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Billy Joe Shaver rises once again

By Jeffrey B. Remz, December 2002

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Shaver says he is not concerned about playing the song live, even though he had yet to do so. "I'm sure there will be requests (for the song)," he says. "If they request it, I'm sure I will do it...It's a part of me now. It's nothing that I can hide. Not that I was hiding it."

"I always run into people who have been a whole lot worse than me," he says. "Any one of us can look around and find that. I don't feel so singled out. When people (hear) the song, they ' don't feel so singled out. They can move on with their lives."

"Songs have so much power. When you help yourself, you wind up helping someone else. You dig yourself out of a hole, and it actually helps others whether you want to or not."

Shaver's hard scrabble life started before he was even before born when his father left his mother. It turned out the father had another family.

"My father beat her up and left her for dead in a tank," he says. "She said if I was a boy, 'I was gone.'"

The reason was because "she hated my father so much," Shaver says.

Once Shaver was born, his mother was gone. He was raised by his grandparents in the small town of Corsicana, Texas, while his mother lived in Waco, about 80 miles away.

"She went to Waco and worked as a honky tonk girl," he says. "She scrubbed floors and picked cotton. I remember her picking cotton with my sister on a cotton sack."

Shaver describes Corsicana as a cotton gin town. "There was something going on there all the time," he says. "There were trains going all around the town. People would bring their cotton into town and bale it and send up north or wherever they were going."

It was in Corsicana that Shaver first gained his loved of music.

"There was a settlement of African-American people who lived across the railroad tracks, and I'd go over there every day from the time I was five, six years old. Someone would be there with a guitar, a bottleneck. I fell in love with that kind of music. Then, I got a radio. I listened to whatever I could."

"My grandmother had to give me a whipping because I went across the railroad tracks," Shaver says, adding, "She'd come over (and ask) 'Where's Bubba?'"

Shaver does not remember exactly what it was about the music that inspired him. "I don't know," he says. "It just went through me."

His Corsicana upbringing included selling newspapers as a kid. "We lived out in the cotton fields, but I'd walk into town, and I'd sing when I sold papers. I sold lots of papers. I got real good at it. I made a lot of money. The other guys weren't making much money."

Apparently jealous of Shaver, they beat him up. "And the next day they beat me again, and the next day when I saw they were going to beat me up again, I said that was the end of the paper job. I went home and told my grandmother, she said, 'go pick some cotton'. The big time didn't last so long."

Shaver apparently was not exactly the model student either and left school in the ninth grade after cheating on a test.

But he also benefited from a high school English teacher, Mabel Leff. Shaver never had her for English himself, but she was his homeroom teacher for about a half hour a day and encouraged him to write poetry.

"She was always giving me something to do," says Shaver. "I wrote (poems) that just knocked her out."

Shaver says he told her, "Don't put my name on there, or I'll get in more fights that I was getting in now. People would call me sissy."

"She was a sweetheart," Shaver says. "She was the person who told that me I was really great at this. I probably would not have gotten into this if it wasn't for her."

"I'd always written," says Shaver. "I'd started doing it when I was five or six."

Shaver still visits Leff, who now is more than 100 and still able to recite Shaver's poetry verbatim. "She's so perky," says Shaver of Leff. She was filmed this fall as part of a documentary being put together about Shaver.

Shaver wrote of leaving the town behind in "Freedom's Child" in "Corsicana Daily Sun." The song fondly describes Corsicana and Shaver leaving it and his grandmother behind.

"It seems like everything went wrong/Since I left my hometown/I wish that I was back there now/Mending fence and milking cows/When Corsicana daily sun was shining bright for me."

Shaver traded school for the U.S. Navy, getting his mother to sign papers for him to be able to join despite his age.

He later returned and worked jobs including ranching and at a sawmill where he lost parts of four fingers, one of a series of physical mishaps.

Shaver says his route to music was counter to what most musicians have where they are chasing their dream while having their job to fall back on.

"I really kind of fell back on music. I lost my fingers," he says. "I had a pipe in my neck. I've had my appendix removed. I've had a lot of knocks on my head."

With a wife and son at home, Shaver went back and forth to Nashville, but that proved no easy row to hoe.

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