HUNTER, Tex. — A tall, stern-faced man with his arms crossed is standing in front of the stage and Billy Joe Shaver has had enough. He wraps up “Wacko From Waco,” a song he wrote about — true story — the time he shot a man during a barroom squabble. He was 70 then. He’s 77 now and a half-hour into his set at Riley’s Tavern.
“You know, you look like you’re so goddamned perturbed, it’s bothering me,” Shaver tells him through the microphone. “You’re standing up in front here and you got all these damned looks on your face like you hate the f---ing world and you’re in front of a bunch of people who like me. Why don’t you come back yonder somewhere?”
There is laughter in the room, some delighted, some nervous. Slowly, the man makes his way to the back.
Warning: This podcast contains explicit language.
“I wasn’t picking on you,” Shaver tells him — an explanation, not an apology. “I was just telling you what it is. It distracts me.”
This is life at Shaver’s roadshow, which rambles into the District’s Hill Country venue Friday night. Musically, the narrative stretches across a half-century, from the cotton fields of Corsicana to big-city Nashville, from the altar to divorce court, Jesus and Papa Joe’s Saloon. Others call it between-song banter. For Shaver, the stories are an essential part of the performance. So is the unrehearsed drama, like the beat-down of crossed-arms man.
With that score settled, the band kicks into “Black Rose,” a song that revolves around one of those Shaver lines you can’t shake: “The devil made me do it the first time. The second time I done it in on my own.”
Something else makes “Black Rose” special. It’s one of nine Shaver songs that the late Waylon Jennings recorded for his groundbreaking 1973 album, “Honky Tonk Heroes.” Bristling with attitude and electric guitars, that record marked the beginning of a new kind of music — outlaw country. Shaver’s songs were the antidote for the glossy, string-soaked sound of 1960s Nashville. But Shaver wasn’t trying to cure country music. He just wrote songs, the best he could think of.
No wonder Bob Dylan declared, in a 2009 song, that “I’m listening to Billy Joe Shaver and I’m reading James Joyce.” Mike Judge’s new animated series, “Tales From the Tour Bus,” will premiere later this year, featuring Shaver alongside such luminaries as George Jones and Tammy Wynette.
Yet while so many of his peers — Willie, Waylon, Johnny — are on a first-name basis with fame, Shaver continues his rolling attempt to introduce himself. He hopes that the next record or TV show might finally land him the recognition he deserves.
“He was so nice to me and so grateful that we were doing this,” says Judge, a fan well before the “Beavis and Butt-Head” days. “But every now and then he’d say, ‘What took you so long?’ ”
Dysfunction, demons, virtues
The heartbreaks are carried around like Kodachrome snapshots, though crisp at the corners, not a hint of yellow. He thinks about Brenda, beautiful in that Ali MacGraw way, the girl he married — and divorced — three times before she died of cancer. He thinks of Eddy, their boy, a guitar slinger who became a musical partner. In 2000, on New Year’s Eve, he overdosed on heroin. He was 38.
“A lot of people think I’m on something because I’m jumping around happy,” Shaver says. “I’m just whistling by the graveyard, man. If I get down and go to start thinking about stuff, I’m liable to start crying.”
On stage, he’ll tell them he’s doing one for his son:
“He was a great guitar player,” Shaver says. “But he was a great person, too, and a good friend. He was my son. The only child I had. One night he wound up with a bunch of friends at a motel. He thought they was friends. I guess they was. I don’t know. But he wound up dead from a heroin overdose. The reason I’m telling you this is because every one of you all might have a friend or family member that’s into that s---. And it’s a good time to pull up. And you can pull up with Jesus Christ. I’m telling you. That’s all it takes. That’s all you’ll need. Jesus Christ is the one who made us all number two. He wants you to be yourself. So don’t worry about being a little different.”
Different. He’s always felt that way. Forget outlaw. He calls himself an outcast. When he was growing up, his uncles mistreated him because he reminded them of his father, Buddy, a mean drunk who beat his mother. As a man, he saw his peers turn on him. Maybe it was competitiveness. Maybe he just didn’t bow down enough. Then there was Nashville. It never felt like home. That probably sealed his fate, at least commercially.
“It’s dangerous to not hang around Nashville,” says Tom T. Hall, a longtime friend who knew how to work within the industry. “If you’re around here, they know you’re alive.”
Shaver has a small house in Waco, but his real home is the road. With longtime guitarist Jeremy Woodall at the wheel of his van, they drive hours at a time, across Texas, Georgia and as far as San Francisco if there’s a gig. The margins are slim.
At Riley’s, he gets $3,000. Half goes to the guys. Another chunk goes to tips. As the crowd files out, Shaver slips a $100 bill to the sound guy. That morning, he did the same with a waitress at the Waffle House.
“I don’t go to church, and when I see somebody that needs money I’ll give it to them,” he says.
