“Been a whole lot of people thought me a fool
Been a time or two I thought that I was too
Ain’t a chain that can hold me
Ain’t a thing I won’t try
When I get through living, I’m gonna die
Gonna die with my boots on, gonna go out in style
With a freewheeling feeling and a honky tonk smile
And if the devil don’t dodge me, gonna spit in his eye
When I get my wings I’m gonna fly”
—Billy Joe Shaver (When I get my wings)
Bob Dylan called him a “treasure.” Johnny Cash called him “my favorite songwriter.” Kris Kristofferson called him “the greatest living songwriter.” Tanya Tucker and Tom T. Hall both called him “genius.” Johnny Paycheck called him “the king of song.” Willie Nelson called him “the best, the very best there ever was.” The entertainment press called him “the undisputed father of outlaw country music and the poet laureate of American music.” His name was Billy Joe Shaver. I proudly called him “my friend.”
I have spent a lifetime amassing a gaggle of colorful, larger than life characters I proudly call friends. A rogue’s gallery of loyal companions have blessed my life, enriched my understanding of the human condition and made life exciting and more fulfilling. Saints and sinners alike have unconsciously shaped my own character and my view of the world. Each one had hard learned wisdom to impart, and I eagerly absorbed as much of it as I could. In a very real sense these characters were mentors and teachers. Their expertise was in the art of living, in having endured life’s privations and come to understand the verities of the human heart. They were all great tutors, but none more so than my ole buddy and country music legend Billy Joe Shaver.
Billy Joe had a brutally rough life from the very beginning. His father mercilessly and savagely beat his mother and left her for dead on a pond levy in central Texas while she was in the late stages of pregnancy. Miraculously, she and the unborn child both survived the vicious beating and she gave birth to the rambunctious Billy Joe Shaver a few weeks later.
Not long after Billy Joe was born, his mother, who was by all accounts, a stunningly beautiful red headed woman, took a job as a waitress at a rowdy Waco Texas honky-tonk, leaving Billy Joe in the loving care of his grandmother.
Had it not been for his grandmother’s “old age pension” they would have been entirely destitute. Early in his songwriting career Billy Joe wrote passionately of those difficult days and the love he felt from his adoring grandmother.
From very early childhood Billy Joe had to work hard just to survive. He hoed and picked cotton, and worked at various odd jobs to help feed himself and his struggling caregiver. Life was never easy for a boy named Billy Joe Shaver.
—Billy Joe Shaver (I Been to Georgia on a Fast Train)
There ain’t no need of y’all a treating me this way.”
—Billy Joe Shaver (I Been to Georgia on a Fast Train)
At the age of 17, Billy Joe joined the navy, but due to his rowdy temper and love of fist fighting got thrown out. Billy Joe always said he was thrown out for “knocking the hell out of an officer,“ except Billy Joe never used the word officer. He spent the next six months in a New Hampshire military prison, but ultimately got his discharge changed to “honorable“ because the officer was wearing civilian clothing and actually threw the first punch.
After that Billy Joe went back to Waco and married his old teenage girlfriend, Brenda, after she came up pregnant. His relationship with Brenda was rocky at best, but I have no doubt, from conversations I had with him he loved her deeply. Marriage and Billy Joe were not a natural fit. His life was filled with love, daily conflict and constant chaos. In fact, he ultimately married and divorced two different women three different times.
The famed blues guitarist for Z Z Top, who was also an ordained minister, officiated at one of these wedding ceremonies. Billy Joe would often joke, “marriage is a wonderful institution, but who wants to live in an institution.” After marrying and divorcing Brenda three times, Billy Joe said “sometimes divorces just don’t work out.” Nonetheless, I’m certain that he loved deeply, more deeply than most folks, but his honky-tonk lifestyle was an impediment to any normal relationship.“ I never wrote a love song that wasn’t about Brenda,” he once told me.
During this period of his life Billy Joe worked as a roughneck in the oil fields of Texas and spent some time on the rodeo circuit in order to provide for Brenda and their new born son, Eddie.
It was during those early days, back home in Waco that Billy Joe lost three fingers on his right hand in a sawmill accident. “I wouldn’t have ever gone into music if I hadn’t lost my fingers“ he would often say. “I wasn’t cutout for manual labor anyway, so I started turning my poems into songs, and taught myself to play the guitar with only my thumb and little finger.”
He decided he would hitchhike to Nashville with his guitar, a sack full of songs, and his rugged good looks all in tow. His plan was to become a country music sensation. But things didn’t quite work out that way. He could not convince anyone to even listen to his songs.
