Oh, Shoot! Billy Joe's In Trouble Again
Sunday, April 15, 2007
The first time I saw Billy Joe Shaver perform, my wife, Tara, and I were at the old German dance hall in Luckenbach, Tex., the laid-back little burg that Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings immortalized in the late 1970s. Sharing a cold Lone Star at a table on the edge of the crowded dance floor, the wooden shutters propped open for any hint of a Hill Country breeze, we lost sight of our son Pete, who was 3 at the time.
Seconds later we spotted him out on the hardwood floor. Barely knee-high in a thicket of boot-wearing two-steppers, his blond head bobbing and feet flashing, Pete was lost in his own Billy Joe Shaver bliss.
That was more than 20 years ago, but even now, at 67, the silver-haired singer with the lived-in face and soul-stressed voice can have that effect on a person, young or old. That is, when he's not facing the possibility of jail time, as he is these days for a little shooting incident near Waco.
Willie Nelson once said: "Billy Joe Shaver may be the best songwriter alive today." Bob Dylan, Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, the Allman Brothers, Kris Kristofferson and of course Waylon and Willie have all covered his songs.
It was Shaver who wrote nine of the cuts on "Honky Tonk Heroes," Jennings's breakthrough album. Among his many hits are "Georgia on a Fast Train," "When the Fallen Angels Fly," "Black Rose," "Wild Cow Gravy" and "I'm Just an Old Chunk of Coal (but I'm Going to Be a Diamond Someday)."
I'm familiar with the hardscrabble origins of that music, since Shaver and I are both old Waco boys. Actually, we're from Bellmead, a working-class suburb whose residents back then toiled at either the rubber plant (making tires) or at the Katy shops (repairing locomotives).
Shaver's teenage mother, Victory, who went by Tincie, was a waitress at Leslie's Chicken Shack, a legend in its own right among Southern-style fried-chicken gourmands. His father, Virgil, known as Buddy, was a bootlegger and bare-knuckle fighter who left home when Billy was a baby. Neither parent was inclined to raise a child, so he lived with his grandmother, Birdie Lee Watson. She died when he was 12, and Tincie took him back.
Both of us went to a school called La Vega, and though Shaver is a few years older than I am, we both had Mabel Legg, an English teacher of the old-school variety who died recently at 102. Ageless in her sensible shoes and rimless glasses, she was notorious for requiring that her senior-year students memorize and recite the first 20 lines of the Prologue to Chaucer's "Canterbury Tales," in Middle English.
Shaver didn't tarry long at La Vega, so he missed "Whan that Aprill with his shoures soote," but he credits Miss Legg with encouraging him to write. Suspicious that a poem he turned in was too good to be his own, she had the skinny little hood write another, about outer space. He did, she was impressed, and with her support he kept on writing, even after he dropped out of school at 14.
It wasn't long before he was focused on topics more down-to-earth than outer space. He learned to trust himself to write about what he knew -- hard times and trouble, mostly.
"Got a good Christian raisin' and an eighth-grade education / Ain't no need in y'all a treatin' me this way," he would write in years to come ("Georgia on a Fast Train").
These days, this redneck rebel, a key figure in the outlaw country music revolt that roiled '70s-era Nashville, is in a familiar place -- in trouble again.