In the Name of the Son
It’s hard to be a Christian soldier in a world that takes away everything you love, but for Billy Joe Shaver, the earth rolls on.
By Richard Skanse
Billy Joe Shaver had a perfectly good reason, apart from just a parent’s instinctive fear, not to believe the police when they came to his Waco home on the night of Dec. 30, 2000, to tell him his son Eddy was in a local hospital, clinging to life. “No, my son’s not here [in Waco],” he told the officers, knowing Eddy was in Austin, where he was due to begin recording a solo album that week.
But as the darkest night of his life, and his world, quickly unraveled, Billy Joe would soon learn the awful truth: Eddy had checked into a Waco motel with his wife and accidentally overdosed on heroin. “The lady at the emergency room told me they’d found him dead on the floor in the motel room,” Shaver says. “They brought him to the hospital and got some kind of a faint heartbeat, but couldn’t get his blood pressure up. They CAT-scanned his brain and said they didn’t know how long his brain had been dead, and that if he’d made it through he’d just be a vegetable. They asked me if I wanted to pull the plugs, and I said, ‘no, please don’t,’ because I had hope that he’d make it.”
At 2:48 Sunday morning, New Year’s Eve, Eddy Shaver died. He was 38. Shaver spent the rest of the night and following day with an old friend, Willie Nelson, who had lost his own son, Billy, years before. And then, with Nelson in tow, Shaver soldiered on to a scheduled gig at Poodie’s Hilltop Bar & Grill in Spicewood. Less than 24 hours after losing his best friend, musical soul mate, and only child, Shaver was standing onstage, plunking the strings of his mini-Taylor acoustic guitar with the stubs of his mangled right hand and singing his ragged-but-right songs about Jesus, hard luck, and honky-tonk heroes like himself and Nelson, the wandering gypsy at his side. He didn’t say a word about Eddy.
“A lot of people didn’t know, and I didn’t tell them,” says Shaver. “I just did what I could and the ones that found out, they found out, and the ones that didn’t, they didn’t. I wasn’t there to get no sympathy or nothing. I was just there to do what I’d said I’d do, and that’s what I did. And thank God, Willie came along and helped me.”
Shaver didn’t pay tribute to Eddy that night by talking about him. He did so by merely showing up. “It was a deal,” he explains with a quiet sigh. “Eddy and I were that way. We’d go until we couldn’t go no more. The show must go on. I remember the night my mother was dying. We had a gig to do, and it was at a little joint and there wasn’t no money in it, and Eddy said, ‘No, Dad, this is the stuff we’re in. We need to go on — them people don’t understand. They came to see us and they’d be real disappointed if we didn’t make it.’ So we’d go on.
“But, he’s gone on now — he got him a better gig,” Shaver says with conviction. “Really, I believe that. I believe he’s got a better gig now than what he had down here. I really miss him, but you know … life goes on.”
I WOULDN’T BE ME WITHOUT YOU
Four weeks after Eddy’s death, Shaver is on the phone from the Waco home he shared with his son, apologizing repeatedly for the yapping of a restless dog in the background. “That’s Eddy’s little pit bull,” he explains. “She’s been whining ever since he died. I don’t know what the hell’s going on with her. She went plumb crazy.” He makes note of the damage the dog has since done to the couch, among other things, and vows to “whip that dog yet.” But it’s a hollow threat, undercut with a sense of genuine affection born of empathy. “She has a little ring around her eye like the one in The Little Rascals,” he chuckles. “Her name’s Shade, because she was born in the shade of a rose bush. She’s mean as hell.”
Shaver can empathize with that as well. “Right now I’m in my mean mode,” he says, dryly noting his desire to go shoot a drug dealer. A line from one of his best songs comes to mind: “Lord it’s hard to be a Christian soldier when you tote a gun …” But Shaver won’t be taking up vigilantism any time soon. “Oh, I’d love to go wading through that drug bunch,” he says. “But I can’t do that. I can’t do nothing about that. That’s up to the law.”
