RAGGED, AND STILL RAM­BLIN’

He shot a man in Waco. Now Billy Joe Shaver, the orig­i­nal coun­try-mu­sic out­law, is com­ing to Wash­ing­ton.

The Washington Post Sunday - - ARTS & STYLE - BY GE­OFF EDGERS IN HUNTER, TEX.

A tall, stern-faced man with his arms crossed is stand­ing in front of the stage and Billy Joe Shaver has had enough. He wraps up “Wacko From Waco,” a song he wrote about — true story — the time he shot a man dur­ing a bar­room squab­ble. He was 70 then. He’s 77 now and a half-hour into his set at Ri­ley’s Tav­ern.

“You know, you look like you’re so god­damned per­turbed, it’s both­er­ing me,” Shaver tells him through the mi­cro­phone. “You’re stand­ing up in front here and you got all these damned looks on your face like you hate the f---ing world and you’re in front of a bunch of peo­ple who like me. Why don’t you come back yon­der some­where?”

There is laugh­ter in the room, some de­lighted, some ner­vous. Slowly, the man makes his way to the back.

“I wasn’t pick­ing on you,” Shaver tells him — an ex­pla­na­tion, not an apol­ogy. “I was just telling you what it is. It dis­tracts me.”

This is life at Shaver’s roadshow, which ram­bles into the Dis­trict’s Hill Coun­try venue Fri­day night. Mu­si­cally, the nar­ra­tive stretches across a half-cen­tury, from the cot­ton fields of Cor­si­cana to big-city Nashville, from the al­tar to di­vorce court, Je­sus and Papa Joe’s Sa­loon. Oth­ers call it be­tween-song ban­ter. For Shaver, the sto­ries are an es­sen­tial part of the per­for­mance. So is the un­re­hearsed drama, like the beat-down of crossed-arms man.

With that score set­tled, the band kicks into “Black Rose,” a song that re­volves around one of those Shaver lines you can’t shake: “The devil made me do it the first time. The sec­ond time I done it in on my own.”

Some­thing else makes “Black Rose” special. It’s one of nine Shaver songs that the late Way­lon Jen­nings recorded for his ground­break­ing 1973 al­bum, “Honky Tonk He­roes.” Bristling with at­ti­tude and elec­tric gui­tars, that record marked the be­gin­ning of a new kind of mu­sic — out­law coun­try. Shaver’s songs were the an­ti­dote for the glossy, string soaked sound of 1960s Nashville. But Shaver wasn’t try­ing to cure coun­try mu­sic. He just wrote songs, the best he could think of.

No won­der Bob Dy­lan de­clared, in a 2009 song, that “I’m lis­ten­ing to Billy Joe Shaver and I’m read­ing James Joyce.” Mike Judge’s new an­i­mated se­ries, “Tales From the Tour Bus,” will pre­miere later this year, fea­tur­ing Shaver along­side such lu­mi­nar­ies as Ge­orge Jones and Tammy Wynette.

Yet while so many of his peers — Wil­lie, Way­lon, Johnny — are on a first-name ba­sis with fame, Shaver con­tin­ues his rolling at­tempt to in­tro­duce him­self. He hopes that the next record or TV show might fi­nally land him the recog­ni­tion he de­serves.

“He was so nice to me and so grate­ful that we were do­ing this,” says Judge, a fan well be­fore the “Beavis and Butt-Head” days. “But ev­ery now and then he’d say, ‘What took you so long?’ ”

Dys­func­tion, demons, virtues

The heart­breaks are car­ried around like Ko­dachrome snap­shots, though crisp at the cor­ners, not a hint of yellow. He thinks about Brenda, beau­ti­ful in that Ali MacGraw way, the girl he mar­ried — and di­vorced — three times be­fore she died of can­cer. He thinks of Eddy, their boy, a gui­tar slinger who be­came a mu­si­cal part­ner. In 2000, on New Year’s Eve, he over­dosed on heroin. He was 38.

“A lot of peo­ple think I’m on some­thing be­cause I’m jump­ing around happy,” Shaver says. “I’m just whistling by the grave­yard, man. If I get down and go to start think­ing about stuff, I’m li­able to start cry­ing.”

On stage, he’ll tell them he’s do­ing one for his son:

“He was a great gui­tar player,” Shaver says. “But he was a great per­son, too, and a good friend. He was my son. The only child I had. One night he wound up with a bunch of friends at a mo­tel. He thought they was friends. I guess they was. I don’t know. But he wound up dead from a heroin over­dose. The rea­son I’m telling you this is be­cause ev­ery one of you all might have a friend or fam­ily mem­ber that’s into that s---. And it’s a good time to pull up. And you can pull up with Je­sus Christ. I’m telling you. That’s all it takes. That’s all you’ll need. Je­sus Christ is the one who made us all num­ber two. He wants you to be your­self. So don’t worry about be­ing a lit­tle dif­fer­ent.”

