As full of life, heartbreak, and drama as any of Billy Joe Shaver's songs, Honky Tonk Hero is the story of a man who not only walked on the wild side and lived to tell about it, but also got it all down in some of the finest country music ever written.
Billy Joe Shaver was the real deal. Many agree with him that his songs are pure poetry. Shaver sang about a life that was full of hard times, wild living, and a forty-year-long passion for his late wife Brenda. His songs are raw, honest, and so true that people hear the story of their own lives in his music. No wonder, then, that his songs have also been recorded by artists such as Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, Kris Kristofferson, George Jones, Bob Dylan, Elvis Presley, Patty Loveless, John Anderson, Tom T. Hall, the Allman Brothers, the Oak Ridge Boys, and Tex Ritter.
In this compelling autobiography written with the assistance of Brad Reagan, Billy Joe Shaver looks back over a life that some might call a miracle of survival. His father abandoned the family before Billy Joe was born. Troubles in school and in the military turned him into a fighter, and a sawmill accident claimed two fingers and part of a third on his right hand. Yet his innate musical talent and the encouragement of an English teacher set him on the road to being a songwriter—and he never looked back. Shaver recounts his long struggle to break into the music business in Nashville and the success that came when Waylon Jennings recorded his songs on the 1973 album Honky Tonk Heroes, which became a landmark of outlaw country music. Shaver movingly describes his own up-and-down career as a singer-songwriter in Nashville and Texas; his bouts with alcohol and drugs; his pleasure in touring with his son, Eddy, and their band, Shaver, during the 1990s; and the pain of losing Eddy, Brenda, and Billy Joe's mother all within the year 1999–2000.
As full of life, heartbreak, and drama as any of Billy Joe Shaver’s songs, Honky Tonk Hero is the story of a man who not only walked on the wild side and lived to tell about it, but also got it all down in songs that many people consider to be some of the finest country music ever written.
- Chapter One: Jesus Was Our Savior and Cotton Was Our King
- Chapter Two: Ain't No God in Mexico
- Chapter Three: Fit to Kill and Going Out in Style
- Chapter Four: Honky Tonk Heroes
- Chapter Five: Black Rose: The Devil Made Me Do It the First Time (The Second Time I Done It on My Own)
- Chapter Six: Old Chunk of Coal
- Chapter Seven: The First and Last Time
- Chapter Eight: Star in My Heart
- Chapter Nine: Try and Try Again
- Appendix: Complete Lyrics to the Recorded Songs of Billy Joe Shaver
I was not even born yet when my father first tried to kill me.
It was June and the evening light had started to fade, but it was still hotter than nine kinds of hell. We were outside of Corsicana, a little cotton town in northeast Texas, and I was in my mother's belly, two months from entering the world.
Buddy Shaver was convinced that my mother, Victory, was cheating on him. That was bullshit, and he probably knew it. But he'd been drinking. My father was half-French, half-Blackfoot Sioux, and one-hundred-percent mean. He drank a lot, and the booze didn't mix well with his Indian blood. You know there are some guys who are just born naturally strong, with big shoulders and a chiseled upper body even though they never work a lick at it? That was my father, and my mother didn't have a chance.
It's just a story I've heard, told by family members who don't enjoy the retelling. But I can see it as clearly as if I was there. They were standing next to a small stock tank with black, still water. It was the middle of nowhere, with no roads or houses in sight. Who knows what he told her to get her out there, or whether she knew what was coming when they stopped there? He held nothing back, yet his cold gray eyes showed no emotion as he beat her within an inch of her life. When she was down, he stomped her with his cowboy boots until she stopped struggling. Then he tossed her limp body into the water like a sack of potatoes. Years later, when I was a grown man, my momma couldn't stand to be around me when I wore cowboy boots—she never could forget what they did to her that night.
Momma laid there for hours until an old Mexican man showed up to water his cattle. Even though he knew my kinfolk pretty well, he didn't recognize her at first. He thought she was dead. But she spoke to him through the bruises and the blood, and he threw her over the back of his horse and carried her home.
The violence of that night set the stage for my childhood: It's the reason my father left, it's the reason my mother didn't want me, and it's the reason I went to live with my loving grandmother. In many ways, I think that night is the reason I write country songs.
When you get right down to it, country music is essentially the blues, and that night introduced me to the blues. In the years since then, they've never left me. 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.
But I'm not here to complain or ask for pity. Life is hard for everybody, just in different ways. I'm not proud of my misfortune—I'm proud of my survival. For years, my family kept a bundle of life insurance on me because they were sure I would be the first to go. But as I write this, at sixty-four years of age, I'm still here and they are all gone.
