When Americana Highways columnist Bill Bentley was a fledgling concert booker back in the early Eighties, he slotted an aspiring young singer named Dwight Yoakam to open up for Billy Joe Shaver. Bentley had to work some magic as Shaver, who had written virtually all of Waylon Jennings’ Honky Tonk Heroes, insisted his band back him. The only problem was that they were still in Austin. Bentley had to work a bit of magic to get them on a flight to Los Angeles to arrive just in time after Yoakam finished his set.
As Shaver came into Club Lingerie, he handed him a guest list that had seventy-five names on it. That night only a dozen paying people came. “No one came to see Billy Joe,” Bentley remembered years later reminiscing with Dwight Yoakam on his Sirius XM Bakersfield Beat radio show. Driving Shaver to the airport the next morning, Bentley gave him his $500 and apologized about the size of the crowd.
“Let me tell you something,” Shaver turned his head and shot back, looking pointedly at Bentley. “Boy don’t you ever forget. Pride ain’t nothing.”
Bentley might have experienced a similar look to what Bobby Bare Jr. describes in an interview with author Courtney S. Lennon in her new book Live Forever, The Songwriting Legacy of Billy Joe Shaver (Texas A&M University Press). It’s part of the John and Robin Dickinson Series In Texas Music, sponsored by the Center For Texas History at Texas State University.
“The desire to write good songs is burning in him and hits you,” Bare reflected like many on these pages in the years before Shaver passed away in 2020. “He’s such a tough guy, yet he’s vulnerable and absolutely loves me. Then he’ll turn on a dime. When he gets mad, he’s scary, horrifying and dangerous. He’s extreme Texas.”
Culling personal interviews from dozens who revered Shaver’s inspiration, Live Forever provides testimony to his place in country music. As Chuck Mead says “There’s nothing more country than Billy Joe Shaver. He’s in the canon, right up there on the Mount Rushmore of outlaws, with Willie, Waylon and Tompall Glaser.”
The words of Shaver that enveloped his larger than life personality were first sung by Waylon Jennings in “Black Rose.” “The Devil made me do it the first time, the second time I done it on my own,” wrote Shaver, who is described by Kimmie Rhodes as “Shakespeare in Texas.” At times it seemed that persona might overwhelm the writer who gave us such beautiful works as “I Been To Georgia On a Fast Train,” “I’m Just an Old Chunk of Coal (But I’m Gonna Be a Diamond Someday),” “Old Five and Dimers,” “When I Get My Wings” and “You Just Can’t Beat Jesus Christ.” When Jesse Dayton talks of Shaver’s spirituality he likens it to that of Johnny Cash. “You can’t explain it, but when you’re with them you feel like you’re closer to God.”
Shaver is most famously remembered for shooting a man outside a bar in Waco. He was said to have asked before pulling the trigger, “Where do you want it?” Shaver pleaded self-defense and was acquitted, famously quipping after the trial, “Hopefully things will work out where we become friends enough so that he gives me back my bullet.”
In Live Forever, Lennon, the founder of the online roots music magazine Turnstyled, Junkpiled, acknowledges the incident but strays from the tabloid details. (It’s worth noting that Rosie Flores told Lennon that Shaver refuted having ever said it. The trial is described in uproarious detail in the book by band member Nick Gaitan.) Noting the spirituality of someone whose favorite book was the bible but was not your typical evangelist, Lennon reflects on the irony that the shooting occurred on the same day he took photos for a gospel album, one that went on to win a Grammy.
In the book, Lennon focuses on the songwriting legacy of Shiver told through the voices of those who knew him and were inspired across the generations. More importantly the curation of stories gives testament to Shaver who broke ground for songwriters who followed. “He’s not going to let people tell him what to write, how to sing or how to act,” fellow Texan Ray Wylie Hubbard observes. “He was instrumental in putting forth that attitude for everyone else.”