Dif­fer­ent. He’s al­ways felt that way. For­get out­law. He calls him­self an out­cast. When he was grow­ing up, his un­cles mis­treated him be­cause he re­minded them of his fa­ther, Buddy, a mean drunk who beat his mother. As a man, he saw his peers turn on him. Maybe it was com­pet­i­tive­ness. Maybe he just didn’t bow down enough. Then there was Nashville. It never felt like home. That prob­a­bly sealed his fate, at least com­mer­cially.

“It’s dan­ger­ous to not hang around Nashville,” says Tom T. Hall, a long­time friend who knew how to work within the in­dus­try. “If you’re around here, they know you’re alive.”

Shaver has a small house in Waco, but his real home is the road. With long­time gui­tarist Jeremy Woodall at the wheel of his van, they drive hours at a time, across Texas, Ge­or­gia and as far as San Fran­cisco if there’s a gig. The mar­gins are slim.

At Ri­ley’s, he gets $3,000. Half goes to the guys. An­other chunk goes to tips. As the crowd files out, Shaver slips a $100 bill to the sound guy. That morn­ing, he did the same with a wait­ress at the Waf­fle House.

“I don’t go to church, and when I see some­body that needs money I’ll give it to them,” he says.

Shaver’s sets could serve as a master class in song­writ­ing. Ev­ery­thing is grounded in re­al­ity, whether the Green Gables dance hall of “Honky Tonk He­roes” or the Mex­i­can jail he landed in as a young man. He sings about faith and Texas pride, of un­con­di­tional love and de­cep­tion. All with a hook.

“Some days,” Hall says, “you wake up and you won­der how Billy Joe’s do­ing and you hear all the lines from his songs — ‘Fenced yard ain’t hole cards, and like is not never will be.’

“Then he’s got that line that says: ‘I’ve got a good Chris­tian rais­ing and an eighth-grade ed­u­ca­tion. Ain’t no use in you all treat­ing me this way.’ That says a hell of a lot in just a few words.”

“The writ­ing, where it came from, I don’t know,” says Robert Du­vall, so struck by Shaver’s au­then­tic­ity that he cast him cold in his 1997 film “The Apos­tle.” “From his own depth and his own demons and his virtues, I guess.”

Shaver says the source is no mys­tery.

“All of them are based on things that hap­pened to me,” he says.

Leav­ing Texas

He tried Nashville, hitch­ing a ride in a can­taloupe truck in 1966. By then, he al­ready came off as a lit­tle side­ways. Shaver didn’t dress right. No sport coat and tie. He had lost most of two fin­gers in an ac­ci­dent at a sawmill and peo­ple no­ticed. Bobby Bare, a few years older and al­ready with a se­ries of hits, in­vited Shaver to his of­fice at RCA.

“I didn’t want your nor­mal Nashville song­writer, and Billy Joe came in one morn­ing and he sang me some songs and I thought, ‘That f---er’s crazy,’ ” says Bare, now 82. “Then I got to think­ing about it and I said, ‘Hell, that’s what I’m look­ing for’ and run him down. And he signed up to write for me. I think I only paid him $50 a week.”

The songs started get­ting at­ten­tion. In 1971, Kris Kristof­fer­son recorded “Good Chris­tian Sol­dier” and, in 1972, Tom T. grabbed “Old Five and Dimers.” Shaver’s de­but al­bum, “Old Five and Dimers Like Me,” ar­rived the next year.

“If the world is God’s tele­vi­sion set, with which he en­ter­tains him­self, Billy Joe Shaver is on Mon­day morn­ings at 3:00,” Hall wrote on the back cover. “Kris Kristof­fer­son pro­duced this al­bum in or­der to get him a bet­ter time slot.”

That didn’t hap­pen, but Shaver’s gift led to the chance meet­ing that would change his life — and coun­try mu­sic.

In March of 1972, Shaver ar­rived in Drip­ping Springs, Tex., to play a fes­ti­val with Kristof­fer­son, Hall and Tex Rit­ter. This was be­fore Wil­lie Nel­son even had a beard. The guys were drink­ing and pass­ing a gui­tar around in a trailer when Shaver kicked into the song he had writ­ten for Nel­son, “Willy the Wan­der­ing Gypsy and Me.”

“Whose song is that?” shouted Way­lon Jen­nings.

“I said, ‘Well, it’s mine,’ ” Shaver re­mem­bers. “He said: ‘Well, I got to have it. I got to sing that song.’ ”

Shaver told him he had a bunch more cow­boy songs.

