Outlaw country shaman Billy Joe Shaver, the 68-year-old Texas songwriter whose bluntly sophisticated writing style jump-started the early 1970s revolution in country music, has always gone at it the hard way. He’s lost two fingers, quit the music business five times, married and divorced the same woman six times (only to lose her to cancer), lost his only son — and musical collaborator — Eddy Shaver to a heroin overdose. He’s survived more than one suicide attempt, been screwed out of royalties and, on his most recent wedding day — Friday the 13th of October — broke his neck in a barroom wrestling match with his best man.
This dizzying résumé of disaster has never prevented him from consistently churning out superb recordings, and his latest, the John Carter Cash–produced Everybody’s Brother (Compadre), is another lustrous jewel in Shaver’s king-of-fools crown. A mixture of militant statements of faith (“If You Don’t Love Jesus [Go to Hell]”) and straight secular country (the expertly crafted ballad “To Be Loved by a Woman”), the set also features marvelous contributions from John Anderson and Tanya Tucker. Shaver’s own journeyman vocal style has deepened, darkened and toughened up to a degree that lends each track formidable impact.
“He’s just a raging genius, still is,” longtime cohort, country singer and former Texas gubernatorial candidate Kinky Friedman declares during a recent phone interview. “In fact, he’s the only one I can think of who can turn tragedy into poetry. All the other guys, like Bob Dylan and Willie, these guys are great performers, stars in their own right, but I don’t think they are currently writing at the level Billy Joe is, and I don’t think anybody else is either.”
A legend in the Lone Star state and a cultish figure beloved by old-school Nashville stars and alt-country whelps alike, Billy Joe Shaver last spring stepped right into a honky-tonk nightmare. After an impulsive stop at Papa Joe’s Texas Saloon, a classic lowdown roadhouse 15-odd miles southwest of Waco, Shaver, according to witnesses’ statements in the police report, confronted a man outside of the bar, produced a pistol, asked, “Where do you want it?” and shot him in the face. Another witness heard Shaver then say, “Tell me you are sorry,” and, “Nobody tells me to shut up.”
Fifty-year-old Billy B. Coker, the man on the business end of Shaver’s .22, was treated and released from a hospital within hours. The bullet passed clean through his cheek. Shaver could face a number of felony charges, including aggravated assault with a deadly weapon.
Like Jerry Lee “Look Down the Barrel of This” Lewis, Johnny “I Don’t Like You, I’m Gonna Mess You Up” Paycheck and George “See If Your God Can Save You Now” Jones, Shaver has entered the pantheon of point-blank hillbilly mayhem. Texas-based performer Dale Watson has already penned a song on the shooting (titled, of course, “Where Do You Want It?”) and country music observers are awaiting an indictment with the same queasy fascination that has accompanied Phil Spector’s trial.
Apart from a police officer’s affidavit and the initial press reports on the shooting and Shaver’s flight, surrender and arrest, most of the story has yet to be told.
“I was kinda raised in them honky-tonks,” begins Shaver, on the phone, post–Farm Aid, from the lobby of a New York hotel. He and his most recent wife, Wanda Lynn Canady (they married last year, divorced, remarried — by ZZ Top’s Billy Gibbons — and have since divorced again), had been taking photographs for Everybody’s Brother in graveyards around the Waco area when they decided to stop in for a beer at the saloon. “We’d been in there a time or two before, and the lady [owner Gloria Tambling] there was real nice. Everybody was real nice.”
The couple made themselves at home, and were in the middle of conversations when, recalls Shaver, “this old guy comes in. Seemed like a nice enough guy. I was talking to him, and he pulls this knife out and starts stirring drinks — with his knife — and he reaches over and is stirring my drink. And I’m having a beer, [and I said,] ‘Ain’t no need stirring my beer. You ought to put that weapon away.’ He just looked at me real funny, and he took his knife and run it down my arm three times, and that’s enough to, you know, it’s a threat — there it was.”
The scene had already morphed into something resembling a Texas Chainsaw Massacre outtake, and it only got weirder. “Then Wanda comes over and she says, ‘I know you,’ and he says, ‘I know you too.’?” Canady used to be married to Coker’s cousin, but that union ended suddenly when the man shot himself to death. Shaver says the Coker family still blames her for it.