Painting by Ray Stephenson
Billy Joe Shaver left the arena in October of 2020. Although I’m a longtime fan, his death didn’t make me sad. For one thing, in spite of a less-than-health-conscious lifestyle, Shaver lived almost five years past the U.S. national average. He also managed to pack two lifetimes worth of experiences into his 81 years on this planet.
Career-wise, Shaver racked up some incredible accomplishments. He earned hall-of-fame songwriter status with covers by Elvis Presley, Bob Dylan, Kris Kristofferson, the Allman Brothers, Willie Nelson, Johnny Cash, and Waylon Jennings, to name a few. Shaver also had a successful career as a singer, raconteur, and actor. A few years back, Shaver had a heart attack onstage while performing, but still finished the show. He’d planned on gigging the next night until the doc nixed it. If it wasn’t for COVID-19 sidelining his work for 2020, Shaver would’ve been booked right up to the end.
Shaver’s personal life was just as remarkable as his career. He was jailed in Mexico at 15, dropped acid with the Dead, and was married six times (three of those marriages to the same woman). Shaver struggled with his demons, which led him to do things like drive his car through the plate-glass window of a car dealership while intoxicated. He also lived up to his outlaw cred by actually shooting a guy (“right between the mother and the f**ker”) outside a bar near his home in Waco, Texas.
I went down the rabbit hole after he died. I read several of his obituaries, listened to an NPR Fresh Air interview, and then re-watched the Billy Joe Shaver episode of Mike Judge Presents: Tales from the Tour Bus (Season 1, episode 5). What struck me most about his life was the winding road that led Shaver to his career in music.
On his 17th birthday, Shaver joined the Navy. Once discharged, he worked a long line of dead-end jobs, from roofer to rodeo clown. By the time Billy Joe was 28, he’d put aside his love of music and was working in a local lumber mill. One day at work, Shaver’s right hand got caught in a machine, cutting off two of his fingers and leaving him less than Django had to work with. About the accident, Shaver told NPR: “I’d been writing all that time. Since I was a little kid, I’d been singing and stuff. And I just never had got serious with the guitar yet. And so when this happened, right at the very moment it happened, it just hit me right in the heart that I wasn’t doing what I was supposed to do. I guess if I hadn’t had these things cut off, I probably wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing now.”
Armed with a few self-penned songs, one good hand, and a vague plan of doing something in music, Shaver set out on his new life. Since he had no car nor money for bus fair, Shaver decided to hitchhike to L.A. According to Saving Country Music, “Billy Joe stood on the side of Interstate 10 in Texas, waiting for someone westward bound to pick him up. And he waited, and waited, and nobody stopped. Eventually Shaver got so frustrated, he switched over to the other side of the highway heading east. The first car that passed him stopped, picked him up, and took Shaver all the way to Memphis, Tennessee. He then made his way to Nashville, where he soon had a job writing songs for $50 a week. The rest is history.”
Shaver’s life story feels like a classic heroic odyssey. The hero knows he has a destiny greater than the life he’s living. He doesn’t know where to go or how to do it, but he knows in his gut that he is supposed to go someplace and do something. What appears to be obstacles are in fact the Fates, God, the universe, or dumb luck guiding his steps to get him where he’s supposed to be. Who would’ve imagined that losing your fingers would make you think, “time to get serious about guitar?” Who could’ve guessed that a trip to L.A. from Texas lands you in Nashville? But had he not cut off his fingers he might have been just comfortable enough to stay in the wrong place. If he had money for a bus, he would’ve gone to the wrong city.
My biggest takeaways from my Shaver binge are:
1. Don’t get too attached to your plans.
2. Passion leads to our purpose.
3. The only thing keeping you from your destiny is yourself.
This year has most of us thinking a bit more about life, death, and meaning. I’m not saying Shaver found the meaning to life, or even if there is one, but it’s beautiful to see a life fully lived. That dude rode every ride at the carnival, then left when it closed.