Shaver’s life was characterized by Rod Picott as someone who rode “a strange tightrope of humor and tragedy,” Born of a mother seven months pregnant who was beaten by her boyfriend and left on the street to die, Shaver grew up and discovered he had a gift for words. It must have seemed like divine intervention when he saw Hank Williams at the age of ten and felt the singer looked into his eyes and sang directly to him. Shaver began a path to songwriting, something akin to what fellow Texan Ray Wylie Hubbard describes as “if Rimbaud had a guitar.” When Elizabeth Cook talks of the impact of Shaver’s writing on rural people and her mother performing “Old Five and Dimers Like Me,” she says with a sense of mystical reverence, “He must have been struck by lightning.”
Central to the story is how Shaver came to meet Jennings who once told him to look him up in Nashville. The book details how Shaver went to the studio to see Jennings who was being protected by the Hells Angels and rebuffed him, reportedly offering him $100 to go away. As legend has it told him “You told me to bring some songs. If you don’t at least listen to ‘em, I’m going to whip your ass in front of God and everybody.”
The importance of oral history is the confluence of intersecting stories told by different people with different memories as time marches on. Jessi Colter adds to the narrative remembering opening the door to her and Jennings’ Nashville home with Shaver standing there with his demo tapes. Steve Earle provides additional perspective on the story observing: “I’ve heard the story from Billy Joe, Waylon, and from Jessi since. The truth is not exactly how Billy Joe tells it. Nothing nefarious about it. Billy Joe was not exactly sober. These stories grow when you tell them.”
The book has the flavor of people like they’re sitting around the table reminiscing and telling tall tales. Lennon does a good job of weaving them into thematic segments that help make the storytelling lively and propel the narrative. One might come away wishing that we could have had more from Lennon whose opening and closing essays bookend the others’ stories and provide a broader perspective that ties up Shaver’s history and lifetime of work. It wouldn’t be a stretch to see Lennon contending for next year’s Belmont Book Award.
Shaver hailed from an era where musical laws were being broken. “It was all based on not wanting to be told what to do by the Nashville establishment,” Ray Benson of Asleep at the Wheel. Live Forever also delineates an era gone by that bears little resemblance to today’s write by appointment world.
“What’s wrong with music these days,” another interviewee laments, “is that the danger is gone. Social media is a wonderful tool but what made rock and roll and country cool was the mystique. We’ve sold it at a merch table and lost it.”
Noting the irony of Shaver as a legend who started the outlaw movement but was shunned by the powers that be of Nashville, Elizabeth Cook revels in recalling how she once opened for Shaver in Poland where she saw how much his songs resonated for the “rowdy and rural as hell” crowd. “It was a wild, scary scene.”
You might come away thinking there’s a feeling Shaver deserved to be alive to hear all of the words on these pages.
“His songwriting taught me that if you feel something, flesh it out, and write it down,” says Mando Saenz. Ray Wylie Hubbard talks of Shaver’s effect of making him “want to be a better writer.”
Reading Live Forever made me think of Amanda Shires who is surprisingly missing in these pages but who has spoken of the life-changing moment Shaver imparted on her. Back in her youth, the former teenage fiddler in the Texas Playboys once impulsively jumped onstage to play at one of Shaver’s shows. Shaver hired the young Texan fiddler but saw something else in her. One day he pulled her aside and encouraged her to think beyond a career as a sideman and to write her own songs. It might have been some of the best advice he ever gave anyone.
The importance of oral history preserves and documents history. Terri Hendrix worried in the later years of Shaver’s life that he should have a legacy, one that deserved to last. “Billy Joe’s importance and significance have not been pumped up as much as other people,” she told Lennon. “It’s really important that a book like this be written, because he’s been overlooked.”
I used to think that Pete Seeger would live forever. He defied mortality until it came calling. When you look at the ebullient and imposing presence of Shaver sitting on his horse that adorns the front cover of Live Forever, you might too think he too might have had a special secret for longjevity.
Just a few years after he passed from a stroke during the beginning of Covid, we’re left with the reminiscences of those who wish they could turn back the clock. There’s something poignant in how Lee Roy Parnell remembers spending afternoons together with Shaver. “We laughed hard,” he recalls. “I wish we had more of those days.”
“Maybe twenty years from now,” J.P. Harris says in these pages with foresight, “some kid will come up behind me and read a book about Billy Joe, and suddenly they’ll find that spark of inspiration.”
With Live Forever, we just got a lot closer.