Depressed, broke, hyped up on amphetamines and about to give up, he got about half drunk, borrowed a friend’s motorcycle and rode it up on the front porch of famed songwriter Harlan Howard’s publishing company. Billy Joe raced the motor real loud until Mr. Howard came running out asking “who the hell do you think you are?” Without hesitation Billy Joe responded, “I’m Billy Joe Shaver, the greatest songwriter that ever lived.”
“Well in that case come on in, let’s have a drink and see what you got,“ said Mr. Howard.
Harlan Howard had written some pretty good songs himself. At one time he had written fifteen of the top forty songs on billboard’s charts. He had written such country classics as “I Fall to Pieces“ and “Heartaches by the Numbers!”
Harlan Howard was blown away by Billy Joe’s talents as well as his oversized confidence. Howard recommended Billy Joe to Bobby Bare who had made a name for himself as a recording artist and had a publishing company with a reputation for taking a chance on renegade, out of the mainstream talents like Shel Silverstein and Kris Kristofferson. Billy Joe eagerly accepted Bare’s offer of a job as a songwriter, earning a paltry 50 dollars a week, and soon began churning out dozens of songs each month.
Stylistically, Billy Joe’s songs mirrored the same kind of simplicity and unadorned raw truth popularized by Ernest Hemingway’s macho prose. Many of these songs were recorded by various rising artists, including Bobby Bare himself. Tragically, Billy Joe did not earn one dime in royalties from any of those spectacular songs.
I’m thinking bout raising so much doggone hell, I’ll die fore I live it all down.”
—Billy Joe Shaver (Ragged Old Truck)
By this time Billy Joe Shaver had earned the reputation of holding the undisputed title in both of these categories! His name had become synonymous with both the words “genius” and “outlaw.” Billy Joe Shaver wrote more songs, drank more whiskey, smoked more dope, did more drugs, chased more women, got in more fights, and generally screwed up more than anyone on the planet in those days. His rowdy lifestyle, as well as his prolific songwriting, was becoming legendary. Those who liked to think of themselves as “outlaws” began to shun Billy Joe when they discovered there was no way they could compete with his out of control craziness. ”I was the biggest, baddest sinner ever. I was such a disappointment to my Lord and Savior back then“ Billy Joe would later freely confess.
It was during this period that Billy Joe had a life changing epiphany. After a night of hard drinking and honky-tonkin, Billy Joe found himself in a terrible place. He had made little money, lost his family, squandered his God given gifts, and received none of the recognition he thought he deserved. Alone in a seedy motel room Billy Joe Shaver, hating who and what he had become, seriously contemplated taking his own life. As despair, guilt, and loneliness consumed his suicidal thoughts, a manifestation of Jesus Christ appeared to be sitting on his bed, looking at him with eyes of fire – disapprovingly. The manifestation never spoke a word. Billy Joe would often repeat this story and add that this was no drug or alcohol induced hallucination, “It was as real as anything I ever experienced,” he would say.
As the image of Christ disappeared, a shaken Billy Joe decided to go for a drive. He drove his ragged old truck to a mountain ridge overlooking the Harpeth River on the outskirts of Nashville. He walked up the ridge and, as he reached the top, he noticed a large slate stone that over time, erosion had carved into the shape of an altar. There, he knelt and prayed for forgiveness. After pouring out his soul and confessing his vast array of sin, Billy Joe Shaver arose a new man. He had fallen madly in love with Jesus, and that love would only grow over time.
As he walked back down the ridge toward his truck, he stumbled on a small clump of coal. Of course the first line of a song began to marinate in Billy Joe’s lyrical brain. In just a few days the song “I’m just an ole chunk of coal, but I’m gonna to be a diamond someday,” was born. That song was first recorded by John Anderson only days later and became an instant huge hit! Billy Joe’s encounter with Jesus transformed the man and that song cemented his reputation as one of the world’s best songwriters.
Billy Joe had enough of Nashville and soon returned home to Waco, Texas. He soon started his own band and began recording his own songs. He was perfectly content for the first time in his troubled life. His new band soon had full bookings in churches, gospel singings, and remained on a busy honky-tonk circuit.
Waylon Jennings stumbled upon Billy Joe at Willie Nelson’s first Fourth of July picnic, dubbed the Dripping Springs’ reunion, in 1972. He heard Billy Joe sing “Willy, the wandering Gypsy and me.” Jennings loved the song and vowed to record it and begged to hear other Billy Joe Shaver songs. In his drug addled state, Jennings told Billy Joe to look him up in Nashville and he would record more of his songs.
