The Ballad of Billy Joe: Shaver’s Outlaw Appeal
Chicken Shack, a legend in its own right among Southern-style fried-chicken gourmands. His father, Virgil, known as Buddy, was a bootlegger and bare-knuckle fighter who left home when Billy was a baby. Neither parent was inclined to raise a child, so he lived with his grandmother, Birdie Lee Watson. She died when he was 12, and Tincie took him back.
Both of us went to a school called La Vega, and though Shaver is a few years older than I am, we both had Mabel Legg, an English teacher of the old-school variety who died recently at 102. Ageless in her sensible shoes and rimless glasses, she was notorious for requiring that her senior-year students memorize and recite the first 20 lines of the Prologue to Chaucer’s “Canterbury Tales,” in Middle English.
Shaver didn’t tarry long at La Vega, so he missed “Whan that Aprill with his shoures soote,” but he credits Miss Legg with encouraging him to write. Suspicious that a poem he turned in was too good to be his own, she had the skinny little hood write another, about outer space. He did, she was impressed, and with her support he kept on writing, even after he dropped out of school at 14.
It wasn’t long before he was focused on topics more down-to-earth than outer space. He learned to trust himself to write about what he knew — hard times and trouble, mostly.
“Got a good Christian raisin’ and an eighth-grade education / Ain’t no need in y’all a treatin’ me this way,” he would write in years to come (“Georgia on a Fast Train”).
These days, this redneck rebel, a key figure in the outlaw country music revolt that roiled ’70s-era Nashville, is in a familiar place — in trouble again.
That trouble began on a Saturday night, March 31, when the longtime Waco resident drove to nearby Lorena and dropped in at Papa Joe’s Texas Saloon, an unpretentious little beer joint in a gray metal prefab on I-35. While he was there he shot a man in the cheek, according to local police.
The exact chain of events is uncertain, although the story Papa Joe patrons told police and reporters would seem to have the makings of a country-western chartbuster for the songwriting legend, who in recent years has become a hyper-patriotic, born-again Bible believer. (“If you don’t love Jesus, you can go to Hell.”)
At Papa Joe’s he was sitting at a table on the back patio with several other patrons, including a 50-year-old man named Billy B. Coker. The two men had never met. Coker told Lorena police that in the course of the conversation, he and Shaver discovered that Shaver’s wife, Wanda, had been married to Coker’s cousin, who had since died.
Something seems to have annoyed Shaver — some patrons thought it was Coker stirring a drink with a hunting knife — but whatever it was, the two men stepped out back to settle their differences. Moments later, Coker staggered back inside, his face a wet smear of red, a bullet from Shaver’s .22 pistol lodged in his mouth. Shaver and his wife were long gone.
Another patron said Shaver posed something of an existential question just before the shot. “Where do you want it?” he asked Coker.
Coker got out of the hospital on April 3. Shaver has been charged with aggravated assault with a deadly weapon and unlawfully carrying a handgun. Jailed briefly after turning himself in, he’s out on bail and promoting the latest of his more than 20 albums, “Billy Joe Shaver Greatest Hits.”
“It’s a serious charge,” said Shaver’s attorney, Joe “Mad Dog” Turner of Austin, who has represented Willie Nelson on a marijuana possession charge and the actor Matthew McConaughey on a nude-bongo-playing charge.
“My client was in fear for his safety,” Turner said. Coker was big, “and he was aggressive. And he did have a knife.”
Shooting a man seems to be a first for the usually mild-mannered Shaver, although jail is nothing new. American jails, Mexican jails, he’s known a few.
“When you get right down to it, country music is essentially the blues,” he writes in “Honky Tonk Hero,” published in 2005 by the University of Texas Press. “I’ve lost parts of three fingers, broke my back, suffered a heart attack and a quadruple bypass, had a steel plate put in my neck and 136 stitches in my head, fought drugs and booze, spent the money I had and buried my wife, son and mother in the span of one year.”
That particular wife was his childhood sweetheart, Brenda, who married him three times and who died of cancer in 1999. His son Eddy, also a musician, died of a heroin overdose.
Those searingly personal experiences are what he writes about, just as Miss Legg urged him to do. He sings in a ragged voice planed down by years of hard living, a voice that, to me, is the aural equivalent of an old, neglected rent house in a little country town.
The sadness he’s known — the sadness and the solace — are at the heart of “Day by Day,” a song on “Freedom’s Child,” released in 2002: “Day by day his heart kept on breaking / And aching to fly to his home in the sky / But now he’s arisen from the flames of the forest / With songs from the family that will never die.”
“They’re just little poems about my life,” he writes in his autobiography, “and I’ve never pretended they were anything more. Despite all my ups and downs, I’ve never been to therapy or rehab or any of that stuff. The songs are my therapy.”
No doubt more “therapy” is in the offing. If he’s convicted, he faces two to 20 years on the assault charge alone.
Or the man with the mangled cheek could sue, although Shaver’s attorney chuckles at what he might collect from the country-music legend, who lives in a modest little house in Waco and drives a 10-year-old van.
“I don’t think money’s ever been a big part of Billy Joe’s life,” Turner says. “It’s just the music.”
Shaver has lost parts of several fingers but hasn’t given up music.
Billy Joe Shaver has written that “country music is essentially the blues,” and his life underscores the point. Many of his songs, which have been recorded by the likes of Bob Dylan and Johnny Cash, are fueled by misfortune and sadness.