Billy Joe Shaver - Biography
Billy Joe Shaver, one of the original country outlaws of the 1970s, has written more than his share of classic tunes. While his own recordings of his songs have never been hits, Shaver has been covered by Elvis Presley, Bob Dylan, Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson, Johnny Cash, the Allman Brothers, John Anderson, David Allan Coe, Roy Acuff and many others. Waylon Jennings’ 1973 album, Honky Tonk Heroes (RCA) featured 11 songs written or co-written by Shaver and it’s one of the benchmarks of Outlaw Country.
Shaver’s life is the stuff of legend. His father abandoned his family before he was born in 1939 and he was primarily raised by his grandmother in Corsicana, Texas. A Hank Williams show he attended in the late ’40s changed his life for good. “Homer and Jethro [a country comedy act featuring the super pickers Homer Haynes (guitar) and Jethro Burns (mandolin)] were playing on the loading dock behind a bread factory and I wanted to see them,” he said in a recent interview. “I shimmied up a pole to hear better and Jethro said: ‘Listen to this next guy, he’s gonna be a big star.’ Hank came out and sang one song. Then he walked off stage cause nobody was listening, but he made eye contact with me and sang right to me. Even though I’d been singing and making up songs since I could talk, it inspired me.”
Shaver got a Gene Autry guitar when he was 11 and started playing and hanging out in the nearby African-American settlement. There he soaked up blues, boogie woogie piano and slide guitar sounds. At 17, Shaver enlisted in the Navy, but he was soon back in Texas, writing songs and working in a lumber mill. An accident with a saw cost him parts of three fingers, but he kept writing and playing small clubs. Eventually, he decided to try his luck in Los Angeles. Finding no one heading west, he ended up hitching to Memphis before ending up in Nashville. “People think I walked into town and got Waylon to do my songs,” he said, “but I’d been in town for years. I was writing songs for Bobby Bare’s publishing company before Waylon made that album.”
Kris Kristofferson put up the money to produce Shaver’s first album, Old Five And Dimers Like Me (1973 Monument). Monument kept it in the can until “Honky Tonk Heroes” became a hit. “That album laid in the can for a year. Right after Monument put it out, they went out of business. My timing was off,” Shaver says dryly. Shaver’s songs became anthems of the Outlaw movement, but his personal life was a mess. “I was beset by drugs. When I looked in the mirror, I looked like I was dead. I finally gave my life over to Jesus Christ and, while I’m not a religious man, I am a spiritual man. He saved me.”
Everyone from Elvis to Dylan covered Shaver’s songs, but his own albums didn’t fare that well even though they were packed with tunes that became standards. He moved from label to label, always making solid albums. When I Get My Wings (1976 Capricorn) included “Ain’t No God in Mexico”. Gypsy Boy (1977 Capricorn) had “Honky Tonk Heroes”. I’m Just an Old Chunk of Coal (1981 Columbia) included “When the Word Was Thunderbird,” “Mexico” and the title tune.
Shaver’s fortunes improved somewhat in 1993, when he put together a band called Shaver with his son Eddy. Eddy had played in his father’s bands before, but when he switched to electric guitar, they forged a heavy metal honky tonk sound that established them as a smoking live act. The albums they cut together, Tramp on Your Street (1993 Volcano), Highway of Life (1996 Justice), Victory (1998 New West), Electric Shaver (1999 New West) and The Earth Rolls On (2001 New West) are all classics. They seemed unstoppable, until Eddy died of a drug overdose. In the next year he lost his mother and wife as well.
Shaver could have packed it in, but he stayed on the road and kept recording, making some of the finest records of his career including Freedom’s Child (2002 Compadre), Billy and The Kid (2004 Compadre), The Real Deal (2005 Compadre) - a set that has Shaver singing to tracks Eddy completed before his death - and Everybody’s Brother (2007 Compadre). Nashville-based Mahican (Muhhekunneuw) musician Bill Miller adds pow-wow drums, Native American cedar flute and vocals which pay tribute to Shaver’s Blackfoot (Niitsítapi) ancestors and North America’s ancient musical traditions. In 2012 he released two live records- Live At Billy Bob's Texas, and Live From Austin TX: Austin City Limits.