Hardcore Texas troubadour Billy Joe Shaver is still raisin’ hell
Even if artists such as bob dylan, Kris Kristofferson, Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, Bobby Bare and Elvis Presley have seen more chart action with Billy Joe Shaver’s tunes than the composer himself, the 67-year-old songster has earned his “Texas poet laureate” handle. And his recent career retrospective Greatest Hits (Compadre) disc confirms it.
But in recent years, Shaver has been better known as a survivor. After losing both mother Victory Watson Shaver and wife Brenda to cancer in 1999, his guitar-playing son Eddy Shaver died of a heroin overdose a year later.
Devastated by these losses, Shaver confided that he briefly considered suicide before returning to the road as he’s always done. When he suffered a near-fatal heart attack at Gruene Hall in 2001, he told me he was “about ready to go.” That was four discs, three films, a quadruple bypass and a few busted vertebrae ago, yet the recent Texas Music Hall of Fame inductee shows no signs of slowing down. The drama, however, keeps right on coming.
Back in April, Shaver was charged with aggravated assault and unlawful possession of a handgun in a prohibited place in connection with a shooting that occurred in the parking lot of Papa Joe’s Texas Saloon in Lorena, Texas, just north of Austin, on March 31.
Shaver is alleged to have shot Billy Bryant Coker in the left cheek after an altercation in the bar, and witnesses at the scene claim to have heard Shaver ask, “Where do you want it?” before a shot was fired.
According to Shaver’s attorney, Joseph Turner, Coker was threatening Shaver with a knife, and his client acted in self-defence. The 50-year-old Coker, who happens to be the cousin of Shaver’s ex-wife Wanda Lynn Canady’s late husband, was taken to a nearby hospital. His injuries were not life-threatening and he was released soon after.
One hour after he turned himself in to police in Waco, Shaver was released from jail on $50,000 bond and motored down to Austin to play a scheduled release party for his Greatest Hits CD at Waterloo Records later that afternoon.
The shooting incident doesn’t seemed to have hurt Shaver’s career. If anything, it’s enhanced his folk hero rep in Texas, where they love their outlaws.
Some entreprenurial types are already working on Free Billy Joe buttons and T-shirts in anticipation of the trial, and fellow honky-tonker Dale Watson is rocking Austin audiences with a new song inspired by the incident called Where Do You Want It? There’s some question as to whether Shaver ever uttered the now famous phrase, but with the court case pending, Shaver won’t discuss any details of what happened that night.
“I wish I could talk about it, but I can’t,” says Shaver from his Waco home. “It was a do-or-die deal, or else I wouldn’t have done it. I’m just lucky to still be around – and he is, too.”
He’d much rather talk about his latest recording and new pal, Mathew Knowles – yes, Beyoncé’s dad – whose Music World Entertainment operation recently acquired the Houston-based roots country label Compadre Records that puts out Shaver’s discs.
“Mathew is a really big country music fan and a big fan of mine, too, which is fortunate, because when he bought the company he kept me on. Ain’t that cool? He also kept on [president] Brad Turcotte – who started the label – and rightfully so, because Brad took the company from nothing to something.
“So I’ve got the same wonderful people working for me now that work for Beyoncé, which is some kind of a miracle. I haven’t met her yet, but I will. She’s very talented. I just think the world of her.”
There’s no sign of Beyoncé on Shaver’s fantastic forthcoming Everybody’s Brother disc (due August 7), a righteously raucous album of honky-tonk hymns that captures the raw power of Shaver’s live performances often missing from his studio sets.
But even without Beyoncé on hand, producer John Carter Cash ensures that Shaver’s in very good company with Kris Kristofferson, Marty Stuart, Tanya Tucker, John Anderson and Bill Miller, and the late Johnny Cash even helps out.
“Johnny and I became good friends while I was working for his publishing company, and he really liked my band. So whenever we’d play some little Nashville hole in the wall, Johnny would join us. He also stopped by a demo session we had at Jack Clement’s Cowboy Arms Hotel and Recording Spa and jumped in for a duet on You Just Can’t Beat Jesus Christ. It was a one-take wonder, but John Carter got a hold of the master tape, mixed it and that’s what you hear on the album, no overdubs or nothing.
“I haven’t told anybody this, but I had a visitation from Johnny. The night before we were supposed to record Everybody’s Brother – which became the last song of the session because I kept putting it off – he woke me up in my motel room about 3:30 in the morning and told me to get off my ass and finish that song I’d been working on for months.
“I hadn’t had much sleep, but I went straight back at it. As it turned out, none of the work I’d done before figured into the finished version – all the lyrics came to me new on the spot. We played it in the studio and everything fit just like magic.
“I’m so happy with the way the whole album came out, I don’t care what anyone else thinks. This is probably the best I’ve ever made.”
Additional Interview Audio Clips
Although prolific tunesmith Billy Joe Shaver had more than 30 songs written for the new album, he felt compelled to include the Johnny Cash composition No Earthly Good. http://www.nowtoronto.com/issues/2007-07-19/shaver1.mp3 //
Kris Kristofferson joins Shaver on his recording of No Earthly Good but their friendship streches back nearly 40 years as Shaver recalls. http://www.nowtoronto.com/issues/2007-07-19/shaver2.mp3