Billy Joe Shaver – When the fallen angels fly
There’s a race of men that don’t fit in,
A race that can’t stay still;
So they break the hearts of kith and kin,
And they roam the world at will.
They range the field and they rove the flood,
And they climb the mountain’s crest;
Theirs is the curse of the gypsy blood,
And they don’t know how to rest.
— Robert Service, 1907
White-haired, now, and probably the last great cowboy poet, Billy Joe Shaver drives a long, white van that is partly home, partly tour bus, and mostly jumbled with stuff. He is careful to lock a red club across the steering wheel because, he says, some of his former bandmates have kept their keys, and their drug habits.
Two guitars rest in the back, a battered black Strat and a Gibson 335, long-ago gifts to his only son, Eddy, from friends Duane Allman and Dickey Betts. Eddy — John Edwin Shaver — was buried in Waco on January 4. He died early New Year’s Eve of a heroin overdose. He was 38, had married in October, and was to have begun recording his second solo album on January 2.
His grave, Billy Joe says, is still covered with flowers. Grass already grows on the graves of Billy’s mother, Victory Odessa Watson, and Eddy’s mother, Brenda Tindell Shaver, both of whom succumbed to cancer within a month of each other in 1999.
Today, Eddy’s father has driven his guitars through freezing rain south to Austin. After lunch, we carry them in the back door of Willie Nelson’s studio and leave them with a friend who will lock the instruments up in Willie’s vault. And there they will stay.
We have come to talk about what is now the Shavers’ final album together, a resilient, fierce, proud masterpiece titled The Earth Rolls On, set for release April 10 on New West Records. We have met only once before, on Waylon Jennings’ tour bus in July 1996, for a conversation between Shaver and Jennings that appeared in ND #5. I do not presume he remembers that half-hour encounter.
Nevertheless, I ended up carrying one of Eddy’s guitars because I was there, and it needed carrying.
The last cowboy poet has never been a household name, but Billy Joe Shaver is a stunning songwriter, has been for a long, long time. When he finally found an audience in the early 1970s, it was comprised principally of his peers. Tom T. Hall and Kris Kristofferson, neither of whom suffered fools gladly nor commonly recorded other people’s material, both cut his songs. Then Kristofferson produced Shaver’s 1973 debut, Old Five And Dimers Like Me, and Tom T. wrote the liner notes.
That same year, just before Austin had been anointed a musical mecca and the notion of outlaw country acquired marketing currency, Waylon Jennings cut an album of all-but-one Shaver songs, Honky Tonk Heroes (reissued in 1999 by Buddha). That record pretty much cemented Shaver’s role as the outlaw poet laureate. Even though many of the labels he recorded for are no longer in business, much of Shaver’s music is back in print, and the rest of it ought to be.
Today, most of what Billy Joe owns fits in that white van, and the IRS has been on his tail for years, trying to get the rest of it. “I’ve got lawyers on that stuff,” he says. “I don’t know why I thought I was exempt. Because I never voted and I never owned no land, I didn’t think I’d have to pay taxes.” Guess they can’t figure out why he’s not a rich man, either.++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++
This is an excerpt of the article which appeared in The Best of No Depression: Writing About American Music, which features 25 of the finest articles from the magazines back issues, and was published in 2005 by University of Texas Press to help celebrate the magazines 10th anniversary. Due to our agreement with UT Press we are unable to include this article in our online archive.
The Best of No Depression is the only place you can find these articles other than our back issues. Visit the No Depression store to buy your copy for only $10.
The 300-page volume includes co-editor Grant Aldens award-winning 2001 feature on Billy Joe Shaver, co-editor Peter Blackstocks 1998 Artist of the Decade piece on Alejandro Escovedo, senior editor Bill Friskics-Warrens 2002 cover story on Johnny Cash, contributing editor Paul Cantins deep exploration of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot-era Wilco; and many other high points from our print heyday.
Table of contents for The Best of No Depression:
Preface, by Grant Alden and Peter Blackstock
Los Lobos, by Geoffrey Himes
Alejandro Escovedo, by Peter Blackstock
Jon Dee Graham, by Peter Blackstock
Billy Joe Shaver, by Grant Alden
Ray Wylie Hubbard, by John T. Davis
Flatlanders, by Don McLeese
Ray Price, by David Cantwell
Johnny Gimble, by Bill C. Malone
Johnny Cash, by Bill Friskics-Warren
Rosanne Cash, by Lloyd Sachs
Lucinda Williams, by Silas House
Buddy & Julie Miller, by Bill Friskics-Warren
Kasey Chambers, by Geoffrey Himes
Loretta Lynn, by Barry Mazor
Patty Loveless, by Bill Friskics-Warren
Kieran Kane, by Peter Cooper
Paul Burch, by Jim Ridley
Hazel Dickens, by Bill Friskics-Warren
Gillian Welch, by Grant Alden
Ryan Adams, by David Menconi
Jay Farrar, by Peter Blackstock
Jayhawks, by Erik Flannigan
Wilco, by Paul Cantin
Drive-By Truckers, by Grant Alden
Iron & Wine, by William Bowers