Country music outlaw Billy Joe Shaver uses music as his therapy

[15 June 2010]

By Carla Meyer

McClatchy Newspapers (MCT)

SACRAMENTO, Calif. — Life as country music outlaw comes with certain expectations. Billy Joe Shaver lived up to his by going on trial, at age 70, on an aggravated-assault charge stemming from a 2007 shooting in a bar parking lot.

Acquitted in April by a jury in his hometown of Waco, Texas, singer-songwriter Shaver is back on the road.

“I can’t say anything about” the court case, Shaver said by telephone from Texas. “I am scared of my lawyer more than anybody. ... I am afraid he will whup up on me.”

A good-natured bad boy who has withstood a heart attack, several broken bones and great personal tragedy, Shaver will speak frankly on most other topics, including the similarities between himself and the crusty musician played by Oscar winner Jeff Bridges in the movie “Crazy Heart.”

The resemblance was apparent, Shaver said, from the opening scene, in which Bridges’ character, long on the road, appears to have used a plastic bottle to avoid bathroom stops.

“I didn’t think anybody knew about that,” Shaver said with a laugh. “But Robert Duvall is one of the guys that produced that thing, and I am sure that is where it came from.”

Duvall is a good friend who attended Shaver’s trial. The late Stephen Bruton, who composed the “Crazy Heart” soundtrack with T-Bone Burnett before he died from cancer last year, was Shaver’s first guitarist. Bruton went on to play with Kris Kristofferson.

The “Crazy Heart” character is “a little bit of everybody” — Shaver, Kristofferson, Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson — “without really being anybody,” Shaver said.

In a way, the composite character reflects the close musical and personal ties within the “outlaw” movement of the 1970s, when long hair and restless spirits challenged Grand Ole Opry formality.

It began in 1973 with “Honky Tonk Heroes,” the Jennings album written mostly by Shaver, who released his own classic album, “Old Five and Dimers Like Me,” the same year. Nelson and Kristofferson also recorded Shaver’s songs, solo and with the Highwaymen, their supergroup with Jennings and Johnny Cash.

Shaver said he never sets out to write for other people.

“I don’t really get in (to the process) unless it is some character I see that I want to write about, or something that happened with me,” Shaver said. “It’s still pretty close to the bone with me.”

Music has been an outlet, and an imperative, since his hardscrabble childhood in Waco and Corsicana, Texas. It helped Shaver through a devastating period a decade ago when he lost his wife, Brenda, to cancer, and his son, Eddy, to a heroin overdose.

“To me, it’s the cheapest psychiatrist there is,” Shaver said. “Most of my songs are written trying to get back in the house, or trying to stay alive — one or the other.”

The results can be larks or, in the case of Shaver’s signature “Live Forever,” so elegantly emotional (“I’m gonna live forever/ I’m gonna cross that river/ I’m gonna kiss tomorrow now”) they sear into memory. Co-written by Eddy Shaver, an ace guitarist in Billy Joe’s band, “Live Forever” was poignant even before Eddy died and his father’s husky voice assumed a tremulous quality while singing it.

“Billy Joe has been writing songs to tell a story in the most creative, artistic and meaningful way he can” for decades, said Jed Hilly, executive director of the Americana Music Association in Nashville.

In 2002, the association gave its songwriting lifetime-achievement award to Shaver, who is also a member of Nashville’s Songwriters Hall of Fame.

“He is a legendary figure who helped shape the Americana genre,” Hilly said.

Today’s pop-centric country radio lacks space for old five-and-dimers like Shaver. But he’s not complaining. Nearly all his musical heroes, from Nelson to Bob Dylan, have performed his songs. The holdout, 84-year-old gentleman singer Ray Price, “is fixin’ to record one of my songs,” Shaver reported happily.

Currently without a label, Shaver is working on a new album anyway. His most recent release, the gospel- infused 2007 CD “Everybody’s Brother,” testified to a faith instilled by his grandmother.

“Some of ‘em seem to be divinely influenced in some way,” Shaver said of the songs he writes. Those go back further than the “Everybody’s Brother” album to “Live Forever” and another song, “Old Chunk of Coal” (“I’m just an old chunk of coal/But I’m gonna be a diamond someday”), a hit for singer John Anderson. “I’m kinda more like a vehicle than the writer of those tunes.”

His is a faith that doesn’t condemn drinking or carrying on as long as one’s heart is in the right place. With his music, Shaver’s spirituality ushered him through that dark time after he lost his son and wife.

“They’re the good ones, and they are gone, and here I still am,” Shaver said. “I don’t understand it ... but I don’t think you are supposed to.”

He and his band, who once performed 200 to 300 shows a year, scaled back to performing “when I am not broken up,” Shaver said. “I have been getting in a few fights here and there — I have broken my neck three times.”

Now, they’re gearing up for a heavier schedule.

“We travel around in a van and pull a trailer, so we make more money than the rest of ‘em in those buses,” Shaver said. “We are kind of like Jesus — we ride in on a jackass and kick ass.”

In his down time, Shaver has been busy with his sometimes-wife, Wanda, whose wild spirit, he said, reminds him of Brenda’s. He married Brenda three times; he and Wanda are on divorce No. 2.

“She came over to the house last night,” Shaver said with a chuckle. “We have been divorced three years, but the divorce just doesn’t seem to be working out. ... I think we know so much on each other, we don’t dare quit each other.”

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