With the political morass we’ve been enduring during this election cycle and the pressures of leading a church in a pandemic, I was about a week late in learning of the passing of one of my favorite country singers, Billy Joe Shaver, who died on October 28th of a massive stroke. He has sometimes been called the poet laureate of country music because of the extraordinary images, metaphors, and pathos in his lyrics, despite his lack of formal education. It’s true that Billy Joe Shaver is not a household name. In part this is because, like his contemporary Kris Kristofferson, he has sometimes been more praised for his writing than for his singing.
Like many people, I came to know Billy Joe Shaver through Waylon Jennings. In 1973 Waylon released what was arguably the best album of his career: Honky Tonk Heroes. All but one song was written by a then-unknown Billy Joe Shaver. The album became a landmark in the outlaw country movement which was a reaction against the staid and string-laden Nashville sound of the 1960s. Honky Tonk Heroes was like an audio revolution. The tracks were harder, grittier, and more earthy than almost all of the country music of that time, and even today, they sound fresh and fierce, having aged much better than so much country music of that era. Many today would see this album, and the outlaw country movement as a whole, as a return to the frank and sometimes grim honesty of such legends as Jimmy Rodgers and Hank Williams. There’s no question that Billy Joe Shaver’s songs were pivotal in this return to form.
While Waylon was turning Billy Joe’s songs into country gold, Willie Nelson who became a life-long friend of Billy Joe helped secure a recording contract for him. In the succeeding years he crafted a series of extraordinary albums on various labels. While never very successful commercially, each one displayed his earnest and gritty lyrics with a passionate delivery that feels organic, authentic, earthy. Just compare two songs from the same year, 1982, one by the wildly successful George Strait and the other by Billy Joe. Just to be clear, I actually like George Strait, but the differences could not be more obvious in showing the wit and raw sound of Billy Joe’s music.
Fool Hearted Memory from the 1982 album Strait from the Heart
Billy Joe had a hard knock raising and a hard knock life. He was raised by his grandparents after his mother left at a young age. In rural Texas he learned how to pick cotton and bale hay. He never graduated high school and worked many different jobs. Many pictures of him show his hand missing two fingers, which were lost in a saw-mill accident while still a young man. All of this blue collar, hard knock experience is reflected in the lyrics of his songs. In fact, the biographical details I have just enumerated could be gleaned from the fan favorite, “Georgia on a Fast Train.” Characteristically, Billy Joe got into a bar fight in 2007 that turned into a shoot-out. Billy Joe claimed self-defense, but the fight ended with him shooting his antagonist in the mouth. Tried for aggravated assault, he was eventually acquitted and subsequently penned the toe-tapper Wacko from Waco to tell his side of the story in song.
Apart from the wife he married and divorced twice, the greatest heartache of his life was the death of his son, Eddy. Eddy came of age in the late 80s and was an incredible guitarist and musician. Together they made Billy Joe’s most commercially successful album, Tramp on Your Street, in 1993. The album had the same gritty lyrics, and even some songs that had been previously recorded, but added the intense rockability of Eddy’s guitar. He and Eddy made several albums together, including the acoustic gem, Victory. Tragically, Eddy died of an overdose in 2000.
Through all of this, however, Billy Joe was a devout Christian. The sincerity of his faith could really be felt, like in the song “You Can’t Beat Jesus Christ,” which recorded on several occasions for different studio albums. The authenticity is apparent in this live recording which features Eddy on guitar.
Four years ago when Merle Haggard died, I wrote a tribute for Merle on this blog. As I saw it then, contemporary Christian music, while well-meaning, is often far removed from the actual lived experience of most believers. It is often bubbly and saccharine, ignoring or minimizing the daily battle with sin, a battle which, let’s be honest, we often lose. Merle Haggard, Billy Joe Shaver, and other outlaw country singers were able to sing so easily about being sinners and saints because the dividing line between the profane and sacred cuts right through the middle of all us. Such music is suited for the those living “in the land of Nod, on the east of Eden” (Gen. 4:16).
As I said then:
The cast-out Adam doesn’t need to pretend he is still in the garden by feigning the melodies of Eden. He needs a music that, while it doesn’t relish or glorify life east of Eden, at least acknowledges its complexities, a music that owns his complicity for the miserable state he finds himself in. East of Eden, he is confronted with his moral failings, and discovers to his dismay the ensuing hunger, toil, and alienation of his state. If he can accept all this disorder, along with his responsibility for it, then he might be ready to hear the sweet strains of the gospel.
Being just as much son of Adam as an adopted son of God, I identify deeply with Billy Joe’s juxtaposition of sacred and profane. Far from a celebration of the profane, Billy Joe acknowledged the gripping power of sin while also pointing toward a greater reality that can somehow heal and redeem all that misery. It is because of this that I hear in his music not only toe-tapping rhythms and witty turns of expression, but a kind of suitable yet decisive hope for children of Adam living in the land of Nod.
In 2009, Bob Dylan gave a shout-out to Billy Joe on the album Together Through Life:
I’m listening to Billy Joe Shaver
And I’m reading James Joyce
Some people they tell me
I got the blood of the land in my voice.
Unquestionably Dylan does have the blood of the land in his voice as he brings together so many different folk, blues, and roots traditions, but for me, Billy Joe Shaver was also a real folk poet genius. Part of what made him so wonderful was his unflinching honesty. From contemplating suicide to problems with alcohol to the OD death of his son, it’s all there with humor and humility to boot. From a confirmed fellow-sinner, let me just say, Billy Joe, thanks for the songs for you’ve left behind you.
Fr. John Mason Lock is rector of Trinity Episcopal Church in Red Bank, New Jersey.