The Trials of Billy Joe Shaver

Is the legendary Texas singer-songwriter a honky-tonk hero or a honky-tonk bully?

Everybody loves a good redemption song, especially one with a lot of darkness. Billy Joe Shaver has a bunch of them. The singer-songwriter from Corsicana is one of the best the state has ever produced— the best, Willie Nelson told me in a profile I did on Billy Joe in December 2003 (“ The Ballad of Billy Joe Shaver”). His wild life gave him plenty of material. There was the boozing, drugging, womanizing, and fighting in the seventies and eighties, when he was part of a long-haired Nashville Rat Pack of country music outlaws, well-known troublemakers like Nelson, Waylon Jennings, and Kris Kristofferson. “I was so goddam crazy,” Billy Joe told me. “I was crazier than any of them. I went for it.” Billy Joe’s wild ride continued into the nineties; he actually had a heart attack onstage in 2001 and almost died. This came at the end of a period of unfathomable sadness. First he buried the love of his life, Brenda, a woman he had married three different times, after she died of cancer in 1999. A year later his only son—a troubled soul who had helped revive Billy Joe’s career in the nineties—died of a heroin overdose.

But Billy Joe made it through those times by writing some of the most spiritual country music anyone had ever heard, unbelievable songs of despair and hope. He had been born again, finding strength in Jesus and reforming his ways, something he has never tired of reminding his audience. “I thank Jesus Christ every chance I get,” he often said from the stage. After a set filled with odes to the wild life, he ended his shows with the song, “You Just Can’t Beat Jesus Christ.” This is Billy Joe’s charm: the dark and the light, the bad and the good, a battle for his soul that you witnessed every time he performed.

So when he shot a man in the face in a bar three years ago, I wasn’t all that surprised. The circumstances of that night seemed straight out of one of Billy Joe’s songs. The shooting happened on March 31, 2007, when Billy Joe and his ex-wife Wanda went to Papa Joe’s Texas Saloon in Lorena, just south of Waco, after a day spent taking photographs for the cover of his next album. At the bar Billy Joe was introduced to a man named Billy Coker, a TXU Energy employee who, it turned out, had a cousin who had previously been married to Wanda—and who had killed himself. From this point on, the evening went downhill, though exactly how and why was a matter of dispute. The night ended in the bar’s back patio, where Billy Joe shot Billy Coker in the face. The .22-caliber bullet entered his upper lip, knocked out a tooth and a crown, and ended up in the back of his neck (doctors left it there because

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