From the archive: In prose and song, Billy Joe Shaver's hard-knock past is an open book
(This article was originally published on February 20, 2005)
Sometime in the mid-'70s, Waylon Jennings made Billy Joe Shaver an offer he couldn't refuse. So Shaver's wife, Brenda, refused it for him. Jennings -- still riding high in the wake of his landmark 1973 album "Honky Tonk Heroes" -- was rounding up some of his friends for a strike-while-the-iron-is-hot record called "Wanted: The Outlaws." Seeing as how Shaver penned all but one of the songs on "Honky Tonk Heroes," essentially writing the book on "outlaw" country, Jennings figured him for a shoo-in. But Brenda, who thought the whole outlaw thing had already done got out of hand, wouldn't have it.
"He's been an outlaw too damn long," Shaver quotes her as saying in his new autobiography, "Honky Tonk Hero." "He's going to put that stuff behind him." Over the course of four stormy decades together, Shaver and Brenda were married and divorced three times. Jennings' offer came during one of the couple's relatively happier periods, so Shaver conceded to her will. "There's no doubt that if I'd made a different decision there," he writes, "my whole life would have been different."
Perhaps. Then again, perhaps not. Though "Wanted" became country music's first million-selling album, it seems unlikely that being a part of it would have had a long-term impact on Shaver's fortunes -- and not just because his replacement, Tompall Glaser, is all but forgotten. As the pattern of highs and lows recounted in the Corsicana-born/Waco-raised songwriter's memoir makes clear, fame has never dropped in Shaver's lap in a package as neat, tidy and blatantly contrived as "Wanted." He's always been a true outlaw's outlaw: duly revered by Jennings, Willie Nelson and Kris Kristofferson, but never quite cut out for prime time.
"My timing was always just off a hair," he admits. "I guess that's what Kris meant when he said, 'If life was a television show, Billy Joe Shaver would be on at 4 a.m.' "
Right on (off) schedule, it's only during the past four years that Shaver's begun to get his due. In 2001, he received his first-ever songwriting award -- a Lifetime Achievement nod by the Americana Music Association. Last year, his 65th birthday was celebrated at Austin's Paramount Theater, and Luciana Pedraza -- girlfriend of actor Robert Duvall, who cast Shaver in his movie "The Apostle" -- premiered her loving Shaver documentary, "The Portrait of Billy Joe," at South by Southwest.
The bittersweet hook? All of this attention has come in the wake of losing the two most important people in his life: Brenda succumbed to cancer in 1999, and their son Eddy -- Shaver's longtime guitarist and musical soulmate -- died of a drug overdose (or, suspects Shaver, murder) on the last day of 2000.
Not surprisingly, Shaver's hard-knock life ("I was not even born yet when my father first tried to kill me," he begins) makes for compelling reading in "Honky Tonk Hero," a corker of a tale as ripe for big screen adaptation as Ray Charles' or Johnny Cash's. Of course, Shaver's been telling his life story in piecemeal form with every song he's ever written, so veteran Shaver fans will find little here in the way of revelation. Unlike Bob Dylan, whose own recent memoir, "Chronicles, Vol. 1," offers fans starved for any personal insight a peek behind the curtain, Shaver's never been much for metaphor and enigma in his lyrics. Lines like "They say my mammy left me the same day that she had me" and "I got a good Christian raisin' and an eighth-grade education," from one of his best songs, "Georgia on a Fast Train," may sound like perfect country conceits, but they're also the truth.
Tellingly, Shaver breezes through his story in 72 quick pages, with the rest of this 191-page book reserved for his complete (up to 2003) lyrics. Far from being redundant, or self-indulgent, it's the lyrics -- as lively on the page as they are in song -- that offer the most compelling glimpse into the artist's heart and soul.
That's not to say that the first half of "Honky Tonk Hero" lacks any of that patented Shaver punch. Although the title page reads "assisted by Brad Reagan," this reviewer -- having interviewed Shaver a half-dozen times over the past decade -- can testify that the voice in Shaver's prose is very much his own. This is just a guess, but odds are Reagan -- a freelance writer for The Wall Street Journal who wrote a lengthy feature on Shaver for Salon.com a year or so ago -- set up a recorder and just let Shaver roll.
Because Shaver is a such a natural storyteller, the technique works -- for the most part. "Honky Tonk Hero" reads like a long but effortlessly engaging story told over endless cups of coffee at a kitchen table in Shaver's humble house in Waco. The narrative flows with a humanity that never feels forced, by turns funny and heartbreaking, humble and boastful, and never less than candid and honest. His formative youth -- from the time his father beat his mother and left her for dead when she was seven months pregnant, through his years being raised by his grandmother, his short stint in the Navy and elopement with Brenda -- is deftly covered in the first three chapters, and his first notable breaks (namely, landing a publishing deal with Bobby Bare and demanding -- recklessly but successfully -- that Jennings make good on a promise to record an album of his songs) are recounted in anecdote-rich detail.
After that, though, the book barrels a little too fast toward the present, blurring past not only career details that might interest diehard fans, but also some of the most significant people in his life. While his life-long, topsy-turvy love affair with Brenda is never far from focus, his son Eddy plays a puzzlingly minor role; perhaps his loss is still too fresh of a wound for Shaver. The chapter covering Eddy's death is as painful as any father's account of a parent's worst nightmare should be. But readers less familiar with Shaver's music -- particularly the adrenaline-charged albums he made with Eddy in the '90s -- will be left in the dark as to how much father and son came to depend on each other, as much best friends as family.
Of course, 72 pages is hardly enough room to do justice to one Shaver, let alone two. When you're dealing with a life this rich, even the anecdotes that didn't make the book are worth twice that much space. Much is made here -- and with good reason -- of Shaver's aforementioned Christian raisin' as a boy and the moment he was born again as a man. But as with all outlaws, it's the stuff the devil made him do that holds up best. If you ever have occasion to sit a spell with Shaver, ask him about his prankish habit of writing letter grades on Townes Van Zandt's lyric sheets when his friend wasn't looking. Or about the time he wickedly taunted Waylon Jennings -- who never got over his fear of flying after nearly being on the ill-fated flight that killed Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and the Big Bopper -- by gleefully singing the Bopper's "Chantilly Lace" as they boarded another small plane.
Better yet, just grab one of his best albums -- 1973's "Old Five and Dimers Like Me" or the Eddy-propelled records "Tramp On Your Street" and "The Earth Rolls On" -- and let the music do the talking.