Despite a hard-knock life, Billy Joe Shaver won’t be giving up his legendary singing career any time soon.
There are not many musicians left that deserve the title of living legend, but Billy Joe Shaver is one of them.
With a life that reads like an epic hard-luck country song, Shaver made it out from under a tough Texas upbringing and 40+ years of hard living to become one of the 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. That’s still 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,” said Shaver. “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.”
Shaver, 75, is truly a rare breed and one of the last of the singing outlaws. His classic, often story-centric, songs evoke the trappings of a raucous, rough-and-tumble existence, with the goal being to 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 that he survived to write the songs he did.
“I’ve lost fingers and I’ve been beat up,” Shaver told me from his home in Waco. “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 these harder moments of life that have helped formulate his writing style and framed the content of his legendary songs.
“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 and left her for dead,” Shaver said. “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. He thought she was dead but he brought her back to the house. Somehow, the water must have come out of her and she survived. She was still pregnant with me, and told my grandmother, ‘if 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 the most unlikely of scenarios.
“There was a buncha black people, cotton pickers, across the railroad track from us,” Shaver said. “I was about 6 or 7, and every evening there was a lady there that had a stand-up piano on the porch, and everybody would gather round there and they’d get to singing. 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,” Shaver said. “It was a labor of love really, but it just came out so great, it amazed me. I couldn’t believe it. I’ve always been trying to beat ‘Old Five and Dimers Like Me’ and I think this stands up there with it. 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.
Steve Houk writes about local and national music luminaries for WashingtonLife.com and his own blog at midliferocker.wordpress.com. He is also lead singer for the successful Northern Virginia classic rock cover band Second Wind plus other local rock ensembles.