billy joe shaver, 1939-2020

billy joe shaver.

Billy Joe Shaver had a distinctive way of introducing himself from the stage. At the end of his typically rapturous performances years ago at the long defunct Lynagh’s Music Club, the fabled Lone Star honky tonk stylist waved to the audience, often revealing the right hand fingers miniaturized during his youth in a lumber mill accident. “And me,” he said. “I’m still Billy Joe.”

For over five decades, being Billy Joe was a mammoth job. As a songwriter, he reshaped how artists and audiences alike perceived country music. His compositions were often reflections of hard living and the hard times that accompanied them wrapped in a profound sense of faith. They were told with conversational candor, at times with a wink of the eye, at others with a fist in the air.

The reach of his songs was immense and lasting. “Georgia on a Fast Train, “Live Forever,” “Sweet Mama, and “Old Chunk of Coal,” among others, were recorded by Elvis Presley, Willie Nelson, Johnny Cash, Bob Dylan and the Allman Brothers Band. Waylon Jennings famously cut an entire album of Shaver tunes, “Honky Tonk Heroes,” that served as the DNA for the country outlaw movement soaring out of Texas in the mid ‘70s.

“When people ask me what country music is,” said Emmylou Harris to a sold out Lexington Opera House crowd in 2012, “I tell them, ‘This is.’”

With that, she launched into “Old Five and Dimers Like Me,” one of the most gloriously unaffected country yarns of all time and a tune typical of Shaver’s everyman narratives.

Sometimes, though, it was tough to tell where the drama in Shaver’s life ended and where it began in songs. His most valued sidekick, guitarist/son Eddy Shaver, died of a drug overdose 20 years ago on New Year’s Eve. Shaver played his show as scheduled that evening. The night he was acquitted of a 2007 shooting in a bar near Waco, he drove three hours to perform. Shaver even had a heart attack onstage at one point.

A testament to his trade? To his faith? Both? Who is to say, other than the passing of Shaver today at age 81, leaves a Texas sized hole in the consciousness of country music. Not the generic, beachcombing brand of pop passed off as country these days, but the kind of folk-informed humanity where real life bleeds into songs in ways that are naturally dramatic and honestly relatable. That’s what being “still Billy Joe” is all about.

“Songwriting, to me, should be simple,” Shaver told me in a 2012 interview. “That’s because I’m real simple. I didn’t finish high school and I didn’t go to college, so I don’t know those big $10 words. I had to stick with simplicity. But it winds up being the best thing in the world. I kind of got a corner on that. I feel songs don’t need to be greased like you grease a wheel. If it’s simple, it will slide on in there and everyone will understand it.”

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