The Bal­lad of Billy Joe: Shaver’s Out­law Ap­peal

The Washington Post Sunday - - Arts -

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.

ABOVE: BY SARAH JOR­GEN­SON; LEFT: BY STEVE HAR­RIS

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.

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