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.
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.
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
His life in a
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).
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.
the summer of 1999, his wife, his mother and his son all died within
a year and a half of each other.
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.
NEXT: To Nashville -->