The question is—why? That's something I've been thinking about a lot lately.
Throughout my career as a songwriter, I've just written songs about me—the good and the bad, the funny and the sad. I've written songs about other people, but I don't sing other people's songs. They're just little poems about my life, and I've never pretended they were anything more. Despite all my ups and downs, I've never been to therapy or rehab or any of that stuff. The songs are my therapy.
But after my shows, people always come up to me and thank me for writing those songs. They tell me about their lives, and how a song of mine helped them through a tough patch or made them smile during a difficult time. Sometimes they say I inspired them—that if I can make it through my life, they can damn sure get through theirs. When we're done talking, I give them a hug and tell them I love them. I know exactly where they are coming from.
My point is, it's truly a miracle I survived that night by that stock tank, and I don't mean that the way most people say it—like it's a lucky break. I think God allowed me to live. He wanted me to tell my story.
The wagons was a-rollin' with a cobble-colored sound
When me and little David rode our first load into town
The cotton gin was a-ginnin' out the pennies for the pound
Like a giant vacuum cleaner sucking lint up off the ground
Our freckled faces sparkled then like diamonds in the rough
With smiles that smelled of snaggled teeth and good ol' Garrett snuff
If I could, I would be tradin' all this fatback for the lean
When Jesus was our Savior and cotton was our king
We are country people, always have been. My family tree is full of field hands and farmers, people who lived off the land and worked with their hands.
My grandparents on my mother's side were originally from the Texarkana area but moved to Corsicana since it was known as a town that was friendly toward sharecroppers. Located about fifty-three miles northeast of Waco, Corsicana was a farming community and one of the top cotton-producing towns in Texas during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Several of the railroads came right through town, which made it easy to get the crops to market. Not just cotton, but corn, tobacco, and pecans too. But cotton was king. The gin there covered five city blocks downtown and was said to be the largest in the world for a time.
In 1894, the town really started to boom. That's when the town leaders paid these boys from Kansas to come down and find more water for the growing community, and they hit oil instead. The townsfolk were so pissed off that they didn't pay the drillers their fee. As it turned out, that was the first discovery of oil in Texas, and no one had a clue about how it was going to change the area, not to mention the entire state. Of course, several businesses started up in Corsicana to take advantage of the discovery. You've probably heard of two of them: Mobil and Texaco.
But, as I said, my family wasn't involved in oil. We worked the fields. We were poor but so was everybody around us. You either owned land—and we sure as hell didn't—or you sharecropped and got by one sack at a time.
My grandparents had seven kids and the youngest was a girl they named Victory, because she was born the day the First World War ended. That was my mother. I always loved that name—I used it as the title of one of my albums—but everyone called her Tincie instead, because she was so small. She grew into a beauty, with a petite figure, sky-blue eyes, and red hair that told of the fire inside her.
At eighteen, Tincie married Buddy Shaver, though her parents weren't too happy about it. Buddy, who never learned to read or write, was a bootlegger, moonshiner, and bare-knuckle fighter who was just about the meanest son-of-a-bitch in the county. My mother was tough, though, and I guess she thought she could tame him. I don't know for sure why she married that man—even decades later, she wouldn't talk about it.
Buddy and Tincie had a daughter, Patricia, who was two years old when Buddy erupted out by that stock tank. Tincie recovered from the beating, but just barely. That ended the marriage, of course, and Tincie also made it clear that she wasn't going to raise Buddy Shaver's son.
"If it comes out a boy," she said. "I'm gone."
I was born August 16, 1939. Tincie wasn't quite true to her word—she stayed about a month and then took the first chance that came her way.
It was September, so the cotton crop was ready for picking. That meant she was needed in the fields whether or not she had two young children. So there she was, picking cotton in the midday sun—me on her back, Patricia riding on the cotton sack behind her, and a halo of gnats and flies swirling around her head.
Then Blanche Williams came rolling up in her black Cadillac.
Blanche was the proud owner of the Green Gables honky tonk outside of Waco, about an hour southwest of Corsicana. Every few weeks, she'd drive around the country in search of good-looking, small-town girls who could read, write, and charm customers out of their cash. On this day, Blanche settled on Tincie, her red hair glowing amid the sea of black and white heads. Blanche walked out into the field and asked my mother if she was interested in a new line of work. She didn't have to ask twice.
My mother left the next day, leaving me and Patricia behind. That's how I came to live with my grandmother.
