By Steve Houk
Living legend? Yep, there are a few left out there, not many, but a few. And one of them is Billy Joe Shaver.
With a life that reads like an epic hard luck country song, Shaver made it out from under a sandpaper-tough Texas upbringing and forty plus years of hard living to become one of those great American songwriters, with fellow legends like Waylon Jennings, Johnny Cash, Kris Kristofferson, The Allman Brothers, Bob Dylan and even Elvis Presley covering his songs. And that’s what it comes down to, all these years later, when the Grammy-nominated Shaver hits the road: it’s all about the songs.
“I’m enjoying going out and playing for the folks, because these songs, since I wrote all of them, they’re like little time capsules, and I can go out and play and every time I sing one of those old songs, they’re new to these kids, they’re so old they’re new. It’s just like going back, man. It’s a really great feeling. I really enjoy it.”
Billy Joe Shaver, 75, is truly a rare breed, one of the last of the singing outlaws, a group that includes still kickin’ better known road warriors like Waylon, Willie and Kris. His classic story-centric songs evoke the trappings of a hard life, a raucous rough and tumble existence, with the goal being to still remain standing with a dirt-filled fistful of hope. Shaver takes The Birchmere stage on Saturday June 13th.
With a childhood like Shaver had, heck, even before he was born, it’s a miracle of sorts that he survived to write the songs he did. “I’ve lost fingers and I’ve been beat up, I’ve rodeo’d, I’ve done everything you can do, just about, in 75 years, I’m paying for it now.” Yet it’s the harder moments of life that have helped formulate his songwriting style and framed the content of his legendary songs.
“It contributed to it alot, because my grandmother raised me,” Shaver told me from his home in Waco. “My father claimed my mother was running around on him, so with me still inside her, he took her out to an old stock tank out there somewhere, and left her for dead. This old Mexican friend of ours was out that way and he pulled her out of the water and put her over the back of his horse, thought she was dead, and brought her back to the house. Somehow the water must have come out of her. She was still pregnant with me, and my mother told my grandmother, if he…that’s me…comes out and it’s a boy, I’m gone. And I’ll guarantee you, the day after she had me, she left.”
With his mother a mere memory, Shaver was at the mercy of his brutal father, and life was a nasty bear to say the least. But amidst the tough times, he vividly remembers how he first got a taste of music, in a most unlikely of scenarios.
“There was a buncha black people, cotton pickers, across the railroad track from us,” Shaver said. “And I’d go over every day, maybe I was about 6 or 7, and I’d go over and every evening there was a lady there that had a stand-up piano on the porch, and everybody’d gather round there and they’d get to singing. And I could sing real good and they’d let me sing. I got influenced by them more than I did anybody.”
Shaver survived an adulthood that would have reduced many to dust, including a 2007 arrest for shooting a man, for which he was acquitted. But he also kept writing and recording, and even dabbled in acting. His most recent record “Long In The Tooth” (2014) was a pleasant surprise that showed Shaver’s songwriting is still going strong, still evocative, still Billy Joe. “We worked really hard, man. It was a labor of love really, but it just came out so great, it just amazed me, I couldn’t believe it. But I’ve always been trying to beat (his 1973 debut) ‘Old Five and Dimers Like Me.’ I think this stands up there with it.”
Shaver has sure seen his share of hard knocks but like any good ol’ cowboy, he’s picked himself up and come back strong, because, well, it’s his passion and what he does best.
“It’s not work, it’s still a hobby to me. I’m really lucky to be able to do this. God gave me a gift, and I just made the best of it.”
Billy Joe Shaver and special guest Curtis McMurtry appear Saturday June 13th at the Birchmere, 3701 Mt. Vernon Ave., Alexandria, VA. For tickets click here.