‘I’m Gonna Catch Tomorrow Now:’ Billy Joe Shaver’s Rowdy Tonk for Believers: In Memoriam
(Photo by Kirk West/Getty Images) – Billy Joe Shaver
Billy Joe Shaver At Wise Fool’s Pub in Chicago on March 23, 1980.
He was a little bit shy, and big. Great big, big, big. Half standing when I walked up to the table at the old Longhorn just off West End, he was almost too big to extricate himself from the hard-wooden booth. A shock of hair fell across his eyes as he reached out a man’s forearm clad in denim and smiled into my eyes, nodding a welcome.
I clenched the extended hand, forgetting… We’d never met, but the legend of Billy Joe Shaver losing most of three fingers in a saw-mill accident was known … and I clenched my fingers into a “man appropriate” grip. A firm handshake, my Dad used to tell me, levels the playing field, says you’re strong, says you’re true.
Only when I closed my fingers, there was a whole lot of nothing there. He gripped with the fingers he had, closing his great big hand around mine. His palm had seen enough physical labor, you knew this wasn’t a pampered soul, who got rich and fancy when Waylon Jennings cut an entire album of his songs called Honky Tonk Heroes.
I tried not to react, show surprise or yelp. He’d seen it all; he’d probably laughed, but I was there to do an interview for Tramp on Your Street, his first album in a decade. I wanted to maintain not just my cool, but a sense I could handle the story. The project was a pungent roots rock affair, long on muscular guitar that was a narcotic musk of twang, tone and jangle courtesy of his son Eddie.
That was why the album was Shaver, not Billy Joe Shaver. It had that thumping backbeat that made Waylon Jennings an outlaw of equal stripes biker and cowboy, as well as the acoustic-forward tilt that pulled you into Willie Nelson’s far friendlier Armadillo country orbit. As Garth Brooks exploded, Vince Gill’s sweetness reigned and Alan Jackson brought traditionalism back into fashion, Shaver struck a blow for the roughneck place in country music where men were men and the ladies were glad.
An almost primitive writer, capable of great poetry and earth-cracking truths, Shaver’s gift was an odd gentleness, a vulnerability that recognized the failings of our mortal coil matched with a hell-raising, take-no-shit kind reckless good-timing. Still sitting there in that packed chain restaurant with all the songwriters and old guard business types congregated in for mid-price red meat, potato planks and cold beer, draft or bottle, he was mostly funny, charming, and patient recounting the story of a life Cormac McCarthy, Larry McMurtry and Tom McGuane couldn’t conjure as a team sport.
Raised by his grandma, supplementing their social security singing on a pickle barrel in a general store, he was a bona fide Texas blue collar texture from a time forgotten. Though solid teachers’ pet stock, the brawling suited him better – a fact testified to in “Georgia on a Fast Train” that proclaimed, “I got a good Christian raisin’ and an 8th grade education/Ain’t no reason for y’all to be treatin’ me thisa way” – and manual labor for a big strong boy was an honest way to get life done.
As for his fingers, he shrugged, and said, “Yup, I was feeding planks on the line, reached back, got tangled up and next thing you know, my hand got pulled in.”
Matter of fact, matter of life. Maintaining eye contact, he half-shrugged assessing my limit for gore, then kept going, “I looked down, saw my fingers in the saw dust, scooped’em up and put’em in my pocket. They tried to reattach ‘em, but too much damage was done.”
No big deal. Keep on. Keep on keepin’ on.
Chiseled features, a head bent to dreaming and the music inside, he found his way in the nightlife rooms of honky tonks and bars. Wrote some songs, banged around with his guitar, decided to give Nashville a try.
The story of Jennings’ repeated brush-offs after asking to bring the deep-voiced star some songs manifested into a threat to “kick your ass” if Waylon didn’t listen was as widely known as his one about his mangling. He laughed, telling the story sitting there, “aw shucks” and “well, you knowin’” as if it was a just a little crappy on the line not the great big fish it was made out to be.
Funny thing is: Jennings cut a whole album of his songs. More than the legend, there was the music, earthy, real, splintered in places and consumed by whatever emotion was driving the writing.
Laughing at the table, he leaned over, wanting to share a secret.
“You know that Madonna?” he asked, making sure I knew this wasn’t about some blessed virgin. When I nodded, his eyes gleamed and his chuckle tempered with something just to the left of lust. “Now there’s a gal, you know? I wrote ‘Hottest Thing In Town’ about her, the kinda gal that knows what to do no matter where you find her.”
“Well, well…” I replied.
“I mean, you don’t know her, do you?”
“Only by records…”
“Man,” he exhaled. “Just… man… I wouldn’t mind going a round or two with her…”
It wasn’t dirty, wasn’t nasty. Maybe the closest I’ve ever come to someone inhabiting that Hank Willilams’ notion of going “hawnkee tuhnkin’.” Though something told me if she wanted to use him as a human trampoline, he’d give at least as good as he got.