“He said, ‘Come on up to Nashville and I’ll do a whole al­bum of them.’ ”

Shaver is sit­ting in his van, some­where west of Hous­ton, as he tells this story. The hot wa­ter is out at the mo­tel, so no show­ers, but Shaver looks the same as the day be­fore — denim tucked into denim, boots and cow­boy hat over his stringy white hair. He’s thin­ner than he used to be, but you wouldn’t know an in­testi­nal block­age nearly killed him last year or that a clogged artery forced him back into the hos­pi­tal in April. Now Way­lon. Back from Drip­ping Springs, he couldn’t get Jen­nings to re­turn his calls. Fi­nally, Roger Schutt, the disc jockey known as “Cap­tain Mid­night,” got Shaver into the stu­dio dur­ing a ses­sion.

Jen­nings tried to avoid him but even­tu­ally stormed down the hall­way.

“He said, ‘What do you want, hoss?’ I said: ‘Man, tell you what. I’ve got these songs like you said and you said you’d do an al­bum of them, and if you don’t at least lis­ten to them, I’m go­ing to whip your ass here in front of God and every­body.’ ” Jen­nings led him into a room. “He said, ‘You play me one song, and if I don’t like that song you’re go­ing to get your ass up and get out of here and I ain’t go­ing to see you again.’ So I went and did “Ain’t No God in Mex­ico.” He said, ‘Okay.’ Then I went into prob­a­bly “Old Five and Dimers.” Then I went into some­thing else. And then I fi­nally got to ‘Honky Tonk He­roes.’ He looked at me with an aw­ful look, a for­lorn look and he went, ‘Damn it.’ It was al­most like he was cussing me. ‘I know what I got to do now.’ ”

Mar­ried to his mu­sic

Later, they would tour to­gether. Jen­nings was at his coke­head worst, his skin crawl­ing so badly he’d scratch him­self raw and couldn’t sleep. Shaver’s un­of­fi­cial job spoke to the singer’s bleak con­di­tion. He would help jam

Jen­nings into a tight crevice in the back of the bus so that his arms couldn’t move. Even­tu­ally, he’d drift off to sleep.

There was a chill be­tween them af­ter “Honky Tonk He­roes,” es­pe­cially when a Rolling Stone ar­ti­cle praised Shaver. Still, in the end, did it mat­ter?

Even if he did noth­ing else, even if Shaver had headed back to Waco af­ter “He­roes” and spent his days fish­ing for bass in the Bra­zos River, he’d have made his mark. What has kept him on the road isn’t the mad chase for fame.

“He lives for be­ing on stage,” says Wanda Lynn Canady, who has man­aged to be the sec­ond woman Shaver has mar­ried — and di­vorced — three times. “He loves to write, and that’s his mar­riage, re­ally — his mu­sic.”

Shaver and Canady got mar­ried in 2005. They first got di­vorced in 2006. Valen­tine’s Day.

“We’re up there watch­ing TV and Billy an­swers the door and he says, ‘Wanda, I think that’s for you,’ ” she says.

It was a man serv­ing her di­vorce pa­pers.

In per­son, Shaver is gra­cious, pos­ing for pic­tures, even stop­ping in a park­ing lot to play­fully show a fan’s chil­dren his stumpy fin­gers. He’s born again and reads the Bi­ble daily, but that doesn’t mean he has to be proper.

“God don’t care what I say,” Shaver says.

And he can be hard to fig­ure out. Du­vall re­mem­bers the time some­body or­ga­nized a birth­day party for Shaver in Hous­ton. “And he was go­ing to drive down,” Du­vall says. “He showed up at mid­night af­ter every­body left.”

Nel­son says his long­time friend is not some­body you want to mess with.

He brings up the in­ci­dent at Papa Joe’s Sa­loon in which Shaver, one night in 2007, shot Billy Bryant Coker in a park­ing lot. Coker sur­vived, and Shaver said he was de­fend­ing him­self. Nel­son went to Texas to serve as a char­ac­ter wit­ness dur­ing the three-day trial. Shaver was ac­quit­ted of ag­gra­vated as­sault.

“And Billy Joe told the guy he shot, ‘I want my bul­let back,’ ” Nel­son says, laugh­ing. “The guy still had the bul­let in his head.”

In a way, the songs, for Shaver, are as im­por­tant as any re­la­tion­ship. They’ll live on long af­ter we’re gone. That’s why he can be so blunt. Hall re­mem­bers one ex­change, back in the 1970s, as Hall started record­ing songs such as “I Love.”

“He came on the bus. He said, ‘Tom T., I un­der­stand you got a new al­bum.’ I said, ‘Yeah,’ and I played him some of it. And he got up and picked up his beer can and walked up to the front of the bus and looked back and says, ‘God­damn, Tom T. Hall has gone com­mer­cial,’ and walked off the bus, and that was his com­ment.”