Billy Joe knew that having Waylon Jennings record his songs was a big opportunity. “My songs were bigger than me, I couldn’t do much with them, but Waylon could do them justice.” So he took the arrogant Waylon Jennings at his word and headed back to Nashville.
For weeks he stalked Waylon to no avail. Jennings was obviously ducking Billy Joe and hoping he would give up and go back to Texas. Finally Billy Joe cornered Jennings at a Nashville recording studio. At first Jennings sent a friend out to confront Billy Joe with a 100 dollar bill and the message “get lost.” Billy Joe gave the 100 dollar Bill back to the man with instructions to tell Jennings to “stick it where the sun don’t shine and give it a hard twist.”
Finally, Waylon Jennings came out of a side door of the studio and Billy Joe pounced. “Waylon, you told me you wanted to hear my songs and by God you are going to listen to them here and now or I’m gonna kick your ass.”
Waylon, in those days, used Hell’s Angels bikers for his security detail and, of course, they lunged toward Billy Joe. Waylon intervened, called the bikers off, and agreed to listen to one of Billy Joe’s songs if he would agree to leave when he told him to. Billy Joe agreed and started tuning his guitar.
Billy Joe began by singing “Honky-Tonk Heroes,” then he sang “Ain’t no God in Mexico” and then transitioned into “Old Five and Dimers Like Me.” The more Billy Joe sang the more enthused Jennings became. These songs were soul music for rednecks. Some were pure poetry: “I’ve spent a lifetime making up my mind to be/ more than the measure of what I thought others could see” went the first line of “Old Five and Dimers Like Me.” Others were about ragged old trucks, lost loves, and one night stands. They all had one common thread; they were all about Billy Joe Shaver. They were all about TRUTH, pure unvarnished raw TRUTH. They were Billy Joe Shaver’s life spelled out in poetry, accompanied by music.
Waylon Jennings made a decision on the spot to change the course of his album. He ran all the other song writers off and told Billy Joe that he was his guy! The resulting album titled “Honky-Tonk Heroes” soon became Jennings’ largest commercial success and Billy Joe Shaver wrote ten of the eleven songs on the album. These songs changed the course of country music forever and the new genre of “outlaw country” was born.
The rest is history. Willie Nelson and Waylon went on to become music legends. When they sang about going back to Luckenbach, Texas, it was Billy Joe Shaver, David Allan Coe, Jerry Jeff Walker, Kris Kristofferson, Mickey Newbury, Johnny Paycheck and a few others they were singing about. They were the “outlaws” of country music. They are the ones that revitalized country music, stripped it of its pretentiousness, rid it of its sequin studded suits, and brought it back to its roots. Their music was real and it spoke truth to a very wide audience hungry for authenticity. They were a wild bunch of drunks and crazies that were also gifted songwriters. By all accounts, none were more gifted or more crazy than my ole friend Billy Joe Shaver.
After the success of “Honky Tonk Heroes,” artists began flocking to Billy Joe’s door, anxious to record his songs. Elvis Presley, Johnny cash, Bob Dylan, Kris Kristofferson, Patty Loveless, Tanya Tucker, Tom T. Hall, Johnny Paycheck, Jerry lee Lewis, David Allan Coe, The Allman Brother band and many others all had hits recording Billy Joe’s songs .
Does art imitate life or does life imitate art? This is a question for the ages. In Billy Joe Shaver’s music the lines are blurred at best. So it’s fitting that Billy Joe’s life mimics a country ballad. His music reminds me of a song Hank Williams might have written if he had collaborated with, say, Dylan Thomas or William Butler Yeats. Real hard-scrabble life songs written as emotionally soothing poetry!
1999 was a bad year for Billy Joe Shaver. He lost his wife Brenda and his mother to cancer. The following year his son Eddie, an extremely talented guitar player, who often preformed with Billy Joe, died of a heroin overdose. Grief soon overcame Billy Joe and for the first time in his life he stopped writing and performing his songs.
After about six months of being cloistered in his modest Waco home with guilt and grief as his only companions, he finally started writing again. His faith and the encouragement of a few loving friends sustained him. And his songs got even better.
