(Above: Survivor Billy Joe Shaver performs “Old Chunk of Coal” at Farm Aid 2011 in Kansas City, Kan.)
By Joel Francis
The Daily Record
Search the name of country legend Billy Joe Shaver and the phrase “honky tonk hero” isn’t far behind. It’s the name he gave his autobiography and the name of the landmark album Waylon Jenning recorded of Shaver’s songs in the early 1970s. That association earned him a seat at the far end of the outlaw table, another handle that has stuck with Shaver over the years.
It is difficult to summarize a life that reaches back to the Great Depression, when Shaver was born, and a catalog of music that spans five decades, but a better word to describe him may be survivor. Check out this passage from Shaver’s self-penned, online biography:
“I’ve lost parts of three fingers, broke my back, suffered a heart attack and a quadruple bypass, had a steel plate put in my neck and 136 stitches in my head,” Shaver writes, “fought drugs and booze, spent the money I had, and buried my wife, son, and mother in the span of one year.”
When Shaver lost his fingers, he taught himself to play guitar again without those digits. The night his son died, he was back onstage, playing the scheduled gig. Guitar and pen are Shaver’s constant companions through crisis.
“I write songs as my way out of life’s corners,” Shaver said in a recent phone interview. “I always just wrote for myself, but it worked out that a lot of people got in the same kind of shape I did and identified with what I was writing and held it close to their chest.”
To Shaver, “Try and Try Again” and “Live Forever” aren’t just classic show-stoppers and sing-alongs – they’re literally lifesavers. When Shaver started writing “I’m Just an Old Chunk of Coal” he was in a particularly bad spot.
“I was set up to be the next big deal in Nashville, but I was drinking, doing drugs, chasing women. I was doing everything you weren’t supposed to do,” Shaver said. “One night, I had a vision of Jesus Christ. He was sitting there, eyes like red coals.”
Too intimidated to make eye contact, Shaver sat there, stewing in humiliation.
“His head was in his hands and he was going from side to side with his head,” Shaver continued. “He did have to say it, but I knew he was asking How long are you going to keep doing this?”
Overcome with guilt, Shaver drove in the middle of the night to a special place away from the city he discovered with his son, planning to kill himself.
“I could have sworn I jumped off a cliff going to do myself in, but I wound up on my knees with my back to the cliff asking God to help me,” Shaver said. “He gave me this song when I was coming down the trail.”
By the time Shaver reached the bottom of the steep, tricky path he had half of the song. Getting the second half was no easier. Pulling his wife away from her friends and his son from his school, Shaver moved the family to Houston to distance himself from his dealers and temptations.
“I went cold turkey from smoking, doping, everything. I couldn’t keep any food down so I dropped to 150 pounds. One night, after I was finally able to eat again, I finally wrote the rest of the song. It took a year to finish.”
Whenever Shaver writes a new song, he holds it up to the standard of “Old Five and Dimers Like Me.” It’s one of the first songs he wrote, not only a key track on Jenning’s “Honky Tonk Heroes” album, but the title song on Shaver’s first album, both released in 1973.
“I wrote that song when I was eight years old,” Shaver said, “and I’m always trying to beat it.”
Next month Shaver plans to release his first new studio album since 2007. He’s been working on the project with Todd Snider, and is finalizing the tracklist, making sure everything is up to the “Five and Dime” standard.
“I don’t want to spill all the beans, but we’ve been doing a few of the new songs live,” Shaver said. “I’ve got a four-piece band that makes enough racket, but still lets people hear the words.”