Even if artists such as Bob Dylan, Kris Kristofferson, Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, Bobby Bare, and Elvis Presley have seen more chart action with Billy Joe Shaver’s tunes than the composer himself, the 67-year-old songwriter has earned his status as a Texas music icon. And his recent career retrospective, Greatest Hits (Compadre), confirms it.
But in recent years, Shaver has been better known as a survivor. After losing both mother Victory Watson Shaver and wife Brenda to cancer in 1999, Shaver lost his guitar-playing son Eddy to a heroin overdose a year later. Devastated by these losses, Shaver confided that he briefly considered suicide before returning to the road as he’s always done. When he suffered a near-fatal heart attack at Gruene Hall in 2001, he told me he was “about ready to go.” That was four discs, three films, a quadruple bypass, and a few busted vertebrae ago. Yet the recent Texas Music Hall of Fame inductee shows no signs of slowing down. The drama, however, keeps right on coming. Back in April, Shaver was charged with aggravated assault and unlawful possession of a handgun in a prohibited place in connection with a shooting that occurred in the parking lot of Papa Joe’s Texas Saloon in Lorena, just north of Austin.
Shaver is alleged to have shot Billy Bryant Coker in the left cheek after an altercation in the bar, and witnesses at the scene claim to have heard Shaver ask, “Where do you want it?” before a shot was fired. According to Shaver’s attorney, Joseph Turner, Coker was threatening Shaver with a knife, and his client acted in self-defense. The 50-year-old Coker happens to be — take a deep breath — the cousin of Shaver’s ex-wife Wanda Lynn Canady’s late husband. He was treated at a nearby hospital for non-life-threatening injuries and released. One hour after he turned himself in to police in Waco, Shaver was released from jail on $50,000 bond and motored down to Austin to play a scheduled release party for his Greatest Hits CD at Waterloo Records later that afternoon.
The shooting incident doesn’t seem to have hurt Shaver’s career. If anything, it’s enhanced his folk hero rep here, where we love our outlaws. Some entrepreneurial types are already working on “Free Billy Joe” buttons and t-shirts in anticipation of the trial, and fellow honkytonker Dale Watson is rocking Austin audiences with a new song inspired by the incident called “Where Do You Want It?” There’s some question as to whether Shaver ever uttered the now-famous phrase, but with the court case pending, Shaver won’t discuss any details of what happened that night. “I wish I could talk about it, but I can’t,” said Shaver from his Waco home. “It was a do-or-die deal, or else I wouldn’t have done it. I’m just lucky to still be around, and he is, too.”
He’d much rather talk about his latest recording and his new pal, Mathew Knowles — yes, Beyoncé’s dad — whose Music World Entertainment operation recently acquired the Houston-based roots country label, Compadre Records, that puts out Shaver’s discs. Knowles “is a really big country music fan and a big fan of mine, too, which is fortunate, because when he bought the company he kept me on,” Shaver said. “Ain’t that cool? He also kept on [president] Brad Turcotte, who started the label, and rightfully so, because Brad took the company from nothing to something. “So I’ve got the same wonderful people working for me now that work for Beyoncé, which is some kind of a miracle,” Shaver continued. “I haven’t met her yet, but I will. She’s very talented. I just think the world of her.”
There’s no sign of Beyoncé on Shaver’s fantastic new album Everybody’s Brother, a righteously raucous collection of honkytonk hymns that captures the raw power of Shaver’s live performances, often missing from his studio sets. But even without Beyoncé on hand, producer John Carter Cash ensures that Shaver is in very good company: Kristofferson, Marty Stuart, Tanya Tucker, John Anderson, and Bill Miller, and even the late Johnny Cash have helped out. “[Cash] and I became good friends while I was working for his publishing company, and he really liked my band,” Shaver said. “So whenever we’d play some little Nashville hole-in-the-wall, [Cash] would join us. He also stopped by a demo session we had at Jack Clement’s Cowboy Arms Hotel and Recording Spa and jumped in for a duet on “You Just Can’t Beat Jesus Christ.” It was a one-take wonder, but John Carter got a hold of the master tape, mixed it, and that’s what you hear on the album, no overdubs or nothing.
“I haven’t told anybody this, but I had a visitation from Johnny,” Shaver continued. “The night before we were supposed to record Everybody’s Brother, which became the last song of the session because I kept putting it off, he woke me up in my motel room about 3:30 in the morning and told me to get off my ass and finish that song I’d been working on for months.
“I hadn’t had much sleep, but I went straight back at it,” he went on to say. “As it turned out, none of the work I’d done before figured into the finished version. All of the lyrics came to me new on the spot. We played it in the studio, and everything fit just like magic. “I’m so happy with the way the whole album came out,” he continued. “I don’t care what anyone else thinks. This is probably the best I’ve ever made.” This story originally appeared in NOW Magazine.
Billy Joe Shaver
Sat at Zack and Jim Hogg Creek Ice House, Hwy 6, Waco.