Lunch was savored, not rushed. He told stories, gossiped a little, talked about his past, his son, the future – and seemed not to notice the stolen glances from a pretty fast room. My mother’s mother, a salty gal who loved a character, would’ve pronounced him “darling.” My father, a former Marine, would’ve said, he was “A-OK.”
We stood up. He asked if he could give me a hug. It was like being swallowed by a mountain. He’d been off the rails for part of the previous decade, living rough and Tramp On Your Street was going to put him back on his feet. It gave him a reason to steal his son back from Dwight Yoakam – and to show rock crowds, college kids and old school country fans that there was still a spark of honest-to-goodness real men making stripped down, jacked up country-blues rock.
To hear something so unadorned, so almost turpentined then was a revelation. Today, it’s stark raving pure. Analog tape, real gear, musicians on the floor, throwing it down. You can almost hear the tracks sweat.
And so I went home to write up a story for Tower Records Pulse! I made some calls, talked to some people. Convinced my editor at The New York Times this record, this artist in this moment was important. Sometimes it’s the antecedents (the people he’d impacted) that make the difference, but in the end, the 550 words in America’s paper of record make a very different kind of difference.
Somewhere in the middle of that review, I wrote, “Ragged emotions are something Mr. Shaver earned through living, and that hard-won knowledge infuses “Tramp on Your Street,” his first recording in 10 years. Whether it’s the roughneck bump and shuffle of “Georgia on a Fast Train,” with Mr. Shaver yowling the lyrics of bumpkin protest, or the meditational bluegrass of “Live Forever,” these are songs of redemption. In his world, though, redemption takes many forms: unabashed – and unreal – lust (“The Hottest Thing in Town”), surrender to a higher power (“If I Give My Soul”) and, somewhere between, yearning (the fragile “When Fallen Angels Fly,” the eerie “I Want Some More”).
Mr. Shaver once saw Hank Williams and sang of the experience: ‘His body was worn, but his spirit was free/And he sang every song, looking right straight at me,’ offering self-revelation in the process. With a gruff voice and awkward phrasing, he knows that truth isn’t pretty. Still, he presents the tales and insights of a well-traveled soul wrapped in a buzzing barbed-wire guitar and a backbeat that crashes like a garden gate.”
I’d write thousands of words about Billy Joe Shaver over the years, witnessing to his stoic grit, his naughty sense of fun, his abiding Christian faith, his ability to transcend hard times. But maybe nothing captures it better than those few lines.
Moving around Nashville in those mid-’90s days, in and out of camps and creative communities, I preached the gospel of Shaver’s core truths and rough-hewn, yet brutally exacting demolition country. So alive, so electric, you wanted to turn people on, shock them from the slickness.
Notes were written, CDs left between people’s storm doors and front doors. Phone calls, but especially delicious sessions of “oooohing” and “ahhhhhhing” over the viscerality of the tracks and the wisdom of the words.
“Live Forever,” a quiet take on one’s spirit being eternal and a directive on kindness and the Christian way, seemed like a prayer the go-go ’90s needed. With that kerosene rising melody, it deserved a torchy voice. Hummable; why not? It could bring sanctity to the radio.
When the phone rang, Patty Loveless, on the other end, was raving about the album. An Appalachian traditionalist seasoned by wild hare juke joints in North Carolina, she understood every syllable and note twist on the album. “I’m gonna cut it,” she announced.
“Live Forever?” I asked, gleeful
“When Fall Angels Fly,” she returned. “It’s broken, but it’s saved. Holly, people need that kind of promise and that kind of hope.”
It was never a single, never a focus track. But the ache in her voice, the break in that vowels when she confessed, “I have climbed so many mountains, just to see the other side/ I have almost drowned in freedom, just to feed my foolish pride” was a revelation. Not a soul saved by love trope, but a woman who’d been places, who owned the miles and the men in the arms of that one person who can embrace her whole being.
While it didn’t earn seven figures, the song left a mark on history. When Patty Loveless became only the second woman to win the Country Music Association’s coveted Album of the Year, it was, “Patty Loveless… When Fallen Angels Fly” that got announced.
Not long after Loveless and her husband Emory Gordy, Jr, cut the song, I came home to voicemail I could barely make out. Cell phones were new, reception was bad. A couple late nights later, I picked up the phone to that same voice: Billy Joe Shaver.
“Holly, I will never forget what you did for me,” he said.
“Well, it was a great song, and look what it did for Patty! It gave her a name for her record…”
“I’m not kidding,” he said, being grave and serious. “When I heard her sing that song, I wept. It got down deep inside me. I can’t thank you enough.”
