To judge legendary songwriter Billy Joe Shaver by the friendly “Howdy” he answers the phone by, your first impression might be that you just awoke the 75-year-old country performer from his afternoon nap. Then you remember that the man was only just recently acquitted of shooting a man in the face during a barroom argument in 2009, and you quickly realize this isn’t just the latest in the never-ending series of contemporary outlaw wannabes. No, there is a trail of blood, sweat, and tears behind the old white van that Shaver pushes from gig to gig.
“I Been to Georgia on a Fast Train,” Shaver’s best known composition, reads like an autobiography of the singer-songwriter’s life. Take, for instance, the opening stanza of the song: “On a rainy, windy morning, that’s the day that I was born on/ In the old sharecroppers’ one room country shack/ They say my mammy left me, same day that she had me/ Said she hit the road and never once looked back.”
“When I was born my mother told my grandmother that if I came out a boy she was gone, and sure enough I came out a boy and she was gone the next day,” Shaver explains. “She worked in the honky-tonks. She left me with my grandmother, and a better thing couldn’t have happened. My grandmother was a wonderful person and tough as nails. I never heard her say a negative word, and to be raised that way was great.”
As evidenced by those hard beginnings, Shaver’s childhood wasn’t an easy existence. He lived with his grandmother until the age of 12 in the small town of Corsicana, Tex. before rejoining his mother and her new husband in the nearby city of Waco. The singer looks back upon his childhood with an appreciation toward those who molded his love of music at an early age.
“We didn’t have a radio at my grandmother’s for a long time, but there was a barbershop about five miles that I would walk to and listen to theirs,” Shaver remembers. “Then across the railroads tracks there was a black store for the cotton-pickers where a lady that worked there had a stand-up piano on the porch, and all of these guys would stand around and play these songs. I grew up good, listening to these folks play, until my grandmother would find me and wear my ass out, telling me to go back to the house.”
While Shaver began writing songs at the age of eight, there were many incidents that could have dampened those talents before they could be hoisted upon the world. His early life was filled with dangerous professions taken on in an effort to feed his family, including a stint in the U.S. Navy; a short-term shot as a rodeo clown; and a job in a lumber mill that cost Shaver two fingers on his guitar-picking hand.
The musician says, “I waited until the blood stopped coming out of my fingers before I picked up the guitar again.”
Soon after Shaver found himself in Nashville, finally attempting to make a go of it via just his musical talent. While a noble goal, the singer soon found himself without a roof over his head and fighting for performance spots alongside other would-be country greats. Another legend of Music City songwriting noticed Shaver’s talents, however, and took him under his wing.
The songwriter recounts, “In 1969, Bobby Bare (“Detroit City”) picked me up and signed me. I got to move into his office, because I had been sleeping out on the street before that. I didn’t have much luck there before that, but I knew I had some good songs.”
Now all of these years later Shaver is still reaching personal milestones. In 2014, Shaver recorded Long in the Tooth, his first album in seven years, after some persuading from such fellow singer-songwriters as Todd Snider. Incredibly, the album entered the Billboard Top Country Album chart at No. 19 the week of its release, becoming the first record in the career of the singer-songwriter to make the Top 20. That only further illustrates the disparity between the man’s popularity and financial success.
“Other people had hits with my songs, but not me,” Shaver concedes. “I’ve always been mainly a songwriter, but I’m pretty good on stage, too,” he says. “After all of these years, I’d have to be. I have always loved to sing, but even after all these years, I just never have gotten much attention. The songs of mine that other people did just kind of overshadowed me.”
The man responsible for writing some of the biggest hits to come out of the country music “outlaw period” may have never seen the personal success of such peers as Waylon Jennings or Johnny Cash, but he’s still here, and he’s still penning unforgettable songs for the new generation.
“I still just work hard to tell the truth in my music, and I’ve always tried to write as good a song as I can write,” Shaver says. “I think these stand up there with the rest of them.”