Shaver sighs heavily, and as quietly as it drifted into the conversation, the fleeting fantasy of vengeance passes. He knows the demon that took his son’s life all too well, having battled it on his own many a time in the past. “Thankfully, nothing ever really grabbed me like it got him, because I was always such a damn control freak. I didn’t want anything telling me what to do, not even a damned drug,” he says. “But I didn’t really set a very good example back then … I was wild, crazy as hell. It’s no wonder that it came to this end. But I can’t blame myself too much, because he was a grown man. He knew what was out there, and he knew how dangerous it was because he’d seen me on the brink of death so many times.
“The last time I really talked to him was about five or six days before he died,” Shaver continues. “We always had good talks, me and Eddy. I wasn’t his father, I was his friend, man. When he was about 14 and he came out on the road with me, I realized we couldn’t make it if we didn’t decide to be friends instead of father and son.”
Shaver was born in Corsicana and practically raised in the Green Gables Bar in Waco, where his mother, Victory, worked. After serving a stint in the Navy, starting his family, and losing half the fingers on his right hand in a sawmill accident, Shaver set off for Nashville to establish his songwriting career in the late ’60s. He secured a publishing deal with Bobby Bare after playing him a couple of songs in person (he couldn’t afford a demo tape). In 1973, Waylon Jennings recorded Honky Tonk Heroes, an album comprised almost entirely of Shaver’s songs, and that same year, Shaver recorded his debut, the Kris Kristofferson-produced Old Five and Dimers Like Me. Those two albums may well be the foundation of Texas outlaw country, containing such classics of the genre as “Black Rose,” “Old Five and Dimers Like Me,” “Willy the Wandering Gypsy and Me,” and”Ride Me Down Easy.”
Thirty years later, Shaver remains the outlaw’s outlaw, a cult hero considered by many discerning Texas music aficionados as the state’s best living songwriter. “Billy Joe is one of those true poets,” raves Rodney Crowell. “He’s the Seamus Heaney of Texas.”
Billy Joe was 22 years old when Eddy was born in 1962, but they would make their recording debuts within a year of each other. In 1974, a year after releasing Old Five and Dimers, Shaver cut a Willie Nelson/Bobby Bare-produced single for MCA, “Lately I’ve Been Leaning Toward the Blues” / “I Couldn’t Be Me Without You,” with a studio lineup including Nelson and Eddy Shaver, then 12. Two years later, Eddy — who was given his first guitar by Dickey Betts of the Allman Brothers Band — began touring with his father’s band. Not long thereafter he was on the road playing guitar with Guy Clark.
“Eddy surfaced as a wunderkind when he was about 14,” recalls Crowell, who arrived on the Nashville scene from Texas at roughly the same time as Shaver. “I remember seeing Eddy play then, and it was just like, here’s another Stevie Ray Vaughan. It was that kind of precocious genius.”
But this was long before precocious guitar geniuses came into fashion — years before the likes of Kenny Wayne Shepherd, Jonny Lang, and Derek Trucks were even born — and Eddy learned the hard way that older players didn’t like being shown up by a kid. “When Eddy was a teenager, it wasn’t cool for kids to be really hot,” explains Keith Christopher, who currently plays bass with the Kenny Wayne Shepherd Band but spent six years in the ’90s touring with Billy Joe and Eddy. “[Back then], you had to shut up and listen, so he was taught to shut up and listen.”
“I had grown guys in my band that just stayed pissed off at him all the time, ‘cuz he could play so well,” Shaver says. “It was one of those things that just lived with him all that time.”
As Eddy grew older, further honing his chops on the road and onstage with everyone from Dwight Yoakam to Booker T., the jealousy turned to begrudging respect. “He got up and played with that guy from Eagles, Joe Walsh, at one of Willie’s picnics, or it might have been a Farm Aid, and Joe got back on the bus and said, ‘That kid of yours really pisses me off,'” Shaver recalls with a laugh. “I said, ‘How’s that?’ He said, ‘Damn, he’s good. No, he’s not good — he’s great.’ I though that was the greatest compliment anybody could give him.”
