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Billy Joe Shaver: a life in song (Jul. 21/05)

So I learned how to work and I learned how to fight
I learned how to put a bunch of words together as the years rolled by
God gave me a way to go

“Heart of Texas”

“He may be the best songwriter alive today" – Willie Nelson
"Billy Joe Shaver is a stunning songwriter, has been for a long, long time”
     – No Depression magazine

With Billy Joe after his 2005 concert at Harbourfront Centre (Click for larger image)  


In the 1960's, Jerry Lee Lewis released a single entitled "My Life Would Make a Damn Good Country Song”. However, Texas singer/songwriter Billy Joe Shaver's life – a life that makes Lewis’s look dull by comparison – has been the subject of the dozens of damn good country songs he’s written over the last forty years.

Over that time, he’s been recognized by many in the music business as one of the great and original songwriters in the country music field, but the success and wider recognition that his talent deserves has until very recently avoided him. This article is one of many others whose purpose is to help bring a wider audience to the gifts and the soul of a remarkable man.

His lyrics tell many stories, and often with astonishing frankness about his struggles big and small, heartbreaking and funny, touching and raucous, all taken from a life that has encompassed more troubles and tragedy (both self-made and not)  than most people would ever want to contemplate. He has, through his faith and inner strength emerged from all this with a resilience and positive outlook that is truly remarkable.


His life in a few words

Abandoned by one parent just before he was born, and by the other soon after, he was raised by his grandmother, and quit school early to lead a “headed-for-trouble” youth. He married three times – always to the same woman. An industrial accident cost him most of the fingers on his right hand. He struggled for years as a singer and songwriter in Nashville, but the narrowness of the music industry, combined with his own wild living, drinking and drugs prevented any chance of early success. (It didn’t help that most of his record companies went out of business soon after recording him).

Re-discovering Christ pulled him from the brink of self-destruction, and in the 1990’s, he finally achieved some commercial success playing in a band with his only child, Eddy.

Beginning in the summer of 1999, his wife, his mother and his son all died within a year and a half of each other.

A longer story

However, to really appreciate his music – and to understand and appreciate the life that it came from – it’s best to know a little more of his amazing story.

His recent autobiography, Honky Tonk Hero begins with the line “I was not even born when my father first tried to kill me”. In 1939, Shaver’s father, suspecting his wife – then seven months pregnant with Billy Joe– of infidelity, beat her severely, and then tossed her into a tank of water and left her to die.  Billy writes that that night, was “the reason my father left, it’s the reason my mother didn’t want me. I think that night is the reason I write country songs”.

Just before he was born, mindful of her husband’s violence, his mother warned her family “If it comes out a boy, I’m gone”.


Within a month of Billy Joe’s birth, she was gone, leaving Billy Joe with his grandmother, who although she had little money (“we was real, real poor”), resisted his uncles’ and aunts’ pleas to put him in an orphanage.


They say my mammy left me the same day that she had me
Said she hit the road and never once looked back.

Well, I just thought I’d mention my grandma’s old age pension
Is the reason why I’m standing here today…

“Georgia on a Fast Train”


(“Georgia” for all its autobiographical heart has been recorded by at least 16 other singers, ranging from Tennessee Ernie Ford to the Allman Brothers, Johnny Cash to Commander Cody and his Lost Planet Airmen).


His youth had both promise and trouble.  (“I got all my country learning milking and a churnin’/Picking cotton, raisin’ hell, and bailing hay”). In the summers, he would sometimes travel to Waco to visit his mother, who was working in a honkytonk, and Billy Joe would occasionally sing there. (And, for those who know his music, yes, the honkytonk was named "Green Gables"). When Billy Joe was 12, his grandmother died, and he moved to Waco to live with his mother.


He quit school after grade 8 (“I got a good Christian raisin’ and an eighth grade education/Ain’t no need in y’all treatin’ me this way”), but before that, something occurred in school that would eventually change his life.



His 7th grade teacher, Mabel Legg, discovered that Billy Joe had a gift for poetry. “You’ve got talent, and you can always fall back on that. As long as you are honest with what you write, you will always have something special to say”. Billy Joe writes, “She was the only teacher that gave a darn about me. Most of the others just saw me as a punk”.


After leaving school, Billy Joe wandered, and looked like he would fulfill his other teachers’ expectations of him. He hung out with hoboes, got odd jobs, including one driving a gasoline rig at 15. He spent some brief time in jail in Mexico.

Ain’t no God in Mexico
Ain’t no way to understand
How that border crossin’ feelin’
Makes a fool out of a man
If I’d never felt the sunshine
I would not curse the rain
If my feet could fit a railroad track
I guess I’d a been a train

-- Ain’t no God in Mexico

The day he turned 17, he joined the Navy, but was eventually thrown out for fighting.


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