My mother's brothers and sisters actually wanted to put me in an orphanage, but my grandmother wouldn't have it. They tried to convince her to keep Patricia and get rid of me. The men were especially persistent since they all had had run-ins with Buddy, and Buddy didn't lose any fights. They just hated anything that had his blood in it, especially a son that looked just like him. I know they're not going to like seeing that in print, but it's the truth. Plus I was sick all the time. I had chicken pox, measles, the mumps, you name it. Nobody ever wanted to hold me because they were afraid they'd get sick.
But my grandmother, Birdie Lee Collins Watson, wouldn't let them put me in that home. She moved away from the rest of the family and got a place on North 15th Street on the outskirts of Corsicana. It was a two-story house without running water—we used an outhouse in the back—and we shared three little rooms while Grandma rented out the other half of the house. It was just fine for me and Grandma.
Patricia stayed with us occasionally, but mostly she was passed around among my aunts and uncles in town. I saw her at school more than I saw her at home.
My grandma—I called her momma until many years later—had long black hair down to her butt and the tired face of a woman who had raised six children with barely enough money to feed them. She wasn't ugly, but she dipped snuff and had more important things to worry about than how she looked. My grandfather had already passed on, so my grandma lived entirely off her old-age pension. We didn't have some basic things, like a radio or an icebox, but grandma found ways to provide. When I was a baby, she would feed me by straining pinto bean soup through rags since I couldn't nurse. And, later, when I was a boy, she bought packages of lard that came with a pill of yellow food coloring. You popped the pill and mixed it in with the lard until it looked like butter, then spread it on toast. Believe it or not, that was my favorite meal, mainly because grandma sometimes let me do the mixing.
It was a working house, even for us kids. I'd do women's work like churning butter and milking cows at our next-door neighbors, the Higginbothams, just so I could bring a little something back home. Everybody had to do little stuff like that. From the time I was seven, I worked the cotton fields each summer. I didn't actually pick cotton because the crop wasn't ready in the summer—my job was what we called choppin' cotton, which basically means keeping the weeds out of the plants. It burned me up that Patricia never had to chop cotton like me. They brought her out one time, and she couldn't stay within the rows. Instead of following one row at a time, she moved sideways across the field. To this day I'm not sure if that was evidence of how smart she is, or how dumb, but either way she never joined us out there again.
It was a simple life, and a good one in many ways, but it wasn't easy and grandma didn't let me and Patricia think otherwise. There is no Santa Claus, she told us as soon as we could understand, nor anyone else likely to give you something for nothing. But she was not bitter. In fact, I never heard my grandmother say a negative word. Whenever we'd complain, she'd always come back with some funny little saying. I'd say, "Momma, I'm hungry." And she'd say, "Well, tighten that belt up another loop."
Her philosophy was simple: Be honest, work hard, and don't complain. There were other people worse off than us, she said, and we should be grateful for the blessings we have. That simple country wisdom is all my grandma had to offer me. She knew she wasn't going to be around as I grew into a man, so she made sure I understood those things as a young boy.
Grandma also introduced me to Jesus, indirectly anyway. Like most small towns in those days, it seemed like there were more churches than people in Corsicana. I think people need the Lord more when they live off the land, or at least feel like they do. They prayed for the right weather to allow them to feed their families. And it seemed like everybody had five or six kids, because having a bunch of kids meant plenty of free labor. So then they had to pray about how to manage all those damn kids.
There was a little one-room church down the street—the Church of the Nazarene, it was called—and my grandmother walked me down there every Sunday morning. She'd get within about fifty yards and then tell me to go on in by myself. I don't know why she never went, but the whole time I lived with her she never darkened the door of a church. Her husband died young, and maybe she was mad at God about that. I'm not sure, but she made sure I went.
I enjoyed church. I liked talking to God and knowing that he would answer my prayers, at least sometimes. It always felt right to me. I even enjoyed studying the Bible. During Sunday school, the teachers would quiz us on Bible verses and give us a gold star for each correct answer. For some reason, they would place the stars across our forehead, probably so all the adults would know which kids were learning the Bible and which ones were throwing spit-wads and acting up. I usually did pretty well, and I'd go home in the afternoon with a row of stars across my forehead. Ever since then, even during my wild years, I've always read the Bible each day. I once wrote a song called "Ride Me Down Easy"—Bobby Bare took it to number one on the country charts—and I referred to myself as "a hobo with stars in my crown." That description fits me still.
