At Willie Nelson’s 2016 Fourth of July Picnic, Brantley Gilbert wrapped his fingers through the brass knuckles affixed to his microphone and told us about his guns. Gilbert sang a bit, but also posed and preened amid the smoke machine’s haze and made sure everyone knew he was the toughest guy around.
But he wasn’t.
A few hours earlier, on a smaller stage, a gray-haired old man in denim got about 20 minutes to do his part for the Picnic.
When that man was young, he stood in the Nashville street in front of God and everybody and told Waylon Jennings to his face that he was ready to beat him down.
When that man was old, he stood behind a country bar some miles south of Waco and shot a man in the face.
And in between, Billy Joe Shaver wrote a hell of a lot of great country songs. The kind that get a feller from Corsicana name-checked in lyrics by Bob Dylan and Kris Kristofferson.
Yeah, there’s bad boys.
And then there’s Billy Joe.
Shaver turns 80 years old today. He doesn’t know it, but I’ve been right there with him for the last 25 of those years. His 1993 album, “Tramp on Your Street,” was the music I’d been looking for in every dive bar and bad place to be from Aggieland to San Angelo.
I wrote about him — “Billy Joe Shaver sings about Jesus like he expects him to come in and have a beer” was a favorite line. But better writers than me have been inspired by Shaver’s unique combination of indomitable Texan-ness and pared-down poetry.
This is a man who can rhyme “fame” with “thang” with complete honesty. This is the man who sang to us “the devil made me do it the first time, but the second time I done it on my own.”
(I saw Shaver and Dylan perform back-to-back in 2005, probably the widest and greatest pendulum swing of celebrated songwriters I can imagine. It was extraordinary.)
I am not here to recap the triumphs, tragedies and ironies of Shaver’s storied career. You know, like getting Waylon Jennings to follow up on a forgotten promise to record an album full of his songs. Or losing his mother and wife to cancer and his only son to a heroin overdose within a two-year stretch. Or passing up the chance to be on “Wanted: The Outlaws” because his wife wanted him to distance himself from his own outlaw image, only to watch it become country’s first platinum album.
(OK, a little recap. You can’t point a finger at a time in Shaver’s life without finding a hell of a story. Shaver can’t point, anyway, because he lost a mess of fingers in a sawmill accident, then went on to play the guitar without 'em … see what I mean?)
I just want to express my love for the man who has long personified to me what a Texas poet should be. And sometimes shouldn’t be. I won’t beat the authenticity drum, but Shaver — who only records and performs his own songs — has lived, hard, the words that he has written and somehow managed to live this long.
Most of our few interviews happened on the phone, but I had the chance to talk to Shaver in person in 2006. I was standing backstage at Willie Nelson’s Fourth of July Picnic at the Fort Worth Stockyards and Billy Joe Shaver was telling me a story. It was the most Texas thing that ever happened to me and I was thrilled. Shaver was hilarious and poignant and poetic. This was my honky-tonk Hemingway, someone I could point to as proof that blue-collar and rough-around-the-edges ain’t necessarily any less than cultured and polished.
The next year he shot that guy in the face.
I wasn’t happy with my hero. The stories go back and forth about who was the bully and who was the victim. Ultimately, the court sided with Shaver and he was acquitted on grounds of self-defense. I was just upset that at 67, Shaver put himself in the situation of being at Papa Joe’s saloon in Lorena with a gun in his hand.
But it was a lesson learned. To paraphrase Merle Haggard, the roots of one’s raising runs deep. A Corsicana kid that grew up hard is gonna stay that way.
I saw Shaver again last month, this time from the audience at the Fourth of July Picnic.
An outlaw near 80, he looked a little shaky, gripping a water bottle with what fingers he had. After each song, he’d lean over to pick up that bottle and I’d worry he was gonna fall over — a mirror image of his hard-living younger days.
But there he was, feathery white hair under his battered brown hat with its crown stretched toward the heavens. A large hole in the sleeve of his weathered denim shirt called attention to the set list he’d scribbled on his arm.
He got just four songs and he appeared to lose his place on the set-up to the punchline of crowd-pleaser “That’s What She Said Last Night,” but his voice was strong and he appeared to be as defiant as ever.
A honky-tonk poet if there ever was one. And probably still a guy you wouldn’t want to mess with.
Happy 80th birthday, Billy Joe.