Brenda & Nashville
However, his life changed forever when at
20, he met, and immediately fell in love with 16-year old Brenda
Tindell. They married, and had one son, Eddy. Despite two divorces,
numerous separations, and a stormy relationship, Billy Joe had found
the one woman he would love for life.
His working life did not start promisingly.
There was a brief and unsuccessful stint working rodeo, but while
working in a sawmill he lost two fingers of his right hand (and most
of the use of the others). While recuperating, he wondered if this
was a message from God that he should change direction. He
remembered the words and encouragement of his teacher, Ms Legg.
Perhaps he should try making a living from his words.
He learned how to pick a guitar as best he
could with his right hand, and in 1966, hitched a ride to Los
Angeles. However, after an hour standing by the highway with no
ride, he crossed the road, immediately got a ride eastbound, and
soon ended up in Nashville.
In those days, there were few in Nashville
ready for the individualism of Billy Joe, but he did land a job
writing songs for Bobby Bare. He worked for Bare for four years,
making $50 a week, and sleeping on a couch in the office.
Eventually, he became discouraged, and went
back home, beginning a period where he regularly alternated between
Nashville and Texas. “The truth is I quite Nashville about as many
times as I quit Brenda”.
Back in Texas he worked in construction, but
had another accident, this time crushing two vertebrae. While many
other aspiring musicians often consider non-music employment as
something to fall back on, Billy Joe looked at things the other way,
again remembering Ms Legg’s words. “I actually fell back on the
music because I was so beat up”.
returned to Nashville, just as things were slowly changing in the
country music field. He fell in with artists like Kris Kristofferson
and Tom T. Hall. Kristofferson was impressed enough that he borrowed
money to produce Shaver’s first album, Old Five and Dimers Like
Me, and he was one of the first of numerous artists to record a
Billy Joe Shaver song, in this case “Christian Soldier”.
time earlier, Chet Atkins had asked Shaver to write a
“tongue-in-cheek” song about the Vietnam War. “I didn’t know what
tongue-in-cheek meant, so I just wrote a song based on what I
thought it would be like to be in a war”.
Lord it’s hard to be a Christian soldier when you tote a gun
And it hurts to have to watch a grown man cry
But we’re playin’ cards and lightin’ up and ain’t we havin’ fun
Turnin’ on and learnin’ how to die
didn’t consider the result “tongue-in-cheek”, and later Shaver
wrote, “I’m still not sure how you write a tongue-in-cheek song
about war, but I guess he’s right: that wasn’t it”.
gaining recognition, but not success: the record company didn’t
release Shaver’s album.
Honky Tonk Heroes: Billy writes a masterpiece
1972, with Kristofferson’s encouragement, he played at the Dripping
Springs music festival (an event soon to evolve into Willie Nelson’s
annual Fourth of July Picnic). It was a significant precursor to a
new direction in country music, and it embraced a then-unique mix of
both performers, (including Loretta Lynn, Tex Ritter, Kris
Kristofferson, John Prine, and Leon Russell) and of audience
(hippies and cowboys – or as they soon became known in Texas,
“ropers and dopers”). It was there he met Waylon Jennings, and the
next big event in Billy Joe’s life was about to occur as a result.
Jennings recorded an album, Honky Tonk Heroes, which became
one of the seminal recordings of the just-developing “Outlaw”
movement in country music. It’s not an exaggeration to say that it
marked a major turning point in country music, and every song but
one was written by Billy Joe Shaver.
included a number of now-classic Shaver songs including “Black
Rose”, a song about an inter-racial affair, but with some lyrics
that could easily describe some of Billy Joe’s lifestyle.
Devil made me do it the first time
The second time I done it on my own
Looking back, Billy Joe said the album “made it cool to be a
cowboy”, and that “for the first time, my English teacher, Mabel
Legg was proven right”. The record’s success finally convinced
Shaver’s company to release his album. Those two records should have
truly established Billy Joe Shaver’s career, but it wasn’t to be.
Shaver’s record company soon went bankrupt, as did virtually all of
his record companies for the next 20 years.
follow up on Heroes and the growing new movement in country
music, Waylon planned a subsequent album called Wanted: The
Outlaws with himself, Willie Nelson and Billy Joe. But Brenda
balked, thinking that they were finally earning some respect, and an
“outlaw” image was not the way to go. Shaver passed on the
opportunity. “After all, I was sleeping with her, not Waylon. But
Waylon was pissed”. The album was made without Shaver and became a
Despair, redemption, success and tragedy -->