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.
“He was all hot under the collar,” continues Shaver, “and I said, ‘Well, honey, let’s just go.’ And he turned to me and said, ‘Why don’t you shut the fuck up?’ And, man, I ain’t never had anybody do me that way. I mean, I was being nice and everything. He had his knife in his hand, and I just backed off, went into the restroom. I was looking at the wall, man, and just thought, ‘I can’t take that,’ so I went back out there and said, ‘Fella, now what’s it gonna take for you to just apologize and we’ll be friends again?’ He started cursing me, and telling me he was gonna kill me and all that shit, so I just headed for the back door.” The tension — and adrenaline levels — drastically escalated. “I thought, ‘Gol’ dang, I know what’s goin’ on.’ And I just skidded on out there to my car and got my little pistol and put it in my pocket.”
Shaver, who routinely carries large sums of cash, is licensed to carry a concealed weapon, a time-honored practice in country music. “I don’t go in the clubs with the firearm, but I’ve had all kinds of things come up,” he explains. “I’ve been followed many times, to my motel room — been busted in on once, and I handled that all right, but it made me really aware of what’s going on.”
Born in Corsicana, Texas, Billy Joe Shaver truly was raised in a beer joint called Green Gables, where his mother worked as a waitress, the same spot famously mentioned in his signature tune, “Honky Tonk Heroes.” A raggedy aspirant when he first hit Music Row in 1968, Shaver resorted to guerilla tactics to get the industry’s attention. He was infamous for leaping out from behind bushes or parked cars to collar passing song publishers and A&R men, demanding to know, with hot, beery breath, when they were going to buy one of his songs.
Bobby Bare recognized Shaver’s potential (allowing him and Kris Kristofferson to alternate nights on Bare’s office couch) but Billy Joe, at the time living almost exclusively on a diet of alcohol and amphetamines, craved immediate results. He once broke up a Waylon Jennings session by confronting the singer and threatening “to kick your ass right here” unless Jennings made good on a promise to cut some of his songs.
Waylon subsequently included almost a dozen of them on his groundbreaking 1973 Honky Tonk Heroes album, which proved a critical moment for Jennings, Shaver and country music as a whole.
“Billy Joe was the snowplow for the whole outlaw movement,” says Friedman. “If Willie is the Fidel Castro, then Billy Joe is the Che Guevera. But, in a sense, Billy Joe’s motivations are purer than anybody else’s. These guys with all their gold records, sure, they’re important, but Billy Joe’s significant, and there’s a big, big difference. You can’t set out to be significant — it has to happen.” Soon, Shaver’s songs were being recorded by, among many others, Tom T. Hall, Johnny Cash, Elvis Presley and Kristofferson.
Shaver also began releasing his own albums in 1973, yet despite some excellent tracks and high-profile producers like Kristofferson, Bare and Nelson, the albums not only didn’t generate much heat, they seemed to be a curse for the companies: Monument, MGM and Capricorn Records each went out of business shortly after releasing a Billy Joe title.
When he mended an oft-bitter, ongoing rift between himself and son Eddy, a genuine monster of guitar, their band, Shaver, released 1993’s Tramp on Your Street, a hard-rocking, soul-scouring and very-well-received masterpiece. It seemed as if Billy Joe, keeping his beak mostly out of the booze and crank, had finally achieved personal and professional security. But his son overdosed on New Year’s Eve, 2000, and, several months later, Brenda, the wife he frequently divorced and remarried, died. It seemed as if Billy Joe had been hit with some weird terminal whammy. He never faltered, though, kept working on the road and in the studio, treading a hard country path that eventually led him to the parking lot behind Papa Joe’s, with a .22 stuck in his pants, awaiting a showdown with Billy B. Coker.
“He had a bunch of demons in him, I’ll tell you that,” says Shaver. “I feared for my life. I sure didn’t want to go out that way, but it just came down to it, and I had my little pistol out in my car and I had the time to go out and get it.” Time passed, but Coker did not appear in the parking lot. “I guess he was borrowing a gun, or getting his gun together,” Shaver speculates. “They said he was in the place digging in his pocket. For some reason or another he couldn’t get it out. I don’t know. Everybody was drinking.”
Shaver claims Coker eventually ?came outside, then lunged at him. “I ?knew he was man enough and I knew ?what he was doing, and he was pointing this weapon at me, and he took too long ?to aim. I saw it — I’m sure I saw a gun — ?and I just went ahead and got off a lucky potshot. Thankfully, it didn’t really hurt him. It just went in and out, but it hurt him enough that he dropped everything. And then — of all things — he said, ‘I’m sorry, I’m sorry.’?” Coker, who could not be reached by telephone, told police the attack was unprovoked.
(Shaver denies asking, “Where do you want it?” Rather, he claims to have said, “Why do you want to do that?” He also acknowledges that no gun was found on Coker. The police confiscated Shaver’s .22.)
Shaver and Canady took off immediately after the shooting. He dropped her at home in Waco.
“I made her stay there,” recalls Shaver. He didn’t want her to be an accomplice. He told her, “Don’t be packing no clothes or any shit like that. Just sit over there and shut up and I’m going on and I’ll see you later.”
Shaver says one of his concerns at the time was the relationship between Coker and the local police. “There’s a bunch of lawmen in his family,” claims Shaver. “I knew that if I didn’t get out of town that night, I might get done in.” So he called Willie Nelson, then spent most of the night hiding out in his truck. “Willie got the lawyer out on to me, and when I got with him, I felt safe, and we went and tried to turn ourselves in.”
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Nelson dispatched his own attorney, Joe “Mad Dog” Turner, a well-known figure in Texas jurisprudence. Turner has said it’s a clear-cut case of self-defense, and, according to Shaver, some of Papa Joe’s employees are finally “coming up with the truth.” Almost six months later, McLennan County District Attorney John W. Segrest still hasn’t indicted the singer. (Segrest’s office refused to comment, citing a policy of not discussing ongoing investigations.) “The longer it goes, I think, is better for me,” Shaver says.
“It just sounds out of character,” says Friedman of his colleague’s run-in. “I’d say Billy would have to be very much provoked. I’ve known him for a long, long time. He’s a peaceful kind of a giant, and whenever he got into a fight, his fists were always the weapon of choice.”
Shaver explains that he’s sick of keeping quiet about the incident, especially since Coker’s spinning a different story. “He’s going around telling people a whole lot of bullshit, but that’s all right,” says Shaver. “But I’m fine, man. I’m entertained. It’s like riding a bull. The only thing that keeps me going is something trying to stop me — and if something pushes, I’m gonna push back.”
Billy Joe Shaver appears at Molly Malone’s, 575 S. Fairfax Ave., L.A.; Fri., Sept. 21, 9 p.m. (323) 935-1577.