It’s been a brutal week for the outlaw country movement. I mentioned the deaths of Johnny Bush and Jerry Jeff Walker in the last Music Notes post. But for me, the loss of Billy Joe Shaver is pretty devastating. There really was no one better. His early songs are so amazing, equal to Kristofferson’s incredible work of that time, though rawer and more traditional country than Kris. There’s a reason Willie did an album of Kris songs and Waylon did an album of Shaver, the great Honky Tonk Heroes release from 1973, one of the finest country albums ever made.
Shaver was also of course a crazy motherfucker. There’s no other way to phrase this. He was pure Texas honky tonker with all that meant. Including shooting a guy in the face and getting away with it. I saw Shaver once. It was a festival set, so it was only about 45 minutes. But it was nuts. One minute, he was on his knees singing to Jesus. The next, he was gyrating his hips and singing about sex. The only other figure in white American music who so fluently switched from God to Satan is Jerry Lee Lewis, speaking of crazy motherfuckers who are somehow still alive. It was fantastic to see.
This is a good example of Shaver’s mentality:
Jennings promised to listen to those songs. But for weeks, Shaver didn’t hear anything: “I wasn’t used to that drunk talk where they get high and say they’re going to do something and don’t do it.” Shaver traveled to Nashville to seek out Jennings at a recording studio. “I told him, ‘If you don’t listen to them, I’m going to whip your ass right here in front of God and everybody,’” Shaver said in 2010. “And I was ready.”
There’s no reason to question his intent here.
But more importantly, Shaver was just a great songwriter. Like Kris, he peaked early with a ton of jaw-dropping songs and then it was a bit hit and miss from there. But his 1973 album Old Five and Dimers Like Me is another of the all-time classic country albums. “I’ve Been to Georgia on a Fast Train,” “Willie the Wandering Gypsy and Me,” “Black Rose,” “L.A. Turnaround,” I mean you can’t beat this stuff.
RIP you crazy bastard. Go enjoy shooting people in the face in Heaven.