Billy Joe Shaver: A Honky-Tonk Hero Softens His Punch

By J. Freedom du Lac
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 13, 2007

Billy Joe Shaver is a notoriously feisty honky-tonk hero who helped define the 1970s outlaw-country movement with his songs about hell-raising and hard living. In some ways, Shaver hasn't changed much in the decades since he ran with Waylon and Willie and their kind: This spring, shortly before Shaver turned 68, he shot a man in the face outside of a saloon. (The man survived. Aggravated assault and illegal gun-possession charges are still pending for Shaver, who claimed self-defense.)

But it was a somewhat kinder and gentler Shaver who performed at Jammin' Java on Tuesday. The Texas songwriter and singer frequently showed off a soft and sweet side throughout the engaging, emotional 70-minute set, preaching good parenting and good living. There were tender love letters to his late wife, his late mother and his late son. He told the folks in the crowd that he loved them, as well; and near the end of the show, during "Try and Try Again" -- an anthem of encouragement -- Shaver shared the love with the men in his band, hugging them one by one as he circled the stage.

Billy Joe Shaver: A fighter and a lover! Who knew?

Of course, Shaver still has some fight left in him. (Woe be unto -- and, perhaps, a slug be into -- he who dares to call the man a softie.) So Tuesday's show included more than a few of Shaver's raw, tough songs about the human condition, which Shaver has spent the better part of four decades exploring. He sang of pain and regret, of lust and rough living, sounding wholly convincing at every turn.

"The devil made me do it the first time," he brayed. "The second time, I done it on my own."

In "Ride Me Down Easy," over the rollicking cowboy-boogie groove of his steady backing trio, Shaver sang: "Hey, ride me down easy, Lord/Ride me on down/Leave word in the dust where I lay/Say 'I'm easy come, easy go and easy to love when I stay.' "

Shaver's own version of that song was never as well-known as some of the recorded covers, most notably Bobby Bare's. That's true for many of the tunes in his catalogue. Though he's not a technically impressive singer, Shaver is a superlative writer whose tunes have been covered by everybody from Willie Nelson and George Jones to Bob Dylan and Elvis Presley. Waylon Jennings even filled an album with Shaver songs: 1973's outlaw-country classic "Honky Tonk Heroes," whose loping title song Shaver performed at Tuesday's show.

Occasionally, he lost his grip on his own song's melodies. But Shaver wasn't interested in hiding behind his band; several times, as in the touching "Magnolia Mother's Love," he sang a cappella, putting his warble front and center.

Throughout the show, Shaver proffered anecdotes: about growing up in a Waco honky-tonk; about working for $50 a week upon first arriving in Nashville; about his stormy relationships. He told of one particular time his wife left him (it happened more than once). Shaver called her at her mother's home and talked her back with a poem that included the line "I couldn't be me without you" -- which became the centerpiece lyric in a song of the same name. He then turned in a terrific reading of the plaintive tune.

At one point, after taking a swig of bottled water between songs, Shaver, who has battled his share of demons, said: "If you ain't drinkin' water, you ought'er." The crowd (and the bartenders) laughed nervously. Shaver looked down from the stage, smiling. "Don't worry about drinkin', folks; it ain't what goes in your mouth -- it's what comes out." Then came the night's most sobering moment as Shaver explained that his son, Eddy -- a musician himself -- died several years ago of a heroin overdose.

"If you're doing anything dangerous like that, just pull up and come over here with us," Shaver said before performing "Star in My Heart" for his son a cappella. It was at once heartbreaking and heartwarming.

Shaver sang of God and country, too -- putting particular emphasis on the latter to mark the anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. He deferred his usual opener, the chugging "I Been to Georgia on a Fast Train," to begin his set with the patriotic shuffle, "Good Ol' U.S.A.," and then "Freedom's Child," which he dedicated to the American troops.

He was downright silly at times, as in the riotous "That's What She Said Last Night" and the bawdy "If the Trailer's a-Rockin' Don't Come Knockin'," which featured some memorable laugh lines.

Shaver, a 2004 inductee into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame, has a knack for writing lyrics that stick. He's a living legend among country poets. And, he promised: "Just like the songs I leave behind me/I'm gonna live forever now."

With that, the kinder, gentler Billy Joe Shaver dropped to his knees and bowed.

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