Monday, August 22, 2011

Billy Joe Shaver tells stories in songs, survives

Billy Joe Shaver, who Willie Nelson believes may be the best songwriter alive today, didn’t feel good Friday night when we saw him at a steamy Zydeco concert. Nevertheless, the 72-year-old sang and smiled and told some stories, and with his band of players younger-than-half-his-age, entertained the small group of loyalists who knew the words to all his songs.

But, his shoulder was hurting – he’d had surgery and probably rushed to the tour without doing much of the recommended rehab (plus he told a story about falling and being picked up by that shoulder). And, it was hot, summertime-in-Birmingham hot inside the upstairs bar-slash concert hall. Shaver’s trademark snap-up denim shirt was soaked, and he asked the crew to turn off the white-hot back lights.

Still, he sang and told his stories. A performer and songwriter for most of his seven decades, Billy Joe kept coming back from the brief breaks during drum and guitar solos to sing another one. He gave us Georgia on a Fast Train, Live Forever, Tramp on Your Street, Honky Tonk Heroes, Black Rose and That’s What She Said Last Night. He did Wacko in Waco about the altercation that landed him in court last year, charged with assault. The jury of Texans sided with Billy Joe, whose friends Willie Nelson and Robert Duvall stood by him in court.

Shaver, whose been born again a couple of times, didn’t do many of his “Christian songs,” likely because he needed that painful right arm to properly emote songs like If You Don’t Love Jesus, You can go to Hell and Get Thee Behind me Satan.

Unknown to many in the world of popular country, Billy Joe Shaver is a songwriter’s songwriter and is known by loyal fans and other songwriters, especially Texas ones. Bob Dylan name-checked Billy Joe in the song I Feel a Change Comin’ On, from Dylan’s last album, Together through Life, singing “I’m listening to Billy Joe Shaver and reading James Joyce.” Kris Kristofferson, who helped Billy early during their Nashville songwriting years says, “He’s as real a writer as Hemingway. He’s timeless.”

I bought one of the six copies they had of Shaver’s book at the concert souvenir table, an autobiography called “Honky Tonk Hero” and on a normal concert night, he would have signed it for me, because that’s the way Billy Joe is. But, he left while the band was still closin’ it down. His people said Billy Joe just didn’t feel good. We could tell, and we thought, God bless him.

The book, with an introduction that is posted on his website, proves Kristofferson’s real writer statement and tells the stories – how he survived, how he lost two and a half fingers in a saw mill accident, lost his wife to cancer (married three times, divorced twice) and lost their child, guitar-phenom Eddy Shaver, to a drug overdose, and how Jesus helped him see that his gift was telling stories through songs.

The book’s introduction begins, “I was not even born yet when my father first tried to kill me.”

From that rough beginning of his father beating his pregnant mother unconscious and then leaving her to die to today when Billy Joe reads his Bible everyday and looks forward to seeing his wife and son in Heaven, Billy Joe’s life is a testament to God-given talent and overcoming the odds, and sharing some of America’s best songs along the way.

In the book, which includes lyrics to dozens of great songs covered by everyone from Waylon to Elvis, Billy Joe says of his tough beginning and beyond, “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, spend the money I had and buried my wife, son and mother in the span of one year.”

No wonder he didn’t feel good.

But, as Shaver says in the book, “I’m not here to complain or to 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. “

We are too, Billy Joe.

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