Rough around the edges
Billy Joe Shaver led a hard life but penned music full of truth
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I once interviewed R.C. Sproul about his book Willing To Believe. In its discussion of faith and salvation, he’d referred to semi-Pelagians as “barely” Christians, and I asked him what he meant.
“All of us who are Christians,” he said laughing, “are only barely Christians.”
The country-music singer-songwriter and Texas legend Billy Joe Shaver would have agreed.
Shaver, many of whose compositions became “outlaw country” staples, died three days before Halloween after suffering a stroke. He was 81.
No one deserved the description “larger than life” more than Shaver. Abandoned in infancy, he spent his first dozen years with his Baptist grandmother in Corsicana and the next several reunited with his saloon-running mother in Waco. He had his first sexual experience at age 12 (the subject of his song “Black Rose”) and lost the top halves of two fingers in a sawmill. He married and divorced his wife Brenda three times. He lost his 37-year-old guitar-playing son Eddy to heroin.
In 2001, he survived an onstage heart attack, and six years later faced charges of aggravated assault and illegal firearms possession after he shot a man in the face outside a saloon. (He pleaded self-defense and prevailed.) In the interim, he served as his friend and fellow Texan Kinky Friedman’s “spiritual adviser” during Friedman’s unsuccessful gubernatorial run.
There was more where those episodes came from. When I interviewed Shaver in 2005, I gave him an advance copy of a Johnny Cash box containing his previously unreleased duet with the Man in Black. “Johnny Cash,” he said, “was the only man I’ve ever seen who could kick down a door.” One can only imagine the craziness of the circumstances leading up to such an event.
Perhaps craziest of all is that no matter how wild and woolly his life became, Shaver never stopped writing, recording, or performing.
One theme to which he returned throughout his career was the Savior to whom he’d turned in the early 1970s upon finding himself enslaved by drugs and booze. “Jesus Christ, What a Man,” “You Can’t Beat Jesus Christ,” “Jesus Christ Is Still the King,” “Jesus Is the Only One Who Loves Us”—it was easy to see what Kinky Friedman meant when he said one of his biggest challenges when performing with Shaver was keeping Shaver from turning their shows into revival meetings.
During a 1997 performance with Waylon Jennings, Kris Kristofferson, and Willie Nelson on Austin City Limits, Shaver introduced “You Can’t Beat Jesus Christ” by saying, “I’d like to say today that I—I love the Lord Jesus Christ. That’s where I’m at.” Then, lest he be thought sanctimonious, he added, “I’m a sinner big time.”
It was his way of saying about himself what Sproul had said about all believers. And like everything else he sang, it was true.
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