Using my “journalist/London” ruse I make my way backstage where a congenial atmosphere finds musicians and friends relaxing, no pre-show nerves. Over in a corner sits a large, grey haired man reading the Bible. Obviously pre-gig preparation as Shaver is known to pray on stage between songs. ‘Excuse me, sir,’ I say approaching him quietly, ‘would it be possible to ask you some questions?’ He looks up, broad features creased and lined, black eyes cautious, considers my request, then nods. He gestures with a hand missing several digits. I freeze, a little intimidated. ‘You want me to give you a medal?’ he growls then chuckles. ‘C’mon!’
Billy Joe Shaver was born in Corsicana, Texas, in 1939 yet fate almost decreed he would not spend any time on earth: his father Buddy, an illiterate, bare knuckle brawler of French-Blackfoot ancestry, drunkenly decided he wasn’t the sire of his wife’s unborn child and set about beating Billy’s mother to death two months before their son was born, dumping her broken body in a stock tank. Somehow mama and unborn baby survived but, after giving birth to Billy Joe, his mother fled sharecropping and a son that reminded her of the psychotic Buddy. Raised by his grandmother on a dirt farm, Billy’s hardscrabble existence ensured Shaver would try the US Navy, timber mills (the missing fingers) and the rodeo circuit (a broken back) before making his way to Nashville in 1966.
After several years of hustling and struggling, Shaver established himself as a first class songwriter, won a record deal and in 1973 released his debut album Old Five & Dimers Like Me. Shaver’s songs are simple creations, narrative tales that chug along without musical or lyrical adornment, and he sings them as if he’s making them up on the spot, jamming a word here and yodeling on a vowel there. Willie Nelson describes Billy Joe as “maybe the best songwriter alive today,” Johnny Cash called him “my favourite writer” while Kris Kristofferson makes comparisons with Hemingway. I’ll add that Shaver is a song poet of the highest order, his direct, eloquent verse both poignant and droll. Few American writers have managed to describe love and lust and the bitter grace of manual labour in a manner comparable to Shaver. He is the poet laureate of honky-tonks and the music he makes – “hard country”, music rooted in soil and lived experience – is inspirational stuff. Alongside Merle Haggard and Tom T. Hall, Shaver’s the most consistent hard country songwriter of recent decades. ‘Go on, son,’ he gently reprimands, ‘ask something.’
OK: what shaped Billy Joe Shaver Country Singer?
‘I started out doing farm work. We lived in a cotton gin town and in summers I would spend time with my uncles who were farmers. We had three months off school and I’d go live with them on their farms and work my ass off. I got most of my learning done out there. They were real spiritual people, they churched a lot, had to as it’s real tough being a farmer in Texas. The weather hits you in the head an’ all. I remember one of my uncles crouching and drawing patterns with a stick in the dirt and not saying nothin’ but I knew he was thinkin’ “what are we gonna do if we don’t get any rain?” Man, I got off that farm as fast as I could and I aint never goin’ back! Aint it strange how people in the town want to live in the country an’ vice versa? They say the grass is greener. Well, I done farmed an’ I know that aint true.’
What about riding rodeo? That’s real cowboy stuff!
‘I broke broncos and rode bulls. Won some trophies but most of the time I seemed to go up in the air and land on my head. Rodeo’s hard, man. Gotta be young and tough to wanna do that.’
READ THE COMPLETE BILLY JOE INTERVIEW IN MORE MILES THAN MONEY