There are times when Shaver says he feels blessed to be out on the road, to be shar­ing his mu­sic. Other times he’ll grum­ble, won­der­ing why his last record didn’t sell, why he’s just break­ing even.

Dale Watson, the Austin-based singer, un­der­stands Shaver’s frus­tra­tion.

“He’s just do­ing what he loves, but if there was jus­tice it would be dif­fer­ent,” Watson says. “Some hack like Blake Shel­ton tour­ing in a van and Billy Joe Shaver on the big stage. But that just isn’t the way the world is.”

‘Ragged Old Truck’

The song goes like this.

Early this mornin’ with­out any warnin’

I took me a look at my­self, good God

I seen how this mar­ried up life I been livin’ Was tryin’ to choke me to death

I laid on the bed with my gun to my head And I nearly ’bout ended it all But I come to my­self just be­fore I got killed

And I blowed me some holes in the wall

The story of the song is at least as good as the song it­self.

“The story is like 11 min­utes long, per­fectly told, be­gin­ning, mid­dle, end,” says Judge, who first heard it dur­ing a call last year with Shaver while he was plot­ting out his show.

It’s ac­tu­ally more like 13 min­utes long when he tells it dur­ing a show.

It is some­time in the late ’60s. Shaver buys him­self a truck, and Brenda gets so mad she tells him she’s leav­ing.

“That was my sec­ond trip with her,” Shaver says. “I thought, ‘I can’t stand be­ing mar­ried, mat­ter of fact.’ I just hated it. I had been through so much that day and she cussed me out so bad. I said, let me see if I can just put an end to all this. I made sure I had on my fa­vorite clothes. I got my hat. Made sure I had my boots on. Laid down there on the bed. Any­way, I had a pis­tol up to my head and went POW! Right over the top of my head and went over and emp­tied it in the wall over there, which I had to do some ex­plain­ing about it later.”

From there, Shaver rides into Nashville, gets wasted on acid and beer and falls asleep some­where. He wakes up and heads home. Af­ter a shower, the song comes to him, so he picks up his gui­tar to work it out. For some rea­son, he is wear­ing boots, a cow­boy hat and noth­ing else. The door­knob twists.

“It seemed like it made a big sound. The wife comes in. She said, ‘What in the hell are you do­ing now?’ She sees me there naked with the gui­tar. And I says: ‘Honey, I got to tell you, I just wrote the great­est song I ever writ. We’re go­ing to buy Nashville.’ She said, ‘Well, I’ve got to hear it.’ ”

So he gets to the third and fourth lines — the mar­riage-chok­ing-me- to-death part — and Brenda snaps.

“And I don’t know what she had in her purse. It might have been an anvil. It felt like it. But I hit the floor just like that. I could see stars. I heard the car cranking, and she got in the car and went back to Waco. The song was, ‘I’m think­ing about cranking my ragged old truck up and haul­ing my­self into town.’ It was a great song. Still is.”

He’s back in the van and re­mem­bers when Johnny Pay­check tried to funk the song up. “Just mur­dered it,” Shaver says. Ag­gieland rolls by the win­dow. Woodall and bassist Tony Cal­houn are chat­ting up front. A few sec­onds pass and then Shaver looks over. “You want me to sing it to you?” And with­out his gui­tar or his band or a crowd but with his sad­dest, most lone­some voice, he does.

Billy Joe Shaver per­forms June 2 at 9:30 p.m. at Hill Coun­try, 410 Sev­enth St. NW. Tick­ets: $25-30. hill­coun­try.com/dc.

PHO­TOS BY MICHAEL STRAVATO FOR THE WASH­ING­TON POST

TOP: Billy Joe Shaver be­fore a Novem­ber show in Stafford, Tex. ABOVE: Shaver signs his lat­est al­bum af­ter the show at the Red­neck Coun­try Club in Stafford. He lost some of his fin­gers in a long-ago sawmill ac­ci­dent.

PHO­TOS BY MICHAEL STRAVATO FOR THE WASH­ING­TON POST

ABOVE: Billy Joe Shaver’s set list awaits be­fore a Novem­ber show at the Red­neck Coun­try Club in Stafford, Tex.

BE­LOW: Shaver, 77, boo­gies a bit dur­ing his Red­neck show. “He lives for be­ing on stage,” says Wanda Lynn Canady, his three­time wife (and three-time ex-wife).

MICHAEL STRAVATO FOR THE WASH­ING­TON POST

Billy Joe Shaver straight­ens his clothes and hair in his van be­fore a show in Stafford, Tex. Shaver has a small house in Waco, but his real home is the road. With long­time gui­tarist Jeremy Woodall at the wheel, they drive hours at a time, across Texas, Ge­or­gia and as far as San Fran­cisco if there’s a gig.

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