‘Authenticity’ is a commodity much prized in music, nowhere more so than in the genre of Country Music, and Billy Joe Shaver is a singer-songwriter whose life and times invest his songs with that unmistakable marbling of the ‘authentic’. This month we bring you a collection featuring his 1973 album Old Five And Dimers Like Me, along with Shaver’s three Columbia albums Salt Of The Earth, Billy Joe Shaver, and I’m Just An Old Chunk Of Coal.
Billy Joe was born in Corsicana, Texas, in August, 1939 – his father and mother had split up before he was even born. Shaver’s father, Buddy, was an illiterate, sometime drunk who had concluded that he wasn’t the father of his unborn son, and beat Shaver’s mother savagely, dumping her broken body into a stock tank, ostensibly leaving her for dead. Somehow, she survived. However, soon after Billy Joe was born, his mother didn’t want to hang around, and he was left to be raised by his grandmother, and three uncles.
“I started out doing farm work. We lived in a cotton gin town and in summers I would spend time with my uncles who were farmers. We had three months off school and I’d go live with them on their farms and work my ass off. I got most of my learning done out there. They were real spiritual people, they churched a lot - had to, as it’s real tough being a farmer in Texas. The weather hits you in the head an’ all. I remember one of my uncles crouching and drawing patterns with a stick in the dirt and not saying nothin’ but I knew he was thinkin’ ‘what are we gonna do if we don’t get any rain?’ Man, I got off that farm as fast as I could and I ain’t never goin’ back! Ain’t it strange how people in the town want to live in the country an’ vice versa? They say the grass is greener. Well, I done farmed an’ I know that ain’t true.”
Indeed, he expertly parlayed these experiences into the lyrics of one of his finest songs, ‘Georgia On a Fast Train’ : “I’d just like to mention, my grandma’s old age pension is the reason why I’m standing here today / I got all my Country learnin’ pickin’ cotton, raisin’ hell and balin’ hay”. Shaver also worked in a sawmill as a boy. It was a job that would start him on the path to becoming a musician, but not after taking something first: He lost the better part of two fingers on his right hand — his guitar-picking hand — at the mill.
"I had to put my feet against it and pull my fingers off to get out of it," he says. "It didn't hurt, partly 'cause I shot a quick prayer up to God and said, 'if you let me out, I'll do what I'm supposed to do: play music and sing.'"
Shaver’s songs are simple affairs – rarely more than three chords or so, with lyrics that reference sin, redemption, repentance and withering self-analysis. In Shaver’s world, he negotiates the conflicting pulls of the sacred and the profane in much the same way that his mentor Hank Williams did, and countless Blues and Soul singers. In the title track of his 1993 album, Tramp On Your Street, he related the tale of how, at the age of ten years old, he “walked ten miles of train track / to watch Hank Williams sing”. His songs have an at times almost painful honesty to them that makes for compulsive listening, even if you’re glad you’re not the person who’s live ‘em. He is a part of a Texan singer songwriter tradition alongside Guy Clark, Willie Nelson, Steve Earle, Lyle Lovett, Nanci Griffith, Townes Van Zandt – you take your pick.
Shaver’s ascent through the music business was not what gets called ‘an overnight success’. After several trips between Texas and Tennessee, he appeared one day in 1968 in the Nashville office of Bobby Bare, where he convinced Bare to listen to him play. Bare ended up giving him a writing job and soon his songs began to see the light thanks to Kris Kristofferson (Good Christian Soldier), Tom T Hall (Willie the Wandering Gypsy and Me), Bobby Bare (Ride Me Down Easy), and later, the Allman Brothers (Sweet Mama) and Elvis Presley (You Asked Me To). Shaver’s real breakthrough, though, came in 1973 when Waylon Jennings recorded an album composed almost entirely of Shaver’s songs, Honky Tonk Heroes — largely considered the first true ‘Outlaw Country’ album.
Shaver’s own debut album, Old Five and Dimers Like Me, was produced by Kris Kristofferson in 1973. Along with the title track, it contained now-classic Shaver songs “Willie the Wandering Gypsy and Me” and the aforementioned “Georgia on a Fast Train.” In 1978 Johnny Cash recorded “I’m Just an Old Chunk of Coal (But I’m Gonna Be a Diamond Some Day),” a song Shaver wrote just after he chose to give up drugs and booze and turned to God for help.
Although Shaver was struggling to make it as an artist in his own right, there was still enough faith, goodwill and belief that he could become a commercial success for him to land good record deals, including the Columbia / CBS label, for whom the albums that make up this collection were cut for. On I’m Just An Old Chunk Of Coal, his Columbia debut, he utilised the guitar playing skills of his son Eddy, and with producer Eddie Kilroy, crafted an accomplished set of songs, including a re-recording of one of his earlier classics, When The Word Was Thunderbird, and navigated that lyrical constant of his – the line between sin and redemption, that is his greatest compositional trope.
His tenure with Columbia did not result in a commercial breakthrough, but it produced some wonderful recordings. The label dropped him in the late eighties, and it would be six years before Shaver would cut another album, the brilliant 1993 effort Tramp On Your Street, that married his flinty, direct songs with his son Eddy’s sizzling guitar work. The fruitful partnership between father and son ended with Eddy Shaver’s death from a drug overdose on December 31st 2000. He was thirty-eight years old. Since then, Billy Joe has survived an onstage heart attack, and an incident where he shot someone outside a bar. Authentic? You better believe it.
With thanks to Alan Robinson