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Shaver gets spiritual

By Robert Wooldridge, November 1998

After nearly three decades as one of country music's preeminent "outlaw" songwriters, Billy Joe Shaver released his most intimate album to date, "Victory."

Shaver's New West Records debut is a collection of acoustic gospel songs showcasing his brilliant lyrics and son Eddy's musicianship.

"Victory" is the album Shaver felt compelled by his Christian faith to record. Gospel music has always been important to Shaver.

"I've always had that (spirituality) in my heart and in my songs."

Shaver's faith has remained strong through many turbulent times in his life. Shaver's father left before he was born, prompting his mother to move to Waco, Texas to earn a better living. Shaver and his sister remained in hometown Corsicana, Texas with their grandmother.

Shaver describes Corsicana as "a gin town where they bring all the cotton in and the railroad tracks run around it."

It was as a child in the cotton fields that Shaver was first exposed to music, listening to his black co-workers sing as they worked.

"They were always singing," Shaver recalls. "We didn't have a radio at that time. I would hear parts of this and that - stuff that some of the African-Americans were singing - and I'd just make up whatever rest I didn't know."

With the encouragement of those he worked with Shaver began writing songs and poetry. "But you couldn't let many people know that you wrote poetry."

In his youth, Shaver looked upon music as something he could "fall back on" if he needed it. At 26, after having broken his back and losing some fingers in a sawmill accident, Shaver decided to give music a serious try.

"I started going to Nashville with my songs," he says. "I knew I had some good ones."

His first break came when he was 33. "Bobby Bare gave me 50 bucks a week and let me stay in his office."

Bare's recording of Shaver's "Ride Me Down Easy" was his first number one hit.

It was Waylon Jennings' breakthrough 1973 album "Honky Tonk Heroes" that established Shaver as a major force as a songwriter. Shaver wrote 9 of the 10 songs on disc widely considered to have sparked the "outlaw" movement.

Shaver still considers "Honky Tonk Heroes" to be his biggest break. If not for the exposure from Jennings' album, Shaver concedes "it would have been a struggle."

Shaver's own debut "Old Five and Dimers Like Me" was also recorded in 1973. Produced by Kris Kristofferson, who borrowed money to finance the project, the album was hailed by critics, but did not do well in sales or airplay.

His career as a performer has never taken off as he would have liked, though 1993's "Tramp On Your Street" recevied much prais, recharging his career.

Shaver's songs have been recorded by such artists as Elvis Presley, Bob Dylan, Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson and John Anderson.

"I don't know," Shaver says of the artists who have had success with his songs, "Maybe I'm just not as good as them."

Shaver says he writes largely from his own experience. "I can't seem to conjure things up," he says. A line from Shaver's "Willy the Wandering Gypsy in Me" expresses his philosophy - "moving's the closest thing to being free."

Shaver feels that his life on the road has furthered his development as a writer. "New people, new experiences, new everything happens to you - as opposed to just sitting in one spot," he observes. "Then you have to imagine things. I'll be moving until the day I die."

With "Victory," featuring Shaver on vocals and guitar with son Eddy on guitar and dobro, Shaver delivers some of the most personal work of his career.

After Justice Records lost interest in Shaver following "Highway of Life," Cameron Strang invited Shaver to join his new label New West.

"I told Cameron when I went in, I said 'Look, I've got a burden in Christianity to do something. I've had this all my life,'" Shaver says. "And he (Strang) allowed me to do that."

Originally other musicians were invited to perform on the album, but nobody showed up. "It turned out being actually better - more intimate, more family," Shaver says of the all acoustic album that features only he and son Eddy. At least five songs were on previous albums although rerecorded here.

"The spirituality of it comes through," Shaver says. "It's pretty down to Earth. It's not any finger pointing or preaching - actually, I'm not equipped to point finger," he jokes, referring to the sawmill accident.

Shaver says that "Victory" is not intended to criticize others. "I know some people that aren't Christians. They're not religious at all - they're not spiritual. They're some of the best people I've known, and there's nothing wrong with that. But, then again, I know what's good for me - and part of the deal is I have to tell other people."

The song from where the album title comes, "My Mother's Name is Victory," is written for Shaver's own mother. "They named her at the end of World War I," he recalls. "And they had a big family, too, so they'd kind of run out of names."

One of the standout tracks is "Live Forever," a song for which Eddy wrote the melody. "I rode around with it for about six or eight months because it's such a nice melody. I thought 'I've got to come up with something great on this thing.' I thought about Eddy, and I and how much effort we've put into this. I'm 59 years old now, and he's in his 30's. It's been a long, hard row."

Other highlights include a reworking of "You Can't Beat Jesus Christ," and a Christmas song called "Presents From the Past," which Shaver says is "an older song I never pitched to anybody. I've kind of been saving it back to say something about what the holidays are really about."

"Victory" has been receiving significant airplay on Americana stations, without which Shaver says "a lot of careers would be down the drain. People that actually like art would be deprived of it. This Americana thing, that's about all I listen to. I like to hear unique things, I like to hear poetic things. I'm into all that stuff."

Recently Shaver added acting to his resume, turning in a fine performance in Robert Duvall's critically acclaimed "The Apostle."

"It was wonderful. Bobby Duvall is the greatest guy you'd ever want to meet. He's a wonderful director. His first words of advice were 'Every chance you get - don't act.' So I took his advice and it worked out real well for me."

In the immediate future, Shaver plans to tour with David Allan Coe, along with Eddy and a three-piece band.

There are also important plans for his personal life as well. "I went through two divorces with my wife," Shaver says of his ex-wife Brenda, who has recently battled cancer. "I'm back with her now - and it looks like we're going to get married again. At least I ain't picking on but one girl. It's kind of come full circle."

After a long career and an impressive body of work, Shaver shows no signs of slowing down. In fact, he's convinced the best is yet to come. His next album with Eddy, entitled "Electric Shaver" and produced by Ray Kennedy, is already completed and set to be released on New West.

"It's a real good album," Shaver proclaims. "It's the best we've ever done."