Billy Joe Shaver.
Two months before Billy Joe Shaver was born, his father beat his mother and threw her into a water tank to die. That event would set the tempo for Billy Joe Shaver’s life. He’s lost three fingers, had 136 stitches in his head, broke his back, had a steel plate put in his neck, fought drug and alcohol addiction, had a heart attack and a quadruple bypass. In 2007, a man in Loreno, Texas threatened Billy Joe with a knife. Billy Joe was overheard by witnesses saying “WHERE DO YOU WANT IT?” right before he pulled out his pistol and shot the man in the face. They say that afterward, Billy Joe said “NOW, SAY THAT YOU’RE SORRY!”
With the help of a DJ named Captain Midnight, Billy Joe broke into an RCA recording session while Waylon Jennings was making an album with Chet Atkins. Billy Joe told Waylon that if he didn’t record his songs, he was gonna kick him all over the place. The rest is history, Waylon recorded 10 of Billy Joe’s songs on his Honky Tonk Heroes album in 1973. That album opened the door for the outlaw movement in country music. Willie Nelson later said that without Billy Joe and Honky Tonk Heroes, he would have never had the courage to do what he did with Red Headed Stranger in 1975.
Billy Joe stories could be told for days. There was the night that he and Waylon blew up a club with dynamite because the club refused to pay the band. I’ve also heard about how he used to take unfinished song lyrics out of Townes Van Zandt’s guitar case and grade them with an ink pen. Billy Joe said that he gave most of them a B+ before cramming them back into the case. But my personal favorite Billy Joe story was about the night that he found his faith. Billy Joe came home all hopped up on LSD and saw some sort of apparition. He drove straight to the cliffs above the narrows of the Harpeth River just outside of Nashville and hiked the rocky path to the top. That night, Billy Joe had gone to jump but he ended up making an altar out of a big rock smack dab at the top of the cliff. As he hiked back down, Billy Joe started humming these words, “I’m just an old chunk of coal, but I’m gonna be a diamond someday.” John Anderson recorded Old Chunk of Coal in 1981 and it reached the top of country music charts.
Now the night that I met Billy Joe Shaver, I was having a burger with a cowboy friend of mine. There couldn’t have been more than a dozen people in the whole place. Billy Joe came blazing through the front door wearing denim on denim and waved his hat around in the air. He shouted “Howdy everybody, Ole Billy Joe is here!” Then he waltzed right over to our table, shook my buddy’s hand and proceeded to give me a big wet kiss on the forehead. That night we sat on the edge of our seats at the foot of the great Billy Joe Shaver. Billy Joe waved his nubby fingers in the air and spoke about his love for our country. He talked about the Redwood Forest and the Badlands and how as Americans we need to get out and experience every bit of it. I’ve spent my entire life searching for people who walk to the beat of a different drummer. And I am hear to tell you, I have never met anyone as genuine as Billy Joe Shaver. He is 100% the REAL DEAL.
Billy Joe Shaver’s new album Long In the Tooth was released this week on Lightning Rod Records.