This Charming Man
Billy Joe Shaver last visited New York City in late July. Everybody's Brother, his latest album for Houston's Compadre Records — and first-ever all-gospel offering — comes out in September, and before any record with even marginal sales hopes hits U.S. shelves, the artist must perform the obligatory promotional dog and pony show. Even Billy Joe Shaver.
In New York that day, his schedule is full. He's interviewed by a well-respected public-radio talk show host in the early afternoon. A little later comes a print interview for CMT.com and a sound check before two shows at Joe's Pub.
Somewhere in there is an ABC television interview. As Shaver understands it, it's a new show, something called The Mix. It's the host's first interview for the program, and she makes a few rookie mistakes. She calls the new album Everybody's Son and says Shaver played with Bob Dylan, Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson, when actually they recorded his songs.
In a kindly, if not outright flirtatious, fashion, I imagine, Billy Joe corrects her errors. The program is taped, so the questions and answers can be redone.
Knowing this, he tells the young host a story about Brenda, his first (and second and third) wife, now deceased. This story, as it happens, ends with Billy Joe calling his dearly departed a "dumbass."
"I said, 'We got married three times, so that made her the dumbass, not me,'" Shaver relates later. "And all the girls went, 'Aaaah!' All them horn-rimmed glasses and stuff." He's clearly tickled, damn near gleeful, at the idea of shocking seemingly sheltered women at the start of their television careers.
And this, like countless other Billy Joe Shaver stories, reveals the Corsicana native as a charismatic, fun-loving, incorrigible insurgent, in keeping with his "outlaw country" image.
When Shaver leans in with an "I've never told anybody this" preface, he carries enough charm you almost believe him, even though you've heard the story before. You can understand how a woman would marry him three separate times. Almost.
Sure, there are stories about how Billy Joe was abandoned as a child and how he lost most of the fingers of his right hand in a sawmill accident. There are also stories of how he went to Nashville and rode someone else's motorcycle (he couldn't afford his own) onto legendary songwriter Harlan Howard's front porch to proclaim that he, Billy Joe Shaver, was the greatest songwriter in the world.
Then there's the story of the worst year of Billy Joe Shaver's life: the year Brenda, son Eddy and his mother all passed away. But particularly relevant these days, coming as it does on the heels of his first gospel album, is the story of how he drove to a cliff, contemplated the big jump and came away saved. On the ride home, he got a head start writing one of his best-known songs, "I'm Just an Old Chunk of Coal (But I'm Going to Be a Diamond Someday)."
Brenda is the subject of countless stories, as is the second Mrs. Shaver, Wanda. For those keeping score at home, she's wife number four and five. Shaver's fifth — and, he says, final, "no más" — marriage took place in Las Vegas last October on Wanda's birthday: Friday the 13th. Another Texas icon, Billy Gibbons, officiated, and by the end of the reception Billy Joe had broken his neck while wrestling with his best friend.
Shaver, who turned 68 August 16, says Wanda didn't believe him, and therefore neglected to return home on the couple's second wedding night. So this past January, mere months after the wedding, he filed for divorce. The final decree, consisting of 13 pieces of paper, arrived in the mail the 13th. Not that Billy Joe Shaver is superstitious.
"No," he says with a grin. "It's bad luck to be superstitious."
That story — that exact line — is now a song on Everybody's Brother.
"I know I'm not that smart a person," he says. "But I have a real good corner on simplicity. I don't believe it needs to be greased at all. If you can write something in as few words as possible and make it mean as much as you can, and make it only mean one thing, no double Dylan or anything like that, that is hard to do.
"And I do that. I'm good at it."
But Shaver won't be telling one story anytime soon.
This past April in Lorena, just south of Waco, he was arrested and charged with aggravated assault and possession of a firearm in an establishment where alcohol is served. Basically he went Dick Cheney and shot somebody in the face.
Therefore, Shaver is currently promoting his gospel album while out on $50,000 bail.
About a month before the shooting, Compadre was bought by Music World Entertainment, the burgeoning empire owned and operated by Mathew Knowles, a.k.a. Beyoncé's dad. If you don't think standing on a New York City sidewalk between a legendary songwriter out on bail and someone who knows what it's like to share Christmas dinner with Jay-Z is more than a little strange, think again.
"The timing of it," muses Knowles. "I was like, 'Man, are we a rap label?'"
Good question. In the Sopranos episode "The Fleshy Part of the Thigh," an unknown rapper asks one of Tony's lieutenants to help him out — i.e., shoot him — after seeing his producer take seven bullets and the resulting publicity bump his record to No. 1.
Might this unfortunate incident in the Lone Star Saloon parking lot actually be good for business?
"Artists have a life," suggests Knowles. "They're regular, normal people, and like all of us, there's mistakes we all make. There's [also] great, positive things we do, and the timing is never predicted. It wasn't predicted that this gentleman would come into a bar and disrespect Billy's wife."
Still, Knowles admits, the shooting has "brought awareness."
For obvious legal reasons, Shaver isn't really supposed to talk about this. But the question hangs in the air all the same. Is it ironic for a man out on bond to be promoting a new gospel album?
"No," says Shaver, matter-of-factly.
"I would not intentionally hurt anybody," he elaborates. "I used to box, and if somebody hits me, I hit 'em back. I wouldn't hit nobody on purpose. I'm really a nice guy. It's just that people ought not be such a bunch of bullies and go around shoving people around. They ought to stop that, you know?
"Stuff happens to me at the weirdest times," he continues, wistfully.
At this point, Shaver is talking about his past, not just that unfortunate springtime Saturday night.
"And it'll be the strangest damn thing," he reckons. "Because it's true: Truth is stranger than fiction, and it happens to me all the time."
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