It’s not just the songs and the music. It’s the men and women who sing them with authenticity and authority that makes country music an exceptional exercise in art form and insight not just any form of music can rival.
Billy Joe Shaver would be and exceptionally interesting human being even if he whittled sticks for a living. The things he’s seen and done, and the stuff he’s lived through could be the grounds for an epic, and produce volumes of poetry. It just happens to be that at times in his life he’s been stable and composed enough to write down his thoughts and put them to music, and those thoughts and songs happened to go on to help define an entire era in country music, known as the Outlaw era.
Not under the business of promoting anything in particular like a new album or big tour, The Washington Post recently sent writer Geoff Edgers down to Texas to trail and profile Billy Joe Shaver in a quite remarkable piece. Along with going into great detail into the history of Billy Joe Shaver, much of which his hardcore followers know by heart, but must read like a Western to many who’ve never heard of him—losing fingers in a sawmill, hitchhiking to Nashville, threatening to kick Waylon Jennings’ ass in front of God and everybody—Billy Joe Shaver tells the story behind the song “Ragged Old Truck” on camera.
Like so much of Billy Joe Shaver’s life, it’s a harrowing account of survival. One of Shaver’s most famous stories is the time when he shot a man in the face behind a bar in Waco (later deemed self-defense by a court of law, and the man was fine), but the one not so commonly told is the time Shaver almost shot himself.
“Never play Russian roulette with an automatic,” Shaver explains. “I had a pistol up to my head, and I purty near done it. I went ‘Pow!’ and it rolled over top of my head, and I went ahead and emptied it in the wall over there.”
This was all after Shaver had spent all of his money on a truck that wouldn’t start, and his wife Brenda (who Shaver’s thrice married) got mad an left him. The song goes on to describe an inadvertent acid trip and a drunken haze, with Shaver remarkably coming out the other side in one piece. The entire story can be seen below.
What it underscores is what a remarkable life Billy Joe Shaver and many of these other old country artists have lived, and how they come from a time and place that nobody will be left to recount once they’re gone.
The point of country music is not just to entertain. It is also to preserve. Billy Joe Shaver is truly the last of a breed, and that’s why it’s so important to celebrate his life, and his story while he’s still around.