One could easily spend hours talking with Billy Joe Shaver. Besides a Warren Buffet-size wealth of anecdotes – culled from more than four decades of country carousing with the likes of Waylon Jennings, Townes Van Zandt, Shel Silverstein, Willie Nelson, and countless others – there is Shaver’s heart. It’s at the center of most stories about the great Texas singer-songwriter because, along with his sense of humor, it’s one of his defining features, and it’s already proven to be miraculous.
The story goes back to Gruene Hall, where during an Independence Day show in 2001, he nearly died of a heart attack. It came at a particularly hard time for Shaver. The author of “Old Chunk of Coal (But I’ll Be a Diamond Someday)” had fallen into a depression after death visited him three times in 18 months, taking his mother, three-time wife Brenda, and most tragically, his 38-year old son, Eddy, by a heroin overdose. Shaver was residing in a very dark place.
“People say you don’t want to die, but I did at one time. But you kinda get temporarily insane when you want to do that. No sense in that. Might as well hang around. Something good might happen,” says Shaver, from Orlando, Florida, where he’s on the set of a Disney movie staring Bill Engvall and Billy Ray Cyrus.
Whatever he felt inside, it wasn’t going to show that night at Gruene Hall. Shaver learned a showman’s professionalism early.
“When I first started, this fella pulled me aside. I was having a bad night, ya know? He pulled me aside and said, ‘If you’re having a bad night, act like you’re having the time of your life, because these people didn’t pay good money to see you have a bad night,’” he chuckles. “That’s when my acting career started.”
It was a typically sweltering July night in New Braunfels, and the eaves were up to let in air, but it hardly helped. Jesse Taylor provided musical backing, and, thanks to a childhood accident, he was basically deaf in one ear.
“I kept turning to Jesse, and going, ‘This is the last one’ and he thought I meant one more. We just keep on playing and I have this elephant standing on my chest. I can’t get it through to him. Finally I had to manhandle him, and shout in both ears that I was done, and I’m still having this heart attack. I go out there and I sign everything. I’m still having a heart attack, and I said, ‘Thank you God so much for letting me die in the oldest honky tonk in Texas, I sure do appreciate it. This is good,’” Shaver says. “Sure enough I didn’t die.”
Shaver chuckles and continues, “Next I had to go to Pflugerville of all places. Can’t hardly spell the thing, and I thought, ‘God this is the worst thing that you ever done to me.’”
Finally, the merch girl took Shaver from the hotel to the hospital, where doctors discovered he’d blown three of his four heart valves, and the last one was operating at 10-percent capacity. The doctors quickly installed a stent to prevent his final valve from closing. He was scheduled for quadruple bypass surgery when Shaver’s old buddy Kinky Friedman called. Friedman was pitching a fit because the surgery interfered with a planned three-week Australian tour, and he complained that Shaver was ruining his career.
“I said, ‘Kinky, I can’t make that trip. I have to have four-way bypass. My heart had grown an extra valve during that time, I don’t know how it did that but they call it godsends,” Shaver says. “Sure enough he talked me into going. I went over and played. It was all I could do to keep from killing him. When I got off that plane, the doctors came and got me. They didn’t even let the jet lag get out of me. Dr. Chip Oswald did this to me in an hour and 30 minutes, and cleaned out that one I’d grown. Now I’m running on five, and I feel better than I ever have, to tell you the truth.”
Through all the pain and heartbreak, Shaver kept writing. He says a song is the cheapest psychologist there is “and God knows I still need one. It’s good therapy, everyone should write songs.”
Sure enough, sticking around repaid him with something good, another album of great songs, more fans – touched by his affectless, homespun, and heartfelt stories – and his seventh Grammy nomination. This was his first as an artist, though he lost in the Southern, Country or Bluegrass Gospel Album category to Ricky Skaggs & the Whites.
Yet, the Waco native remains philosophical about industry recognition. “You have to be in real deep trouble, or you ain’t gonna get one, I think,” laughs Shaver. “Besides that, Waylon Jennings is dead, but he told me if he ever caught me writing trying to win one of them awards, he’d shoot me right between the eyes. I still think he might manage to do it somehow if I did, so I don’t try. I just write as good as I can.” •
Billy Joe Shaver
8:30pm Thu, Feb 28
Cheatham Street Warehouse