“Every guitar player that I’ve ever worked with was totally blown away by ‘that Eddy Shaver guy,'” notes Christopher. “Everyone said his guitar playing scared them.”
But even as Eddy’s formidable guitar prowess grew, he still never felt he fit in. “Eddy was very misunderstood,” muses Christopher, who figures he got as close to Eddy as anyone, other than his father, during their time on the road together. “He was a shy guy who played this magic guitar, but he didn’t know how to really reach people, or let people reach him. People misconstrued his shyness for arrogance. He was a lonely guy. He just wanted to fit in.”
It was this sense of isolationism that led to Eddy’s reliance on the pills that, years down the line, would lead to his more dangerous forays into heroin, Christopher believes. “I think he started doing painkillers and stuff because it would make him not feel any pain, and then he actually wanted to talk to people,” Christopher says. “It’s like all of us. You get a crutch, and then after a while the crutch becomes … you can’t talk to nobody unless you have it.”
In the late ’80s and early ’90s, Billy Joe and Eddy began touring and recording under the band name Shaver. It was a collaboration that kicked off ferociously with the 1993 album Tramp on Your Street, and continued all the way up to the newly released The Earth Rolls On, recorded shortly before Eddy’s death. Together they forged a one-of-a-kind, roof-raising sound not unlike heavy metal honky-tonk, once described by Eddy as being “like Cream with great songwriter singing. It’s not supposed to work, but it works.”
“Eddy loved to slam,” Shaver beams — but that was only half the story. He was also an impeccable slide and acoustic player, bringing that stunning opening riff to one of his father’s best later-day songs, “Live Forever,” and laying down some of his finest guitar work on Shaver’s 1998 acoustic gospel album, Victory.
“When they played together, it was complete magic,” Christopher says. “There were many, many nights where I would stand back and watch the father and son, and it was very moving. Eddy would play the perfect soundtrack to Billy Joe’s movie. The best nights Eddy had were when he’d call Billy Joe ‘Daddy.’ When he called I’m ‘Daddy,’ it just changed everything. It changed Billy Joe. [It] changed all of us.”
But however much Shaver tired to share the limelight with his son, Eddy could never escape his father’s shadow. “He wanted to be respected on the same level as his father was, which was tough when your dad was just writing these killer songs on like, a paper sack,” Christopher says. Nevertheless, he was determined to establish himself as Eddy Shaver, Texas Guitar Hero, rather than just the muscle behind his father’s songs — a role he never felt he was given enough credit for in the first place. In 1996, Eddy recorded his first solo album, a straight-up, freestyle hard-rock effort called Baptism of Fire. It was subsequently only released in France. “That’s a great album,” Billy Joe says. “I actually left it with a few people, but I noticed they never opened it. A lot of people just didn’t know abut Eddy, how good he was.”
Among those who needed convincing, both Billy Joe and Eddy believed, was their record label, New West. After releasing two Shaver albums — the aforementioned Victory and the aptly titled Electric Shaver (1999) — the label was planning on an album more in line with “classic Billy Joe Shaver,” explains producer Ray Kennedy, Steve Earle’s partner at Nashville’s Room and Board Studio. Simply put, The Earth Rolls On, the last album Eddy Shaver played on, was originally intended to be marketed as a Billy Joe Shaver (solo) album, not a Shaver (the band) set. “But I insisted that Eddy be on it,” says Billy Joe. “He was worried about not getting credit, but he dug in and played his ass off. Now, instead of calling it a Billy Joe Shaver record, they’re calling it a Shaver record. So I guess you could say he gave his life for it.”
