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Music: The Ballad Of Billy Joe Shaver

Audio

Aired 6/18/10

One of the legends of outlaw country music and a songwriter's songwriter plays San Diego for one night only this Sunday. Don't miss this performance by gifted musician and storyteller, Billy Joe Shaver.

Country music singer and songwriter Billy Joe Shaver will perform in San Diego on Sunday night.

Above: Country music singer and songwriter Billy Joe Shaver will perform in San Diego on Sunday night.

After a 50-year music career, country singer Billy Joe Shaver is still relatively unknown, but not to some of America's greatest songwriters. Willie Nelson and Bob Dylan have recorded his songs. Johnny Cash called him his favorite songwriter. Shaver says, "That's kinda the way things went with me, I got lucky with all of the songwriters."

Most of the songs on Waylon Jenning's hit album "Honky Tonk Heroes" were written by Shaver. Jennings heard Shaver playing at a party. Shaver tells the story: "He (Jennings) come bustin' out of the back of the trailer and said, 'Man I got to have that song.' He said, 'Did you write that song?' I said 'yeah I did.' And he said 'Do you have any more of those cowboy songs?' and I was cowboying at the time, and I said, 'Man, I got a sac full of them things.'" The song was "Willie the Wandering Gypsy and Me," written for Shaver's friend Willie Nelson. The song would become a hit for both Jennings and Shaver.

Shaver was part of the 1970s Nashville scene that changed country music. His songs "Good Christian Soldier" and "I Been to Georgia on a Fast Train" became country standards during that time. "I tell you what it really did change. There were places you couldn't go into without a tie, and we all wore jeans of course and it all changed overnight. And everyone started to write songs like that," says Shaver.

His songs are often biographical. Shaver notes, "Most all of my songs are written to stay alive or get back in the house, mostly. I ain't puttin' out a song that's bitter." It would be hard to fault Shaver if he did. He hasn't had an easy life.

He tells a harrowing story of his father beating his mother while she was pregnant with him. Shaver turns it into a good luck story. "I'm lucky I lived through all that kicking around. My daddy meant to kill me. He stomped my mother real good and I came out alright so I'd say I'm pretty doggone lucky."

Shaver grew up poor in Waco, Texas. He was raised by his grandmother and spent summers with his mother who worked in local bars. "My mother was a sure enough honky tonk girl she come right out of the cotton fields into the honky tonks and I started hanging out there as a kid."

Billy Joe Shaver and Willie Nelson in the mid-70s.
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Above: Billy Joe Shaver and Willie Nelson in the mid-70s.

By the time Shaver made it to Nashville in the late 60s, he'd lived ten lives and had plenty of material. His 1973 album "Old Five and Dimers" is considered a classic in the outlaw country genre. "And I was the next big deal in Nashville everybody thought, but it didn't work out that way 'cause I left it. And if I didn't, I'd probably be dead."

Shaver fought drug and alcohol addiction. He divorced and remarried the same woman three times before losing her to cancer. In 2000, his son Eddy, who was also a musician, died of a heroin overdose.

His troubles continued. In 2007, Shaver was arrested for shooting a man in the face outside a bar in Texas. The man's injuries were not life-threatening. Shaver plead self-defense and was acquitted this past April. Other than to say he was sorry it all happened, Shaver declined to comment further on the case under the advisement of his lawyer.

At 71, Shaver's still writing songs and logging time on honky tonk stages. And it's the songwriting that continues to both heal and inspire him. He explains, "Cheapest psychiatrist there is is writing songs. And it is the greatest therapy."

Billy Joe Shaver will play for one night only - this Sunday, June 20th - at AMSD Concerts in Normal Heights. Showtime is 7:30pm.

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