The Ballad of Billy Joe Shaver

In his 64 years, the Corsicana native has been a cotton picker and a roughneck, a screwup and a scoundrel. He's hit the bottle, hit rock bottom, and been born again. He married the same woman three times, mounted multiple comebacks, survived a heart attack onstage and the deaths of nearly everyone he's ever loved. All of which explains why he's one of the greatest songwriters in the world.

BILLY JOE SHAVER ACTS MORE like a Baptist preacher than a man in need of salvation. Performing at Austin’s KUT-FM studios, he waves his arms around as if he were trying to explain something. He pounds his chest and kicks his leg out. He clasps his hands like a minister, throws punches like a fighter. One minute he’s standing still, slightly tilted to the left, hands in his pockets, eyes slammed shut as he sings, deep worry lines between his brows. The next minute he’s so riled up his face burns bright red. He stretches out his long arms as wide as they can go, revealing that the index and middle fingers on his right hand are stubs and the ring finger is missing a joint. He can’t hold a pick, and when he plucks his guitar, he uses his thumb and pinkie. Billy Joe, who is 64, is wearing blue jeans, a blue denim shirt, brown boots, and a brown cowboy hat, which, when he takes it off to wave in the air, sets his longish gray hair loose. He looks like a crazed George Washington, gesturing at the ceiling, clenching his fist.

The funny thing is, he’s singing to a radio audience that can’t see any of this. Here in the studio at the University of Texas at Austin, there are only three people besides Billy Joe’s four-piece band, which he is leading through a one-hour set of songs about love and death and trains and trouble. He does some good-natured preaching and storytelling. He introduces one of his best-known songs by saying, “This is a song that helped me when I was at the end of my rope. It’s called ‘I’m Just an Old Chunk of Coal (But I’m Gonna Be a Diamond Someday).’” After a beat of dead air, he adds, “Still trying.” As he sings the country shuffle, his Waco accent gets even deeper on some of the verses, hiccuping the lines: “I’m gonna glow and grow ‘til I’m so plu-pure-perfect …” Toward the end of the set, he does a song called “Live Forever” and, unknown to the audience, ends the song on his knees, hands at his side, head bowed in silence.

With time for one more song, the show’s host asks Billy Joe to play the title track from his latest album, Freedom’s Child. “I would,” says the singer, “but I’d rather do this one about Jesus. Like I say, ‘If you don’t love Jesus, go to hell.’ May the God of your choice bless you—and good luck with that.” He and the band chug into “You Just Can’t Beat Jesus Christ,” the song Billy Joe ends almost every set with, whether he’s playing on the radio in Texas or the stage in New York City. He sings it like a gospel singer would, answering the title’s affirmation with ejaculations like “Oh, no, you can’t.” The show ends, and as soon as he is off the air, Billy Joe says to no one in particular, “I thank Jesus Christ every chance I get.”

“Aw, you’re just buttering up the boss,” responds Cornbread, his bass player.

“I wouldn’t kiss his ass,” responds Billy Joe, “if I didn’t have to.”

Then, after a pause, he adds, “And I have to.”

BILLY JOE SHAVER, David Allan Coe, Johnny Paycheck, Jerry Jeff Walker, Kris Kristofferson, Mickey Newbury—they were the “boys” with whom Willie and Waylon sang about going to Luckenbach, the so-called outlaws, the musicians and songwriters who, in the early seventies, revitalized country music by stripping it down and bringing it back to its roots. It was a hell of a crew, a wild bunch of drunks and crazies—and great songwriters. By most accounts, even Willie’s, Billy Joe was the greatest. “Billy Joe is definitely the best writer in Texas,” says the braided one. By most accounts, he was also the craziest.

So it’s fitting that his own life resembles a country song, though one that Hank Williams might have written if he’d collaborated with, say, Sophocles. “The Ballad of Billy Joe Shaver” goes something like this:

First verse: His father leaves before he’s born, and he’s raised by his grandmother while his mother waits tables in a honky-tonk.

Second verse: He gets kicked out of the Navy, marries his pregnant girlfriend, and almost gets his right hand hacked off.

Chorus: He’s a screwup and a scoundrel (drugs, booze, women) who someday, if lucky, will redeem himself.

Third verse: He leaves his wife and becomes a successful Nashville singer and songwriter. He does more drugs and hits rock bottom.

Fourth verse: He becomes born again and moves back to Texas, but he can’t get a gig. His son joins his band, rejuvenating his career.

Repeat chorus.

Fifth verse: His son dies of a heroin overdose, not long after his wife (whom he’s remarried—twice) and his mother die of cancer. He gives up music.

Sixth verse: He decides to try again, but he has a heart attack onstage and almost dies. Alone in the world except for his songs, he goes back on the road.

Repeat chorus, doubling the lines about the hope of redemption.

Not only is Billy Joe’s song true, but unlike almost everything coming out of Nashville these days, it has the ring of truth, in all its glory and infamy. Billy Joe’s life has imitated his art, and vice versa, for so long it’s hard to tell where one starts and the other ends. He was born in Corsicana, a cotton-gin town fifty miles southeast of Dallas, on August 16, 1939, to a laborer named Virgil and a woman named Victory, though by then Virgil was long gone. Victory left Billy Joe with his grandmother Birdie Lee Watson while she moved to Waco and went to work in a bar called the Green Gables. Birdie Lee was dirt-poor, making lye soap for money, and raised Billy Joe and his older sister, Patricia, on her old-age pension. He would go across the railroad tracks to the black settlement in Corsicana and listen to singers and guitar

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