Honky Tonk Hero
Billy Joe Shaver’s Honky Tonk Hero makes it clear that the Texan has endured a remarkable life. Unfortunately, this slender volume tells too little of it. At 72 pages, it resembles a convincing book proposal more than a revealing autobiography. Even with 122 additional pages of song lyrics, it’s a mighty small book for such a resonant subject.
What does exist on the pages is stunning when taken in its entirety, especially for anyone unfamiliar with Shaver’s life. In one sentence in the introduction, he spells out the trials of his 65 years: “I’ve lost parts of three fingers, broke my back, suffered a heart attack and a quadruple bypass, had a steel plate put in my neck and 136 stitches in my head, fought drugs and booze, spent the money I had, and buried my wife, son and mother in the span of one year.”
He touches on each of these concerns, but sometimes with the barest explication. When he does delve into a subject, he does so with characteristic bare-knuckled honesty. He writes unflinchingly about his hellish childhood, about his complex relationship with the woman he divorced twice and married three times, about the intense closeness of his relationship with his only child (Eddy Shaver), and about his lingering anger and outspoken suspicions surrounding the details of Eddy’s death. For those stories alone, the book is worth reading.
But it’s also an opportunity lost. To state the obvious, autobiographies are a one-shot deal, and this one reads as if written on deadline to fit a stifling word count. That’s a disappointment, especially for those of us who count Shaver as one of the most distinctive talents of his time, as important in his way as Kris Kristofferson, Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson, all of whom played intersecting roles in his career.
The book at times captures Shaver’s flair for concise drama, as in the opening line, “I was not even born yet when my father first tried to kill me.” But too many life-changing junctures get a rush job, as in the too-fast, too-flat descriptions of how he lost his fingers in a sawmill accident, or how he confronted Jennings about his promise to record an LP’s worth of Shaver’s songs (which lead to the landmark 1973 Waylon album Honky Tonk Heroes).
Shaver has spun these tales countless times, so perhaps collaborator Brad Reagan, a former staffer at The Wall Street Journal and the Austin American-Statesman, needed to cajole more in-the-moment memories from him. Given his poetic nature, Shaver can prove mind-blowingly eloquent given the opportunity, and the book’s best moments are when his personality — with its mix of sensitivity and thorniness, compassion and accusation — comes through.
Fortunately, the lyrics expand where the book contracts. The swagger, the yearning, the thoughtfulness, the laughter, the pain and the faith all come alive in the stanzas. The best of these songs will live forever; Shaver’s story likely will too. This book won’t.