Shaver’s sets could serve as a master class in songwriting. Everything is grounded in reality, whether the Green Gables dance hall of “Honky Tonk Heroes” or the Mexican jail he landed in as a young man. He sings about faith and Texas pride, of unconditional love and deception. All with a hook.
“Some days,” Hall says, “you wake up and you wonder how Billy Joe’s doing and you hear all the lines from his songs — ‘Fenced yard ain’t hole cards, and like is not never will be.’
“Then he’s got that line that says: ‘I’ve got a good Christian raising and an eighth-grade education. Ain’t no use in you all treating me this way.’ That says a hell of a lot in just a few words.”
“The writing, where it came from, I don’t know,” says Robert Duvall, so struck by Shaver’s authenticity that he cast him cold in his 1997 film “The Apostle.” “From his own depth and his own demons and his virtues, I guess.”
Shaver says the source is no mystery.
“All of them are based on things that happened to me,” he says.
He tried Nashville, hitching a ride in a cantaloupe truck in 1966. By then, he already came off as a little sideways. Shaver didn’t dress right. No sport coat and tie. He had lost most of two fingers in an accident at a sawmill and people noticed. Bobby Bare, a few years older and already with a series of hits, invited Shaver to his office at RCA.
“I didn’t want your normal Nashville songwriter, and Billy Joe came in one morning and he sang me some songs and I thought, ‘That f---er’s crazy,’ ” says Bare, now 82. “Then I got to thinking about it and I said, ‘Hell, that’s what I’m looking for’ and run him down. And he signed up to write for me. I think I only paid him $50 a week.”
The songs started getting attention. In 1971, Kris Kristofferson recorded “Good Christian Soldier” and, in 1972, Tom T. grabbed “Old Five and Dimers.” Shaver’s debut album, “Old Five and Dimers Like Me,” arrived the next year.
“If the world is God’s television set, with which he entertains himself, Billy Joe Shaver is on Monday mornings at 3:00,” Hall wrote on the back cover. “Kris Kristofferson produced this album in order to get him a better time slot.”
That didn’t happen, but Shaver’s gift led to the chance meeting that would change his life — and country music.
In March of 1972, Shaver arrived in Dripping Springs, Tex., to play a festival with Kristofferson, Hall and Tex Ritter. This was before Willie Nelson even had a beard. The guys were drinking and passing a guitar around in a trailer when Shaver kicked into the song he had written for Nelson, “Willy the Wandering Gypsy and Me.”
“Whose song is that?” shouted Waylon Jennings.
“I said, ‘Well, it’s mine,’ ” Shaver remembers. “He said: ‘Well, I got to have it. I got to sing that song.’ ”
Shaver told him he had a bunch more cowboy songs.
“He said, ‘Come on up to Nashville and I’ll do a whole album of them.’ ”
Shaver is sitting in his van, somewhere west of Houston, as he tells this story. The hot water is out at the motel, so no showers, but Shaver looks the same as the day before — denim tucked into denim, boots and cowboy hat over his stringy white hair. He’s thinner than he used to be, but you wouldn’t know an intestinal blockage nearly killed him last year or that a clogged artery forced him back into the hospital in April.
Back from Dripping Springs, he couldn’t get Jennings to return his calls. Finally, Roger Schutt, the disc jockey known as “Captain Midnight,” got Shaver into the studio during a session.
Jennings tried to avoid him but eventually stormed down the hallway.
“He said, ‘What do you want, hoss?’ I said: ‘Man, tell you what. I’ve got these songs like you said and you said you’d do an album of them, and if you don’t at least listen to them, I’m going to whip your ass here in front of God and everybody.’ ”
Jennings led him into a room.
“He said, ‘You play me one song, and if I don’t like that song you’re going to get your ass up and get out of here and I ain’t going to see you again.’ So I went and did “Ain’t No God in Mexico.” He said, ‘Okay.’ Then I went into probably “Old Five and Dimers.” Then I went into something else. And then I finally got to ‘Honky Tonk Heroes.’ He looked at me with an awful look, a forlorn look and he went, ‘Damn it.’ It was almost like he was cussing me. ‘I know what I got to do now.’ ”
Married to his music
Later, they would tour together. Jennings was at his cokehead worst, his skin crawling so badly he’d scratch himself raw and couldn’t sleep. Shaver’s unofficial job spoke to the singer’s bleak condition. He would help jam Jennings into a tight crevice in the back of the bus so that his arms couldn’t move. Eventually, he’d drift off to sleep.
There was a chill between them after “Honky Tonk Heroes,” especially when a Rolling Stone article praised Shaver. Still, in the end, did it matter?
Even if he did nothing else, even if Shaver had headed back to Waco after “Heroes” and spent his days fishing for bass in the Brazos River, he’d have made his mark. What has kept him on the road isn’t the mad chase for fame.
