Country music legend Billy Joe Shaver died Oct. 28, 2020, at the age of 81. This column, by Chris Edwards was originally published in the Oct. 16, 2014 edition of the Tyler County Booster. It celebrates the earthy quality of Shaver and the need for heartfelt artistic expression in contemporary culture.
Sing it with me, for I know you know the tune: “I’m just an old chunk of coal…”
The man who wrote that famous line (and countless others) just released a new record. Some say it’s his best work yet in a career that’s spanned several decades of highs, lows, in-betweens and episodes in which common sense would’ve dictated his demise several times. Drugs couldn’t kill the man. Financial ruin couldn’t kill him. He survived things the music industry did to him and of all things, a sawmill accident in which he lost parts of several fingers gave him the gusto to play guitar and become a songwriter.
Billy Joe Shaver may not be a household name, but those with household names sold boatloads of records by singing his songs. He’s outlived many of his “outlaw” peers, and like his fellow Texan and songwriting colleague/country music survivor Guy Clark, he only gets better with age. Sure, there’s the tired adage about fine wine, but do me a favor and check out Shaver’s new record and see if you can’t add his name to the list of things that fit that description.
He is anything but his album title suggests (“Long in the Tooth”). He’s an outsider in the world of what they call “country music” for reasons owing only to style and politics, instead of substance and life experience. Even at age 70-something, Billy Joe Shaver could probably out-play and out-fight 99% of the wusses who win CMA Awards and pack stadiums these days.
In a time when so-called “country” music singers wear their $500 blue jeans and blindingly bleached teeth like some sort of crown and badge, Billy Joe is a breath of fresh air. The self-proclaimed “wacko from Waco” with his denim-on-denim atop well-worn workboots reminds me of another Lone Star maverick in his mode of dress, the late poet of the piney deep, Cyd Adams.
Like the improbably brilliant Adams, Shaver is certainly one who, beyond his appearance, is infinitely “more than the measure of what…others [think he] could be,” to paraphrase a line from his classic “Old Five and Dimers Like Me.” The man who looks all the world like a redneck who wouldn’t know Shakespeare from Schlitz is also the man capable of penning a beautiful anthem like “Live Forever” and making such an endeavor look effortless in the process.
His lyrics do a rare thing in the world of popular song, like those of his deceased close friend, Townes Van Zandt: hold up as pure poetry. There’s soul, there’s grit, grace and the joys and pains that come with this life we’re given within his words.
Billy Joe Shaver’s music is art. It’s incredible work that makes the listener think, as well as jump for joy to be alive. In a world full of facsimile, Shaver is the real deal and real people “get” Billy Joe Shaver. If only there were more Billy Joe Shavers in the world and fewer Jason Aldeans, then there just might be hope for those of us who enjoy food for thought along with a scoot across a sawdust-strewn floor, but then again if that were the case, the very thing making Billy Joe Shaver special (as well as Guy Clark, Townes, Robert Earl Keen, Turnpike Troubadours, Walt Wilkins, etc.) wouldn’t come across as special.
That “it” which separates real art from product, whatever “it” is, allows artists like those mentioned in the same breath as Shaver to make their profundity all seem so easy. Shaver himself is famous for saying “simplicity don’t need to be greased.”
Billy Joe’s appeal brings me mind of a shirt I owned (well, still own, but has been relegated to the pile of oil change/car wash rags). I found said shirt, a plain, powder-blue T-shirt, in the laundry room of an old house I once lived in. The very thing that a previous tenant had left behind quickly became one of my favorite belongings; its comfort remains unmatched to this day. As the years moved on, my shirt sprouted a pretty impressive array of holes, which earned stares of derision from some and outright comments from more outspoken folks I encountered, including a highly fashion-conscious neighbor.
Some saw a different thing in that ragged old shirt. One friend of mine remarked as to how comfortable the shirt looked and how his own workshirts, full of holes themselves, were the bane of his well-to-do ex-fiance’s parents at obligatory “family time” appearances.
Like an old shirt, full of holes, but comfortable and like silk on the skin, Billy Joe Shaver’s music provides a layer of comfort for those of us willing to see the beauty in imperfection and to accept the wisdom of life lessons gleaned from outside of the tried-and-true standard existence.