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Nashville Scene Razor Sharp

Songwriter's tales make for compelling listening

By Michael McCall

SEPTEMBER 27, 1999:  Billy Joe Shaver opens his recent album Electric Shaver appropriately enough with a blast of feedback by his guitar-playing son, Eddy Shaver, who harnesses the distortion into the ferocious groove of "Thunderbird Wine." But for father and son--who record together under the band name Shaver--the song has a significance that reaches far beyond the album's title.

"The reason I put it [first] was because of the lyrics," the elder Shaver says. "There's a part in there, 'Lord, I don't know if I'll have the strength to take it.' I wrote that 30 years ago, but I feel it more now than I have in a long time."

The last few months have been a struggle for the long-standing duo. Brenda Tindell Shaver, Eddy's mother, died of cancer in August. Six weeks earlier, Billy Joe Shaver had lost his own mother, Victory Odessa Watson Shaver, who raised him by herself during the Dust Bowl years in the hill country around Waco, Texas.

"Every once in a while, I catch myself fixing to call one of them," Shaver says. "Something will happen, and I'll want to tell them. Then I realize they aren't there. That's when it's hardest."

Shaver originally married Brenda in 1959. He was 20 and recently discharged from the army after being court-martialed for repeated arrests involving fights and going AWOL. She was a tall, dark-haired, 17-year-old high-school senior, an expert horsewoman, a ribbon-winning barrel racer, and a true cowgirl.

Over the years, the couple married and divorced twice. But Billy Joe always returned. He and Eddy (the couple's only child) spent the last four years staying off the road as much as possible so they could care for Brenda, driving her to chemotherapy treatments in Austin and in Waco and staying with her after surgery.

"She wanted to live, and she did live as long as she could," Shaver reasons. "She really was the only woman I ever loved, my first and my last. I didn't realize until recently that almost every song I wrote was about her. It's been hard. I don't know if I'll ever get over it. But I can say I'm glad we had those last four years together. At least we had that. It made up for a lot of times and a lot of things. We had a lot of good times, even under the duress. She knew how much we loved her here in these last few years."

The two shared an incredibly colorful and tumultuous life together. Shortly after their marriage, Shaver lost four fingers in a sawmill accident, two of which were partially reattached. Though he'd always loved music, he took it up with greater dedication as he healed and eventually hitchhiked to Nashville, arriving in a cantaloupe truck. When money ran out, he returned to Texas and literally broke his back working as a roofer.

Taking the roofing accident as a sign from God, he came back to Nashville with a vengeance. This time, he arrived as a new kind of songwriter was surfacing in Nashville: Primed by such old-guard iconoclasts as Willie Nelson, Harlan Howard, and Roger Miller, Nashville began to open up to the poetic imagery of writers like Kris Kristofferson, Mickey Newbury, and Billy Joe Shaver.

From the beginning, Shaver would only perform his songs, and he would only write lyrics based on his own experiences. His ribald vignettes were packed with colorful, earthy language that uniquely described man's struggle between lustful temptations and spiritual yearnings. To listen to his records is to follow a personal journey that no other songwriter has described quite as richly or as honestly.

Over the years, Shaver has had his moments of glory: Most famously, Waylon Jennings recorded 11 of his songs on the landmark Honky Tonk Heroes album. Shaver's songs have also been recorded by Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Bob Dylan, Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, Kris Kristofferson, the Allman Brothers, Tom T. Hall, and, in more recent years, Patty Loveless, Marty Stuart, and BR5-49.

Though Shaver's recent personal trials have been some of the hardest he's ever faced, his roller-coaster career has been cruising smoother than usual lately. Since the release of his critically acclaimed Tramp on Your Street album in 1993, he and his son have steadily toured the United States and Europe, where his bare-knuckled performance style and Eddy's fluid, stinging guitar licks have earned Shaver a cult following similar to that of Steve Earle, Guy Clark, or Joe Ely.

Moreover, he tapped some new fans through his surprising acting turn in Robert Duvall's acclaimed film, The Apostle, in which Shaver played a reformed alcoholic and Duvall's best friend. He remains close with the actor and filmmaker; the two speak on the telephone regularly, and Duvall recently asked Shaver if he'd take a role in his next directorial and screenwriting effort, a still-in-the-works film biography of country music legend Merle Haggard.

Even after his recent successes, Shaver's autobiographical bent remains as strong as ever. "Try and Try Again," for example, is a raucous song from Electric Shaver that recounts one of the times Shaver considered suicide. After explaining his reasons for staying alive, he pontificates, "If all you do is lose, you better find a way to win," turning his suicidal impulses into a challenge. He snarls each line as if pounding a fist against his chest.

Meanwhile, Victory, Shaver's 1998 collection of self-written spiritual songs, is named for his mother, to whom he credits his love of music. During the summers while growing up in Texas, he'd tag along with her to work at the Green Gables, a roughhouse Waco bar where she served cold drinks to soldiers, oil-field workers, and gamblers. Billy Joe would sing and dance to the jukebox, earning pocket change thrown to him by the bar's patrons.

A hushed yet hard-nosed acoustic album about a roughneck's search for faith and forgiveness, Victory reflects the values Shaver gained from his lifelong connection to his mother, his wife, and the Texas region he calls home. "You know, I think she's still with me, and Brenda's still with me," the singer says. "I think when you die, part of them melts into you and becomes part of you."

Shaver used to be the rowdiest, roughest, and hardest-living of the country music outlaws--"Whatever anyone was doing, Billy Joe was doing more of it than anyone else," Tom T. Hall once said. For the last decade or so, though, he has been sober and deeply religious. The experiences of the last few years have only solidified his faith.

"I don't know how anybody gets through it without being spiritual," he says. "If it hadn't been for Jesus, I wouldn't have made it this far, I can tell you that."

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