Given the deluge of grim news regarding the election cycle and COVID-19, you may have missed last week’s story about the death of Billy Joe Shaver.
Shaver lived a long and colorful life, and dying at 81 isn’t a bad way to go, especially when you cheated death as many times as Billy Joe did. Those who were fans of his music could find him just about every year out at The Shed Smokehouse and Juke Joint in Maryville, where he struck up a friendship with owner Scott Maddux and was always a delight for the crew out there to work with.
He had mellowed out a lot in his later years, on the other side of the grief that nearly consumed him after his son Eddy died. The first time I interviewed him, in fact, was back in 2004, and we talked quite a bit about Eddy’s death and the time a heart attack nearly killed him — in the middle of a performance.
“It (was at) the oldest dance hall in the state of Texas, and it’s hot as hell in there with that old wood and stuff,’’ Shaver told me back then. “It gets to about 130 degrees up there on stage, and when it happened, I knew I was having a heart attack, but the guys just kept playing and the people wouldn’t let us off stage anyway.
“I said to God then, ‘It’s real good of you to let me go in the oldest honky-tonk in Texas; this is going to be quite a thing.’ But I didn’t die, and the next night, we were in this little town called Pflugerville playing a show, and I said, ‘God, you’re going to let me die here?’ But I didn’t die there, either. I just kept popping nitro and kept playing.”
Whatever happened, Billy Joe just kept on playing. In 2000, he lost both his wife and his mother to cancer, less than a month apart. Then Eddy died of a drug overdose. It would be several years before he emerged from the fog of grief, but when he did, it was the music that pulled him back — and the fans who loved the music he made. As one of the original outlaw country musicians, he was one of a kind, and legend has it that he strong armed the batch of songs that made him famous — nine of the 10 songs on Jennings’ classic 1973 record, “Honky Tonk Heroes.”
Kyle “Trigger” Coroneos of the website Saving Country Music recalled the story as one of many eulogies to Shaver, who had been after Jennings for weeks to give his songs a listen and finally tracked the latter down at Hillbilly Central in Nashville, the recording studio where Jennings and his fellow outlaw buddies would hang out.
“After Waylon Jennings spent days dodging Billy Joe and his pleas to record some of his songs, Billy Joe finally stared down Waylon in a long hallway, like two gunfighters in the middle of town,” Coroneos wrote. “Shaver threatened, ‘If you don’t listen to these songs, at least listen to them, I’m going to whip your ass right here in front of God and everybody.’”
Shaver’s pluck made Waylon grin, and not only was “Honky Tonk Heroes” born, but a place was made for Shaver alongside all of those guys who were bucking country music trends back in the day. While grief may have mellowed Billy Joe out somewhat, time sure didn’t, however: Fast forward to 2007, and Billy Joe was accused of shooting a man outside of the Waco nightclub Papa Joe’s.
He claimed self-defense, however, and in 2010, a jury agreed. The following year, on a phone interview to promote another Shed show, he didn’t hold back when it came to the details of that particular dust-up.
“It didn’t take the jury no time,” Shaver told me. “I don’t know how in the world they thought they were going to get me. The prosecution had never lost a case, so I think that’s what it was all about. They were really trying to put a feather in their hat by getting me, even though I never bothered nobody.
“That boy shot at me twice, and they didn’t even bring that up in the trial. They said he shook his knife at me, but that wasn’t it. I didn’t shoot until he shot at me twice, and then I decided, ‘Well, I’d better do something.’ All I wanted to do was stop him, and it was just a little ol’ Derringer. I’d never even fired it before.
“Thank God that’s all settled now and everybody knows the truth,” he added. “Plus, the prosecutor got fired.”
There have been few performers more colorful than Billy Joe Shaver to play a Blount County stage — but there have also been few who were more kind or personable to those for whom they played. Just ask Robbie Trosper, guitarist for Mic Harrison and The High Score. He and I talked recently about his band’s new record, but we had to postpone the interview for a day because Billy Joe’s death hit him hard.
Mic Harrison and The High Score, you see, opened for Billy Joe Shaver numerous times out at The Shed, and Shaver was tied to a particularly special event in Trosper’s life.
“Me and my wife, Haven, went on a beach vacation one year, and we had to get up at 5 in the morning on our last day to drive back, so we could open for him at The Shed,” Trosper said. “That night was the first time I had ever seen him, and it was just one of those feelings you never forget. It was just a special night, and the next morning, when I got up, Haven had taken a pregnancy test, and she was positive.
“We had been trying, and this was our first child. So here was this life-changing event after opening for Billy Joe Shaver the night before! A few years later, I took my son, Calhoun, to the show, because I’d always told him that his ‘special godfather’ was Billy Joe Shaver, and I wanted him to meet him. We were outside, and he was about to go on stage, and I just thought, ‘Man, I don’t want to bother him now’ — but he stopped, and he walked over to us and said, ‘Well, who do we have here?’
“He stopped what he was doing — going up to the stage! — to come say hello to my son,” Trosper added. “I got to tell him the whole story, and he got a kick out of it.”
That was Billy Joe Shaver — because even though he was old friends with tragedy, he knew how to squeeze life for all of the good stuff it had to offer as well. That’s one reason he continued to tour long after a lot of guys had called it quits, and long after so many of his contemporaries went on to that great honky-tonk in the sky.
“This dude was a legend, and every time he pulled up, he was basically in a van like ours, just still out there doing it,” Trosper said. “Just to see this guy out there spreading love to anybody who was willing to hear him, that was always an inspiration to us.”