“He lives for being on stage,” says Wanda Lynn Canady, who has managed to be the second woman Shaver has married — and divorced — three times. “He loves to write, and that’s his marriage, really — his music.”
Shaver and Canady got married in 2005. They first got divorced in 2006. Valentine’s Day.
“We’re up there watching TV and Billy answers the door and he says, ‘Wanda, I think that’s for you,’ ” she says.
It was a man serving her divorce papers.
In person, Shaver is gracious, posing for pictures, even stopping in a parking lot to playfully show a fan’s children his stumpy fingers. He’s born again and reads the Bible daily, but that doesn’t mean he has to be proper.
“God don’t care what I say,” Shaver says.
And he can be hard to figure out. Duvall remembers the time somebody organized a birthday party for Shaver in Houston. “And he was going to drive down,” Duvall says. “He showed up at midnight after everybody left.”
Nelson says his longtime friend is not somebody you want to mess with.
He brings up the incident at Papa Joe’s Saloon in which Shaver, one night in 2007, shot Billy Bryant Coker in a parking lot. Coker survived, and Shaver said he was defending himself. Nelson went to Texas to serve as a character witness during the three-day trial. Shaver was acquitted of aggravated assault.
“And Billy Joe told the guy he shot, ‘I want my bullet back,’ ” Nelson says, laughing. “The guy still had the bullet in his head.”
In a way, the songs, for Shaver, are as important as any relationship. They’ll live on long after we’re gone. That’s why he can be so blunt. Hall remembers one exchange, back in the 1970s, as Hall started recording songs such as “I Love.”
“He came on the bus. He said, ‘Tom T., I understand you got a new album.’ I said, ‘Yeah,’ and I played him some of it. And he got up and picked up his beer can and walked up to the front of the bus and looked back and says, ‘Goddamn, Tom T. Hall has gone commercial,’ and walked off the bus, and that was his comment.”
There are times when Shaver says he feels blessed to be out on the road, to be sharing his music. Other times he’ll grumble, wondering why his last record didn’t sell, why he’s just breaking even.
Dale Watson, the Austin-based singer, understands Shaver’s frustration.
“He’s just doing what he loves, but if there was justice it would be different,” Watson says. “Some hack like Blake Shelton touring in a van and Billy Joe Shaver on the big stage. But that just isn’t the way the world is.”
The song goes like this.
Early this mornin’ without any warnin’
I took me a look at myself, good God
I seen how this married up life I been livin’
Was tryin’ to choke me to death
I laid on the bed with my gun to my head
And I nearly ’bout ended it all
But I come to myself just before I got killed
And I blowed me some holes in the wall
The story of the song is at least as good as the song itself.
“The story is like 11 minutes long, perfectly told, beginning, middle, end,” says Judge, who first heard it during a call last year with Shaver while he was plotting out his show.
It’s actually more like 13 minutes long when he tells it during a show.
It is sometime in the late ’60s. Shaver buys himself a truck, and Brenda gets so mad she tells him she’s leaving.
“That was my second trip with her,” Shaver says. “I thought, ‘I can’t stand being married, matter of fact.’ I just hated it. I had been through so much that day and she cussed me out so bad. I said, let me see if I can just put an end to all this. I made sure I had on my favorite clothes. I got my hat. Made sure I had my boots on. Laid down there on the bed. Anyway, I had a pistol up to my head and went POW! Right over the top of my head and went over and emptied it in the wall over there, which I had to do some explaining about it later.”
From there, Shaver rides into Nashville, gets wasted on acid and beer and falls asleep somewhere. He wakes up and heads home. After a shower, the song comes to him, so he picks up his guitar to work it out. For some reason, he is wearing boots, a cowboy hat and nothing else. The doorknob twists.
“It seemed like it made a big sound. The wife comes in. She said, ‘What in the hell are you doing now?’ She sees me there naked with the guitar. And I says: ‘Honey, I got to tell you, I just wrote the greatest song I ever writ. We’re going to buy Nashville.’ She said, ‘Well, I’ve got to hear it.’ ”
So he gets to the third and fourth lines — the marriage-choking-me-to-death part — and Brenda snaps.
“And I don’t know what she had in her purse. It might have been an anvil. It felt like it. But I hit the floor just like that. I could see stars. I heard the car cranking, and she got in the car and went back to Waco. The song was, ‘I’m thinking about cranking my ragged old truck up and hauling myself into town.’ It was a great song. Still is.”
He’s back in the van and remembers when Johnny Paycheck tried to funk the song up.
“Just murdered it,” Shaver says.
Aggieland rolls by the window. Woodall and bassist Tony Calhoun are chatting up front. A few seconds pass and then Shaver looks over.
“You want me to sing it to you?”
And without his guitar or his band or a crowd but with his saddest, most lonesome voice, he does.
Billy Joe Shaver performs June 2 at 9:30 p.m. at Hill Country, 410 Seventh St. NW. Tickets: $25-30. hillcountry.com/dc.