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Billy Joe Shaver - part 2 (July, 2005)

Click here for the main Billy Joe page & here for BJS links. My photos of his recent Toronto shows: 2005 at Harbourfront, and 2007at Hugh's Room


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”.


He 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”.


Some 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”.

Cause 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

Atkins 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”.

He was gaining recognition, but not success: the record company didn’t release Shaver’s album.

Honky Tonk Heroes: Billy writes a masterpiece
In 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.

It 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.

The 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.

To 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 huge hit.

NEXT: Despair, redemption, success and tragedy -->