Though I loved Jesus, I was still a crazy little kid. I had my share of adventures chasing snakes, playing in the creeks, and roughhousing with the boys in the neighborhood. It's amazing I was never seriously hurt, considering all the dumb things I did back then. My only close call was once when I was riding a friend's bicycle down the street, and a car came screaming around a corner and knocked me flying. I was bleeding like a stuck pig and had scrapes all over my body when I stumbled back home. My Uncle Joyce, a notoriously lazy person, was standing there with a cigar in his mouth ironing clothes and singing "Some Enchanted Evening." He took one look at me and said, "Boy, you look like a bear got a hold of you."
The ladies that ran over me followed me home and took me to the hospital. When I got there, a black boy was waiting to see the doctor too. He had been trying to tag along with his brothers on the way into town, and snuck onto the running board of their car before they took off. Since his brothers didn't know he was there, they took a corner real fast and threw him off, which chewed him up like ground meat. I thought I was in bad shape but he looked much worse. The doctor came to look me over but I told him I was okay—he should check out the black boy first. That's the way it worked back then, but I knew he needed help more than I did.
The doctor couldn't find any broken bones or anything on me. He just told me to go stand in what looked like a shower and close my eyes. He doused me with mercurochrome, which stung like hell and turned my skin a strange red color for about the next three months.
More than anything, I loved to sing. I'd do my own versions of the songs I heard around, like "Pins and Needles in My Heart" and "The Great Speckled Bird." During the day I crossed the railroad tracks and hung out with the black folks on their front yards and porches. There was always a slide guitar, and I learned a lot of the old blues songs there. A few times, when we were short, my grandmother took me down to the general store when she asked for an extension on her credit.
"Yeah, I'll give you an extension if you get that boy to sing," the lady said from behind the counter.
I thought it was for real. I thought I was really singing for my supper, so I'd get up on that cracker barrel and just sing my heart out. At night, my grandmother would sit on the front porch dipping her snuff and tell me I was going to be on the Grand Ole Opry someday. She was right, though it took me almost sixty years.
One night, I even came face to face with Hank Williams. I was old enough to read, so it was probably sometime in the late 1940s. I'd seen signs around town for a concert by Homer and Jethro and the Light Crust Doughboys at the Wonder Bread factory. All the kids liked Homer and Jethro because they sang those old corny songs that were pretty funny, but I thought they were incredible players too. After grandma went to bed, I opened the window and climbed out into the backyard. Patricia woke up and threatened to tell Grandma but I knew she wouldn't.
Like everyone else's, our outhouse was behind the main house. Every couple of weeks, a wagon came through and emptied them all out—we called it the honeywagon. The honeywagon carved a trail through the bushes and the weeds behind our house and I followed that trail until I got to the railroad tracks, where I balanced my little feet on the beams and headed toward town. When I got to the trestles, I walked between the beams to stay as far away as possible from the hobos who curled up in there to sleep.
At the Wonder Bread factory they let me in free—I guess because I was just a kid—and I saw all the musicians up on the loading docks and the crowd standing around in the hole where the trucks parked. Corsicana was a dry town, but the bootleggers were doing good business down in that pit that night.
I shimmied up a pole so I could see and so I wouldn't get my feet stepped on. Homer and Jethro were just finishing up, and they made an announcement that they were going to let a young man sing who they thought was going to be a big star. I know during those days Hank used to go around performing as Luke the Drifter, but they introduced him that night as Hank Williams. He had on a suit and a hat, and he looked really spiffy. He only did one song, and most of the crowd wasn't listening because they'd never heard of him. But Hank saw me up on that pole and just fixated on me with this hard stare, probably because I was the only one paying attention. He sang right straight to me, and it was lonesome and sad and beautiful all wrapped up together.
When I got home, my grandma heard me come through the window and she whupped me with a switch until I was plum wore out. You remember a whooping like that, and that's another reason my memories of that night are so clear.
For most of my childhood, I only saw my mother once or twice a year. Sometimes she came on Christmas, but not always. But even on those visits she never showed me much affection. She never hugged me, and that tore me up, but I know now that she just didn't yet know how to be a mother.
But when I was six, I got to spend the summer in Waco. My grandmother must have really needed a break. But instead of staying with my mother, I stayed with Emma Jean, a fat black woman who cooked at the Green Gables for Blanche. Emma Jean and I spent our afternoons at a tank next to the General Tire plant where we fished for perch with her old cane pole. My skinny little butt and her big fat butt sitting by that pond must have made quite a sight. At night, we played music on her front porch. Her son, who was blind, was about my age and played the stand-up piano like a house a-fire. He'd play and I'd sing, and we'd carry on for hours at a time.