IF I GIVE MY SOUL
True to its title, The Earth Rolls On is a survivor’s album, forged by two men defiantly battling odds seemingly as formidable as the Bolivian army facing Paul Newman and Robert Redford at the end of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. The specter of death that hangs over it, inspiring the title song, was not Eddy’s, but rather that of his mother Brenda, a woman Billy Joe married and divorced at least three times but who remained perhaps his greatest muse, apart from Jesus, in his life. She died of cancer in July 1999, not long after Shaver lost his own mother, Victory. At the same time, Eddy was fighting both his addiction to drugs and for the opportunity to play on his own record. He turned in not only two of the greatest solos of his career with the triumphant codas to the title song and “Evergreen Fields,” but also his first-ever recorded vocal duet with his father, on the rollicking but bittersweet “Blood is Thicker Than Water.”
If hearing father and son trade barbs with each other in that song — “I’ve seen you pukin’ out your guts and runnin’ with sluts when you were married to my mother / Now the powers that be are leading you and me like two lambs to the slaughter” — provokes a flinch in the aftermath of Eddy’s death, the album’s most beautiful track, “Star in My Heart,” hurts on an almost physical level. Shaver penned the words for Eddy when his son went to California in an attempt kick his heroin habit. “Your soul is bursting at the seams / You’re free to be even more than you could ever dream of … You’ll look the world straight in the eye / And never blink.“
“I wrote that song to him, and he started getting his head up,” Shaver says. “I thought he was going to make it. But I don’t know … it just seems like some things didn’t mix right for Eddy.”
Even though his son threw away so much, Shaver says he never did get angry at Eddy. “I’ve been there,” he explains. “I know how dangerous it is walking on that cliff. It could happen to anyone. I know he was dreadfully sorry, and I believe he had time to ask forgiveness, I honestly do.”
Nor, he says, did he ever once shake his fist at God, though he often felt his faith tested like Job’s. “Me and Eddy both prayed about this,” Shaver continues. “We went to a church down there in Austin called the Promised Land. And we both got down, and I remember the preacher saying, ‘What is it that you love the most? The very most in life? Just give it up right now. Give it to God. And just start the well with nothing in it.’ And I gave Eddy up. I said, ‘This is what I love the most, my son.’ And I said, ‘Here he is.’ And I realized that after I’d prayed for God to help me that I’d had so much on me, that He helped me and I didn’t want that kind of help. But He did. He took that away. I wish I hadn’t even prayed, but still, I guess I was at my breaking point. Must have been. Either me or Eddy — one was going to have to go, I guess.”
Shaver says he’s holding up “pretty good” now, but as for where he goes from here, he doesn’t know. More than once, he says he’s done. “This is it for me,” he swears. “You can stick a fork in me. More than likely, I’ll change my mind, but right now — I just really don’t care to do any more than I have to. Like Willie says, I don’t want to have to do a damn thing I don’t want to. But I want to make sure this album gets heard, because it’s a good one. I’ll give it everything I’ve got.”
On Jan. 31, a month to the day after Eddy’s death, Shaver set out on the road again for a week-long tour with Kinky Friedman, dubbed “Two Working Parts.” “I’m going out with my pal Kinky, ‘cuz he makes me laugh,” Shaver explains. After their first show together at the Broken Spoke in Austin, Shaver would laugh about winning $100 from Kinky because Friedman didn’t think they’d draw a crowd, but the house was packed with fans and friends, including Joe Ely, Kimmie Rhodes, and Jesse Taylor.
“When the Lord closes a door, he opens a little window, I always say,” offers Friedman. “Eddy’s death was a great blow to Billy Joe. But I think it’s important that the show must go on, that he gets out and does what he does best. He hasn’t performed solo in a long time, so that might be that little window.”
Christopher, who lives in New York, says Shaver was planning a trip to the Big Apple at the end of February and asked him “to book us a couple of shows to pay for the trip.”
“He’s going to do what he’s always been doing,” Christopher says. “He’s not going to let his son die in vain. He’s going to write about his son. So, no, he’s not ‘done.'”
And in his heart, Billy Joe Shaver knows he’s not, either. Christopher figures Shaver will “outlast all of us,” which may very well be.
“I know God won’t forgive me until I forgive everybody, so I guess I won’t be dying anytime soon,” muses Shaver. “I haven’t forgiven everybody yet, but I will.
“Might be at the last moment, though.”