Billy Joe’s songs had always had strong spiritual underpinnings. Now they had become straight forward evangelical proclamations. Some of his work began to take on an air of sadness, a sense of deep melancholy and nostalgia. But for the most part they were uplifting songs of praise. “You Just Can’t Beat Jesus Christ” —- “Get Thee Behind Me Satan“ —-“When the Fallen Angels Fly” —“Jesus Christ, What a Man” — “Jesus Was Our Savior and Cotton Was Our King” —- “Jesus is Still the King” —— “When I Get My Wings” — “Jesus is the Only One That Loves Us” — “Everybody’s Brother”— and “If You Don’t Love Jesus, Go to Hell” all preach the gospel of Jesus Christ, Billy Joe Shaver style!
No telling of the Billy Joe Shaver story would be complete without relating the incident that took place at Papa Joe’s Texas saloon in Lorena, Texas, in 2007.
Billy Joe and his wife were having a beer late one afternoon when a loud-mouth, muscular man (Billy Joe always said he was built like a fire hydrant) started harassing and flirting with Billy Joe’s wife. Billy Joe asked the man to please leave them alone. The man told Billy Joe to shut up. Billy Joe never allowed anyone, no matter how big, to talk him like that. So the argument escalated to the point that the man pulled a switchblade knife and threatened him. Billy Joe asked the man to apologize. The man refused. Then Billy Joe asked the man to take the disagreement outside. Billy Joe stepped outside first and, for some unknown reason, the man did not immediately follow, which allowed Billy Joe time to grab his pistol out of the glove compartment of his truck. When the man finally came outside with the knife open and plunged at him, Billy Joe shot him in the face. Then he retrieved his wife, got in his pickup truck and left.
The second time I done it on my own“
—Billy Joe Shaver (Black Rose)
Fortunately, the man was not seriously injured and the bullet had lodged in just the right spot in his neck.
A trial ensued, and Billy Joe’s defense lawyer made a compelling case that Billy Joe had acted in self defense. He also called Willie Nelson and actor Robert Duvall (who had befriended Billy Joe during the shooting of the film “Lonesome Dove”) as character witnesses. The jury bought the self defense argument and acquitted Billy Joe of all charges.
After the trial the Texas press swarmed Billy Joe for a comment. “You got anything to say Billy Joe?” shouted a journalist. “Yep, I want my bullet back,” replied Billy Joe.
Dale Watson, a buddy of Billy Joe’s, and a Texas songwriter wrote a song titled “Where Do You Want It?” about the incident. Some of the eye witnesses had testified that Billy Joe said, “Where do you want it?” before firing the gun. Billy Joe always said he never said that!
Not long after the trial, Billy Joe and Willie Nelson collaborated on writing and recording a song titled “Wacko from Waco,“ which detailed the entire incident. The song, of course, became an immediate success, especially in Texas.
I first came to know Billy Joe Shaver years ago after meeting him at a performance at Proud Larry’s in Oxford, Mississippi. My good friend, Dr. Rusty Durham, a Hattiesburg physician, invited me, my younger son John Calvin and my future daughter-in-law Kate to accompany him to the concert. Dr. Durham had met Billy Joe several years earlier in Macon, Georgia, and had become his treating physician whenever Billy Joe was in this part of the world. We all had a larger than average time at the concert and had a chance to visit privately with Billy Joe before and after his performance. Dr. Durham, Billy Joe and I made plans to meet the following morning at Oxford’s Big Bad Breakfast for a hearty old fashioned southern breakfast.
That next morning’s breakfast quickly became one of my life’s most enjoyable moments. The gregarious Billy Joe was in rare form and immediately began telling hilarious stories about his life’s colorful past and the country music stars with whom he had shared life. Occasionally he would tell a story that would remind me of a story and I’d chime in with my own touch of color. This went on for well over four hours, with several interruptions by the young waitress politely asking us to “keep it down.” At one point a member of Billy Joe’s band, affectionately known as “Cornbread,“ said, “I’ve been to several battles of the bands, but this is the first time I’ve ever attended a battle of the storytellers.“ Billy Joe would tell a story and I’d respond with my own story. Finally, as the late lunch crowd began arriving, Billy Joe decided we should take our show on the road. “Let’s go for a ride,” he suggested. So we continued our marathon story telling on the back roads of Lafayette County.
As evening approached, Billy Joe had to get back to town so he could get to his next gig somewhere down in Louisiana the following night. So we embraced, exchanged phone numbers, pledged to stay in touch, and parted ways.
As I watched his ragged old fifteen-passenger van drive off, I said to Dr. Durham, “What a great guy. I bet I never hear from him again, but thank you for sharing your friend. I love the guy!”
