoo has most of its strength in alternative-rock circles (with Matthew Sweet, Green Jelly and Austin's Flowerhead on its roster), while Praxis has been offering alternatives to the Nashville mainstream from Jason and the Scorchers through Webb Wilder and Sonny Landreth.
"We've always been the guys on the left bank of the creek in Nashville," said producer R.S. Field, long a fan of Shaver's, whose work with Wilder, Landreth and now Shaver shows an uncanny knack for retaining the integrity of roots-oriented artists while sharpening their dynamics for the contemporary marketplace. "We've always been fond of country music, and look at it like blues and rock 'n' roll, as a music with a past that connects it to the present. And I think that's Nashville's biggest fault.
"Billy Joe was like the first country artist that I went, `This is as cool as the Who,' " said Field. "We weren't trying to make a rock 'n' roll record, and we weren't trying to not make a country record. It was our ambition to do a roadhouse renaissance for people who don't know about Billy Joe or have written him off."
Though Shaver has been known up to now as an artist who never quite recaptured the magic of Old Fivers and Dimers Like Me - whose subsequent albums have suffered from a sound that was too slick, or songs that weren't quite as good - Tramp On Your Street represents the most powerful performance of his career. With electric guitar from son Eddy (who has also toured with Dwight Yoakam) charging the music, the album brings a new edge to old favorites such as Georgia on a Fast Train and Old Chunk of Coal, while recent songs such as Heart of Texas, If I Give My Soul and the title track rank with the most autobiographically incisive and inspirational of his career.
"We wanted to do something that would be around for awhile," said Shaver, whose refusal to bend to the dictates of contemporary trends or categories is reflected in the backbone and muscle of the music.
The album quickly found a champion in Nelson, who was so impressed upon hearing a pre-release cassette that he offered Shaver a bunch of touring dates and arranged for his manager Mark Rothbaum to start handling Shaver's affairs as well.
"It's kind of like Atlanta, with the planes," joked Shaver. "Everything goes through Willie."
"I've always liked Billy Joe's songs, but this particular album has just got a great sound to it, and Eddy and everybody's playing better than ever," said Nelson. "There's a lot of East Texas, and it shows through not only in his writing, but in his singing. He's just real; there's not one phony drop of blood in him."