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Billy Joe Shaver rises once again

By Jeffrey B. Remz, December 2002

Page 3...

Shaver's first break came when Bobby Bare hired him to be a songwriter for the grand sum of $50 a week, and that included the privilege of being able to sleep in his office since Shaver did not have many financial resources.

Bare expected little of Shaver when he first walked into the office. They went to a back room, and Bare told Shaver that if "I stop you in the middle of this, and I don't like it, you're gone."

Shaver played "Evergreen" and "Restless Wind." "I was stopped in the middle of the first one, and I got my stuff together. He called to (music partner) Harlan (Dick), 'get a contract. We got a songwriter.'"

"I thought sure he'd kick me out, but he hadn't. He actually signed me up."

"I had a number three washtub and just wrote songs," says Shaver. "Furiously. I was getting by on $50 a week. That was rough."

"It's kind of hard to serve two masters," he says. "If all you do is work on songs, you're much better off than working another job and then that."

Shaver sent for his wife Brenda and son Eddy back in Texas when he landed a job. Brenda worked as a hairstylist after Eddy started school.

Life under Bare was not easy. "Every once in awhile, the check would bounce because Bobby was in about as bad shape as I was," Shaver says. "He had an old Cadillac where the trunk was wired together with a coat hanger."

In addition to writing, Shaver performed in honky tonks. He released a single for Mercury, "Chicken on the Ground," but that attracted little attention.

Bare recorded Shaver's "Short and Sweet" the following year, but that also did little.

But Kris Kristofferson got Shaver's career moving in the right direction when he recorded "Good Christian Soldier," which Shaver co-wrote with Bare, and included it on his "Silver Tongued Devil" album.

Shaver's star increased big time when Waylon Jennings recorded the outlaw album, "Honky Tonk Heroes," with all songs save one penned by Shaver. Even though he wasn't doing the singing, Shaver says he was pleased.

"I couldn't possibly sing that good. Nobody could. It was great for me to have that kind of help. He helped himself and helped me too."

Shaver had some issues with Jennings at the time. "I was always giving him hell about my melodies and stuff. I didn't realize how blessed I was by having someone like that. I've always been a dingbat."

"He convinced me," Shaver says. "He changed a few things. They worked out great. He did not mess with my words. That's one thing he didn't mess with."

Kristofferson also proved helpful by borrowing money to record Shaver's first disc, "Old Five and Dimers Like Me" for Monument.

"He stuck his neck out for me," Shaver says. "We got into it about four, five songs. We did it at the House of Cash. (Label executive) Fred Foster got wind of it, and here he come. He bought Kris out on the thing. They put the album out. They laid it in the background for a year. It was a good thing they did because Kris was coming out with his own on the same label, and I couldn't have possibly butted heads with him because he was so great. There just wasn't any better."

The album included such Shaver classics as "Black Rose," "I Been to Georgia on a Fast Train" and "Willy the Wandering Gypsy and Me," a tribute to Willie Nelson.

But by the next year, Shaver was on MGM Records, did some recording with Nelson and Bare, but nothing was released.

Shaver also suffered alcohol and drug problems.

But thanks to Dickey Betts of the Allman Brothers Band, Shaver inked with Capricorn, releasing "When I Get to You" in 1976 and "Gypsy Boy" the following year.

Shaver enjoyed greater success as a writer, however. Elvis recorded "You Asked Me To," the Allmans "Sweet Pea" and Johnny Cash "Jesus Was Our Saviour and Cotton Was Our King" and "I'm Just an Old Lump of Coal (But I'm Gonna Be a Diamond Some Day)."

Around this time, Shaver went clean from his excesses and soon signed a writer's deal at the House of Cash, Johnny Cash's firm.

Shaver's bad luck with labels continued as Capricorn folded, but he signed with Columbia, releasing "I'm Just An Old Lump of Coal...But I'm Gonna Be a Diamond Some Day" to critical acclaim. John Anderson took the title track into the top five on the country charts that year with the song also nominated for Song of the Year by the Country Music Association.

He had a few more albums on Columbia with a self-titled disc in 1982 and "Salt of the Earth" five years later.

Little happened career wise for Shaver until he released "Tramp on Your Street" in 1993 on Zoo. The album was by far his best seller ever and achieved many kudos. As he has done periodically, he recorded songs that were previously released including "Georgia on a Fast Train." (The new album contains a remake of "Good 'Ol U.S.A.")

Despite the long gap in between albums, Shaver says, "We had a fan base. Eddy and I did. We played honky tonks, and we just kept playing them. We had a lot of fans just waiting on a record. I think it surprised everybody because we took it around in Nashville, and they didn't want it. We went to LA, and Zoo just jumped up and down."

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