Some afternoons, I hung out at the Green Gables, though I was under orders not to bother my mother or call her "Momma" or anything else that would let on that I was her kid. The Green Gables was a wood-frame building with swinging screen doors and a big, wide dance floor covered with cornmeal so the couples could slide around while they danced. The jukebox in the corner played country acts like Jimmie Rodgers and the Carter Family, but also blues singers and popular artists of the day. It was on Highway 6 southeast of Waco on the way to Perry, which was the only town in the area where you could buy liquor. That highway stayed busy as a one-eyed dog in a smokehouse. They just served beer and set-ups at the Green Gables, but you could bring in a bottle you bought in Perry, or you could buy a slug of booze off of one of the bootleggers for a nickel or something. It was the mid-forties, and there were lots of bases in Central Texas at that time, so there were lots of military folks in and out of there, too.
Blanche inherited the place from a previous marriage, one of several that ended with a funeral. She was a voluptuous blonde woman, and she turned the heads of all the guys that came through the doors. She kept the rings from all of her dead husbands and they covered her fingers.
One day—and I remember this as clear as day—I was hanging on to the end of the bar listening to Blanche and my mother.
"Tincie, there's gonna be an old boy come up here in a few hours," Blanche said. "He's gonna be a rich 'un, with one foot in the grave and the other on a nanner peel. And I'm gonna nail his ass to the wall."
It wasn't less than two hours later that this fella floated up in a baby-blue Cadillac. He wore a floppy hat, and he took it off in the parking lot and wiped the sweat off his brow. Maybe I imagined it, but it was like he was trying to figure out what force drew him to this broke-down roadhouse on the edge of town. He hung around for a couple of weeks and sure enough Blanche got another ring for her collection. It wasn't too much later that fella had his funeral.
Between the regulars and the military folks, I got plenty of attention at the Green Gables. I guess I reminded those soldiers of their kids, so they would grab me and throw me up in the air and give me nickels. Sometimes they would throw me so high I'd hit the ceiling, and it felt great. I'd have a pocketful of nickels at the end of each day. Sometimes they'd let me put one of my nickels in the jukebox, and it seemed like it would play forever.
When I was twelve, my grandmother died. I'm not sure what the cause was—I think she just wore out. My memories of that time are not clear, which is strange because I always knew she loved me more than anyone in the world—and I loved her just as much. But I don't remember who told me she died, or seeing her lying in the casket. I just remember being in the house the day of the funeral, and all the relatives were over claiming furniture and utensils and anything else they could use in their homes. I was sitting on the floor in a corner and eventually everybody left, including my mother and Patricia, and I was there by myself. They finally came and got me the next day.
No one was really sure what to do with me. My aunts and uncles, of course, didn't want to take me in, which left either my father or my mother.
I'd only seen my father once since I was born, and let's just say we didn't exactly bond. I was about five, and he was over at my Aunt Vinny's. If my grandma had known Buddy was over there she would've never let me go, but somehow she didn't know.
By this time Buddy was married to another woman—her name was Elizabeth, but everyone called her Lizzie. She was full-blooded Indian with shiny black hair and a temper to match my father's. According to the stories I heard later, they used to take off to Dallas for a few weeks at a time and come back with wads of cash. People said they were a regular Bonnie and Clyde. My father always carried a gun, while Lizzie carried a long switch-blade knife in her purse. They were a good team and they stayed together until the end.
The day I went to Aunt Vinny's, I met him in the living room.
"Yeah, kid, I'm your dad," he said, looking down at me with a crooked grin.
That's all he said. My half-sister, Wanda Jean, was there in a pretty pink dress—she was Buddy's favorite, and he doted on her and pretty much ignored me. But late that day he walked me out in the backyard, where he grabbed these two old cats, tied their tails together and threw them over a clothesline. They just tore each other to pieces. It was a mean-ass thing to do, but he was testing me. He wanted me to watch it, while he just laughed like crazy.
But I started crying, which made him mad. I tried to run away, and he chased me around the yard. I wanted to get out of there, and I grabbed Wanda Jean's hand to bring her with me. When we turned a corner on the side of the house, she fell sideways into a big basket of tomatoes. She was covered in tomato juice, and I guess he thought she was bleeding because he came after me even faster. But I was real skinny and I could run a hole in the wind. He never caught me, but I believe he'd a killed me if he had. I ran straight home, and that's the last time I saw him for about twelve years.
So eventually my mother took me to Waco with her and Patricia. I guess she didn't really have much choice.
“He’s as real a writer as Hemingway. He’s timeless.”
Kris Kristofferson, quoted in the Dallas Morning News