Week 17: Billy Joe Shaver, Honky-Tonk Hero
A.V. Club head writer and hip-hop specialist Nathan Rabin recently decided to spend a year or two immersing himself in the canon of country music, a genre he knew little about, but was keen to explore. The result: “Nashville Or Bust,” a series of essays about seminal country artists. After 52 entries, Rabin plans to travel south and explore some of country music’s most hallowed landmarks and institutions.
Blame it on Billy Joe. Billy Joe Shaver has a genius for getting people into trouble, myself included. Long ago, I was known and respected. Then one day I heard Shaver’s “Georgia On A Fast Train” for the first time. My mind was blown. It spoke to me. It spoke for me. The details were different, sure. In place of Shaver’s good Christian raising and 8th-grade education, I had a dodgy Jewish raising and a college education. But the differences didn’t matter as much as the similarities: As with Shaver, my mammy left me the day before she had me; she hit the road and never once looked back.
I had discovered my own personal anthem, a song I wanted played at my funeral. More than anything, I responded to the attitude of the song, its rebelliousness, defiance, and homespun wit. I loved the righteous indignation Shaver breathed into the line “Ain’t no need in y’all treating me this way.” Who hasn’t felt that way at least once a day?
To borrow David Bowie’s line about Bob Dylan, Shaver has a “voice like sand and glue,” an agitated rasp equally adept at tenderness and blustery rage. After I heard “Georgia On A Fast Train,” my whole world changed. I wanted to know more about the strange world that created such a man. The seeds of Nashville Or Bust were born. My life hasn’t been the same since.
Shaver has that effect on people. He is the songwriter’s songwriter, a honky-tonk poet. Shaver’s buddy Willie Nelson says Shaver may be the best songwriter alive. Kris Kristofferson compared him to Ernest Hemingway. Kristofferson also said that if life were television, Shaver would be on at 4 a.m.; his career has been hobbled by a combination of bad luck and bad timing.
Even in an outlaw movement that fetishized nonconformity and grit, Shaver was too wild, ragged, and raw to win the mainstream acceptance and success afforded to his contemporaries like Nelson, Kristofferson, and Waylon Jennings. Shaver has a genius for eluding success. While riding high off the buzz from Jennings’ Honky Tonk Heroes—a wildly influential album Shaver wrote while still a struggling, unknown songwriter—he was offered a chance to be part of the Wanted! The Outlaws album alongside Jennings, Nelson, and Jessi Colter. But Shaver’s wife—whom he loved so much, he married her thrice—decided he’d been entirely too much of an outlaw as of late, and didn’t need to run with such a rough crowd. The Outlaws became the first country album to go platinum, while Shaver struggled to get his solo career off the ground.
Things had never been easy for Shaver. They never would be. The opening sentence in his memoir/lyric collection Honky Tonk Hero sets the tone for a life filled with missed opportunities and psychological scars: “I was not even born yet when my father first tried to kill me.” Shaver goes on to recount how his drunken, abusive father (who Shaver describes as “half-French, half Blackfoot Sioux, and 100 percent mean”) beat his mother nearly to death while she was seven months pregnant.
Shaver goes on to catalog some of the misfortunes to follow:
I’ve lost parts of three fingers, broke my back, suffered a heart attack and a quadruple bypass, had a steel plate put in my neck and 136 stitches in my head, fought drugs and booze, spent the money I had, and buried my wife, son, and mother in the span of a year.
But I’m not here to complain or ask for pity. Life is hard for everybody, just in different ways. I’m not proud of my misfortune—I’m proud of my survival.
So perhaps it’s not surprising that when Shaver recorded his 1973 debut, Old Five And Dimers Like Me, he sounded less like a brash young buck barely into his 30s than like the wise, wizened voice of experience. At 33, Shaver was in many ways an old man—another reason I relate to him. He looked like eight miles of bad road leading to eight more miles of bad road, and had a whiskey-soaked croak that made the sandpaper delivery of his outlaw contemporaries sound as polished as Bing Crosby by comparison.
Shaver had the wisdom and perspective that comes with age. The exquisitely sad title song of Old Five And Dimers Like Me is the world-weary lament of an old soul looking wistfully back at a life where “good luck and fast bucks are too few and too far between.” “I’ve spent a lifetime making up my mind to be more than the measure of what I thought others could see,” goes the key line.