A few days later my phone rings. It’s Billy Joe. “Hey, I’m on my way to Oklahoma and trying to tell that story about that old senator challenging you to a pissing contest. Would you tell it for these boys?” (It was a reference to an incident that took place on the Eastland plantation in Doddsville, Mississippi.) Of course I gladly repeated the story, to Billy Joe’s delight. Thus, the beginning of a very special long-distance friendship.
Whenever Billy Joe was going to be anywhere in Mississippi we would make arrangements to visit and try to spend a little time together.
Billy Joe called me every holiday, without fail. And he would frequently send a text that always read exactly the same: “I’m alright. How are you? GOD BLESS.”
Quite often he would call me and ask me to repeat some story he’d heard me tell, for some group he had assembled. “Tell that story about Billy “Backhoe” and “Spider,” he would frequently ask. (A reference to two of my ole buddies in Potts Camp, Mississippi.)
Once Billy Joe and I were driving on the back roads near my place in rural Panola County, when we came upon a hardwood bottom. About thirty wild turkeys were flocked together in the far corner. After watching the birds in complete silence for a few minutes, Billy Joe made what I think is a very perceptive and profound observation. “Turkeys are a lot like people in many ways,” he said. “They love to flock all up together, just like the folks that come to see me play. Then a couple of them go to strutting around for all to see. Next thing you know a fight breaks out. Just like people,” he said.
But then he continued, “Turkeys are hell of a lot smarter than people though, they can sense danger and see trouble coming a long way off. I never could do that. I bet you couldn’t either, Hoss!”
I saw Billy Joe for the last time a couple years ago. He was performing in Jackson and planned to vacation at Dr. Durham’s beautiful 1867 ancestral farm house in rural Pike County and then come spend a few days with me in Como, Mississippi. Billy Joe was over the top excited about having a few days off and spending it with old friends.
We all attended the concert and again had a great time. We were going to pick Billy Joe up at his hotel and make the 70 some odd mile drive to Rusty’s farm the next morning.
When we arrived at the hotel, Billy Joe was still sleeping. He had just completed a ten state tour and was exhausted. When he finally arrived in the hotel lobby he looked horrible, he was pale and the look of death was all over him. Dr. Durham immediately sprang into action and began to insist that he go to the hospital. Billy Joe was having none of it and insisted he wanted to go home. Dr. Durham continued to plead to no avail. Finally Billy Joe pulled me to the side and said, “By God, I’m going home. That’s where I want to be in case something happens.” With that he climbed into his old van and drove off.
Dr. Durham and I agreed we had probably seen him for the last time. We thought his days were numbered. We both tried calling him for the next couple days, but got no answer. Finally, on the third day, that all-too-familiar text showed up again. “I’m alright. How are you? GOD BLESS!”
Billy Joe Shaver’s music is on every deer/duck camp’s playlist in America, especially in the south. Last year Billy Joe was blaring over the speakers at my baby son’s duck camp, which caused him to casually mention that Billy Joe was a friend of his. Of course, no one believed him. So John Calvin called Billy Joe and put him on the speaker. Billy Joe was, of course, pleased to hear from him and spent the next hour talking to each of the guys. It thrilled Billy Joe as much as it did the guys at duck camp.
In late October of last year my friend Billy Joe Shaver had a massive stroke and “got his wings” the following day.
In spite of his reckless sinful life, I can honestly say Billy Joe Shaver loved the Lord more than almost anyone I’ve ever known. Like his songs, his Christianity was out front, genuine and real!
Willie Nelson wrote a tribute song to Billy Joe aptly titled “Hero.“ Billy Joe Shaver was, indeed, a hero in both music and in life. What’s a hero you may ask? Well a hero is someone who ain’t scared. Someone who is brave well beyond what others would attempt. Someone who hears the sound of cannon fire and rides toward it, not from it. A hero is someone who stands up and charges forward when most of us would sit down and shut up. By these standards Billy Joe Shaver was indeed a hero!
Willie’s song “Hero” asks a rhetorical question:
“Where is our Hero tonight? Lord, we hope that he is alright!”
Well, I can with confidence answer Willie’s question. Our hero is in that special little corner of heaven reserved for honky tonk angels. He’s teaching angels to play their harps with only two fingers, and he’s writing songs with a heavenly band of brothers with names like Cash, Prine, Walker, and Presley. The music in heaven never sounded so sweet!
No man lives forever on this earth, but some do in our hearts. So it’s only fitting to close this essay with the lyrics to one of Billy Joe’s best known songs:
By Billy Joe Shaver
Billy Joe Shaver, country music outlaw, Northeast MS news, the Outlaws' Outlaw