People in moments are grateful. Gratitude in any form is lovely. The irony: Billy Joe Shaver never forgot. Decades later when I would run into him, he’d always find a way in a random moment to lean over and whisper some variation of “I mean it… man, the way she sang my song” in my ear. Because singers and songs and truth were holy, and he took it hardcore serious.
And that was thing for all the sorrow and the pain… this is a man who lost his son to a heroin overdose on a New Year’s Day, and still showed up for his gig at Poodies later that night, who lost his mother and his wife in shortly thereafter, who just kept going, kept seeking to do the next right thing and help those who needed help.
Tucked into corners of the night, random multi-artist events or tv tapings, he was always glad to see you, always ready to sing his songs and tell his truth. He wasn’t detached, the songs showed that. “It’s Hard To Be An Outlaw,” flexing wicked double-entendres sung with Willie Nelson, from 2014’s Long In The Tooth has the same measured brio that made his early songs such unabashed articles of a certain kind of life.
“Jesus Was Our Saviour And Cotton Was Our King,” “Old Chunk of Coal (But I’m Gonna Be A Diamond One Day,” “Ride Me Down Easy,” “Devil Made Me Do It the First Time,” “Old Five and Dimers,” “You Can’t Beat Jesus Christ” spoke volumes of how the Outlaws lived – and breathed. Later he got more randy, howling bawdy hilarity like “That’s What She Said Last Night,” or the hilarious truth-tell “Wacko from Waco” that rose from Shaver actually shooting a man.
Another larger than life legend that paled compared to the actual tale. Sitting at a bar with his lady friend, who was attracting unwanted attention, there were words. When the offender wouldn’t stop, Shaver suggested he was going to the bathroom, when he got back, the guy should be gone, or there’d be consequences.
With a chorus that promises, “I don’t start fights, I finish fights/That’s the way I’ll be/ I‘m the Wacko from Waco/You best not mess with me…,” Shaver walked out of the bar, looked at the guy threatening to blow him away, and shook his head. “Where do you want it?” he asked him, then pulled the trigger.
Cool as is he is smart, Shaver rolled right up to Wille Nelson’s house, and started negotiating his surrender. Indeed, the bonus finds the Red-Headed Stranger admonishing listeners, “The Wacko from Waco is still on the run/ A writer, a singer, a son of a gun/ Don’t cross him, don’t boss him/ Stay out of his way/ Don’t give him no trouble /Cause you’ll just make his day…”
So beloved by all, it was only a matter of time before justice was served. With Robert Duvall and Nelson sitting in the courthouse during the trial – and acting as character witnesses – Shaver was soon free again, exonerated by self-defense.
Free again! Some men are freeborn men, others live their lives in shackles. Maybe that’s what made Shaver so transfixing. Never wanting to be anything more than he was, simple and willing and seeking higher ground while good-timing like few could, he walked that line between damned and sublime.
The acapella “Star In My Heart,” a tender love song to someone gone who will always be loved and dedicated to his son Eddy, on 2012’s Live from Billy Bob’s, manifests a purity you can’t fake. Tumbling into “Live Forever,” the Bee Spears-evoking back and forth bass part and the few gut string notes scattered beneath that slightly bent vocal tone, he weighs the words he’s sung for a couple decades at that point.
You fathers and you mothers
Be good to one another
Please try to raise your children right
Don’t let the darkness take’em
Don’t make’em feel forsaken
Just lead ‘em safely to the light
When this whole world is blown asunder
And all the stars fall from the sky
Remember someone really loves you
We’ll live forever you and I
I’m gonna live forever
Im gonna cross that river
I’m gonna catch tomorrow now…
When the news arrived, via email from a mutual friend who moves through the same rooms of legends and songwriters, I shrieked. Literally, blinked twice and felt the blood curdling scream reflexively leaving my throat and through my lips.
How many more people are we going to lose? Are going to pass into the sky? Jerry Jeff Walker? Bobbi Cowan? JT Corenflos? Who next? It has been a cruel harvest, and a brutal year of too many unknowns.
In the vertigo and disorientation, it’s hard to know where the wall is, or why we should be believe it’s going to get any better. And yet, we have these songs, these recordings. From the ’70s, the ’90s, the ’00s and the ’10s.
Slightly slurred, swooping down and lifting up, the joy is a dissolving agent, the faith is a buttress against what we can’t know. Typing this, another one, yet another one, I feel my heart lurch from shock to rage to sorrow to confusion and ultimately to being glad. In a world where all is temporal, Billy Joe Shaver was – all the contradictions, the swagger, the kindness, the hilarity. And there are so many memories to sustain.
Even more, there is the music and the songs. Listening, absorbing it, I feel the corners of my mouth rising, my heart easing just a little. There are more tears to be shed, no doubt, but right now, it’s a little bit of Dixieland in “The Good Ole USA” and knowing he lived in glory, not in vain. Not a bad truth to tell.
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