Hero and Heroin

Honky-tonk legend Billy Joe Shaver marches on in the wake of his son's drug-induced death.

Billy Joe Shaver, with California Speedbag Beachland, 15711 Waterloo Road 9 p.m., Saturday, July 14

$12 advance, $15 day of show


A father's grief: Shaver played on when his son died.
A father's grief: Shaver played on when his son died.
When Billy Joe Shaver gives directions to his modest house on the outskirts of Waco, Texas, he says to disregard the handwritten sign on his front door. "Please do not disturb. I haven't slept in two days," it reads.

"That's just so some ol' drunks don't come by at five in the morning to talk," the 61-year-old explains. "'Course, I used to be one of 'em, so I really can't complain too much."

The self-effacing "lovable loser and no-account boozer" left the bottle behind long ago and has returned to his honky-tonk hero status with a stunning new album, The Earth Rolls On, released on New West. Critics are gushing over Shaver like they haven't since 1993's Tramp on Your Street, and fans are not only packing his shows, they're lining up afterward to shake his two-fingered right hand and give him homemade gifts.

But the man in the blue work shirt can't fully enjoy the attention. He doesn't even listen to the record, because it reminds him of the hole in his band where his son Eddy used to be. The 38-year-old, who started playing professionally with his dad at age 12 with a guitar Dickey Betts gave him, died of a heroin overdose on December 31. He had just received an advance to record a solo album for Antone's Records.

"We knew going in that it was our last record together," Shaver says. "So we worked really hard to make it a good'n. I really think that Eddy did some of his best playing ever on this record."

Often accused of overplaying by Texas singer-songwriter purists, Eddy showed relative restraint on The Earth Rolls On, finger-painting the moods of songs such as "Star of My Heart," which his father wrote last year while Eddy was in treatment for heroin addiction. The album ends with soaring hope, as the guitarist finally cuts loose on the title track about finding a light in the darkness of tragedy.

"It's just such a loss," says Shaver, a deeply religious man. "I prayed every day to Jesus, asking him how I could help my son. But that heroin is stronger than love." Eddy is buried next to his mother, Brenda, who died of cancer in 1999.

"I always figured I'd be the first to go," Shaver says. You can see his point, in light of his rough-and-tumble life. His father, who had another family, bailed on Shaver before he was born. His mother worked two jobs, so young Billy Joe and his older sister were raised by their grandmother in Corsicana, Texas. "She gave us reality," Shaver recalls. "Our grandmother told us straight out that there wasn't no Santa Claus, but just play along with the other kids. Unless the Salvation Army dropped off something, we didn't get no Christmas presents."

When his grandmother died, 12-year-old Shaver moved to Waco to live with his mother, who worked as a waitress at a honky-tonk. "I was barefoot, wearing overalls held together by safety pins, and people would give me nickels for the jukebox."

He also started writing poetry. "It was considered a sissy thing to write poems, so I made them print them anonymously in the school paper." Shaver's words had an impact on his ninth-grade homeroom teacher, who was the first to tell him he had talent. He recently paid a visit to the teacher, now 101 and in a nursing home, and she recited one of Shaver's poems from memory.

As a teen, Shaver would clash with his stepfather and take off on freight trains or ride his thumb out of Waco. When he turned 17, his mother signed the papers so he could join the Navy. "I was glad to go, and they were glad to see me go," he says.

But Shaver was a hotheaded recruit. He spent the last several months of his enlistment in the brig at Portsmouth, New Hampshire, for decking an officer at a party. Shaver faced a court martial, but after he wrote a plea to the commanding officer, explaining his side of the scuffle, he was released with an honorable discharge.

He was 20 when he got out of the Navy. That's when he met Brenda, who was 16 at the time. They would eventually marry three times and divorce twice. "She was my first love and my last," Shaver says.

Much of the couple's conflict arose from Shaver's drinking and carousing with the likes of fellow songwriter Townes Van Zandt. "Brenda hated Townes with a passion," Shaver says. When she was dying, Shaver tried to keep her alive by telling her that, when she got to heaven, Van Zandt would be waiting.

To know Shaver and not have a story to tell is like coming home from a Willie Nelson picnic without a sunburn. A famous one is about the time he lost three fingers in a saw accident when he was 22. Shaver had read an article about a man in Asia who had had his severed fingers reattached, so he gathered up the lopped digits. "The doctor said he couldn't do anything for me," Shaver says. "I told him that, in Japan, they just sewed somebody's fingers back together, and he said, 'Well, this ain't Japan.'"

There's also his story about spending six months in Nashville tracking down Waylon Jennings, who had promised to do an entire album of Shaver songs after hearing "Willie the Wandering Gypsy and Me" in 1972. "Waylon asked me if I had any more of them ol' cowboy songs, and I said I had a whole sack full of 'em," Shaver says. But afterward, Jennings wouldn't return Shaver's calls.

Like other great songwriters, Shaver has the ability to nail an entire set of emotions and circumstances with a single line (as in, "Well, the devil made me do it the first time/The second time I done it on my own," from "Black Rose"). Shaver wrote "Georgia on a Fast Train" ("Got a good Christian raisin' and an eighth-grade education/Ain't no need in y'all treatin' me this way") after repeated snubs by Nashville. When he finally did find success, drugs and alcohol almost did him in.

In the late '70s, he and his wife and son were living in Nashville. Shaver says one night he awoke drunk to see Jesus sitting at the foot of his bed, shaking his head. "I got up and got in my pickup and just started driving." He ended up standing on a cliff, contemplating jumping off. After dropping to his knees and praying, Shaver headed back down the trail and started humming a song that had just come to his head: "I'm just an old chunk of coal," he sang, "but I'm gonna be a diamond someday." The next morning, he and Brenda started packing for Houston, where he would kick his habits cold turkey.

He was aimless and living off random royalty checks when he got a call that put him back on track. It was from Nelson, whom he'd known since the late-'50s honky-tonk circuit. Nelson and Emmylou Harris were about to start a tour of arenas, and Shaver was offered to open the shows and make a few hundred bucks a night.

"I can't tell you all the times Willie's bailed me out of situations, but that was a big'n," Shaver says. "I wasn't sure if I'd ever get up on a stage again."

Nelson also helped him on his most difficult day. "When Eddy died, Willie said I needed to be among friends." Shaver had a New Year's Eve gig scheduled at a club near Nelson's ranch outside of Austin, and he was able to convince himself that Eddy would want the show to go on. It was the toughest gig of Shaver's life, the memories flooding each song until Nelson and pals had to take over. But he got through the night, thanks to some advice from Nelson, who lost a son to suicide several years ago. "Willie told me that there are just some thoughts that I'm gonna have to learn to let go, like 'What could I have done differently to save him?'"

Eddy was not only his son, but his best friend, he says. "I don't blame Eddy, because I've been there myself, but I still can't believe he would do that to himself."

A few months after Eddy's death, Shaver was driving back from a gig and thinking about his son. He came up with this verse: "Nobody here will ever find me/But I will always be around/Just like the songs I leave behind me/I'm gonna live forever now."

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