That sentiment expresses a desire coursing through much of the music I’ve written about for this series: the working man’s need to be seen as something more than just another striver struggling to make it from paycheck to paycheck. Shaver is so much more than the measure of what others could see; he may look like a shit-kicking redneck, but he has the soul of a poet. I’ve always been skeptical of the concept of lyrics as poetry, but Honky Tonk Heroes reproduces the words of almost all of Shaver’s songs, and they hold up to the scrutiny of being stripped of music and Shaver’s inimitable voice and laid bare on the printed page.
“Black Rose” kicks off Dimers and Shaver’s singing career on a rollicking note. Simpatico producer Kris Kristofferson didn’t smooth away Shaver’s rough edges and ingratiating crustiness; he played them up. Like the songs that follow, “Black Rose” sounds and feels dirty; after listening to Dimers, I felt like I needed a shower; I mean that in the best possible sense. It’s fitting that Kristofferson produced the album, since he was the crustiest of superstars; he somehow managed to become a huge movie star and a sex symbol in spite of looking like he hadn’t bathed in weeks.
Dimers leaps from high to high. Shaver’s iconoclastic, deeply felt Christian faith manifests itself on “Jesus Christ, What A Man,” a rambunctious celebration of “Jesus Christ, my hero” that is simultaneously deeply reverent and casually irreverent, funny and dead serious. It’s appropriate that Shaver highlights Jesus’ humanity rather than his divinity. Jesus and the devil are in constant combat in Shaver’s song, and their primary battleground is his soul.
Shaver pays eloquent homage to another “big Jesus fan” on “Willy The Wandering Gypsy And Me,” a tribute to Willie Nelson, the power of friendship, and the eternal allure of the open road. It’s a heartfelt valentine from one brilliant songwriter to another, filled with stunning turns of phrase and homespun philosophy: “Three fingers of whiskey pleasures the drinker / moving does more than the same thing to me / Willie, he tells me that doers and thinkers say moving is the closest thing to being free.”
Old Five And Dimers Like Me should have made Shaver a superstar, but his bad luck continued. His record company sat on the album for a year, then went out of business shortly after its release. The runaway success of Honky Tonk Heroes made him a hot songwriter, but even that had its downside. In his memoir, Shaver writes that Jennings left such an indelible stamp on the songs Shaver wrote that other artists were afraid to cover them. Popular country songs often become communal property; everyone has a go at them. So it hurt Shaver’s career and his bank account that nobody wanted to cover his most popular songs.
For Shaver, every gift brought a dozen curses. Johnny Cash recorded 25 of Shaver’s songs and called him one of his favorite songwriters, but Cash’s troubled stepdaughter Rosie Nix got Shaver’s son and collaborator Eddy addicted to the heroin that later killed him.
Eddy Shaver is a huge, heartbreaking figure in his father’s life. He was a guitar virtuoso and prodigy who backed up Dwight Yoakam on his early tours with a flashy style that combined blues, rock, and country. He collaborated with his father on Shaver’s 1993 comeback album, Tramp On Your Street. Billy Joe and Eddy’s close, complicated relationship lends an additional element of pathos to Street’s “If I Give My Soul.” It’s a song of shattering emotional power, tenderness, and vulnerability, where Billy Joe ponders whether salvation is still within his grasp, and whether faith can mend his shattered relationships and fractured psyche. “If I give my soul, will He stop my hands from shaking? / If I give my soul, will my son love me again?” Shaver asks with devastating openness. I’m tearing up just thinking about it.
On “Jesus Christ, What A Man,” Shaver sings that nothing in the secular world can top hearing “Roy Acuff sing about Jesus and the great speckled bird.” On the title track from Tramp On Your Street, Billy Joe once again combines the secular with the sacred in describing a formative childhood memory: He depicts watching Hank Williams perform as an event of almost religious significance. “Old Chunk Of Coal” once again finds a ferociously flawed man aching for salvation and deliverance. No one knows, or needs, Jesus quite like a sinner.
Shaver’s memoir ends with him mellowed by time and the deaths of his wife, son, and mother. But he obviously didn’t mellow too much, as he made headlines a few years back by pulling a Dick Cheney and shooting a guy in the face under circumstances clouded in mystery and conjecture.
The cult hero was introduced to a whole new generation when he sang the kick-ass theme song for Squidbillies, which functions as a sequel of sorts to “Georgia On A Fast Train.” Shaver didn’t write the song, but its lyrics perfectly capture his essence: a middle finger upraised at a cruel world, but with a big, bleeding heart and an unshakeable faith.
Next up on Nashville Or Bust: