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Honky Tonk Hero

By Billy Joe Shaver, assisted by Brad Reagan

University of Texas Press, 191 pages, $19.95

Reviewed by David McPherson, June 2005

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According to fellow songwriter and actor Kris Kristofferson, Billy Joe Shaver is "as real a writer as Hemingway..." High praise indeed, but after reading this autobiography one comes away with the feeling that his buddy Kristofferson's assessment is bang on.

Beginning with his debut "Old Five and Dimers Like Me" (1973), the talented songwriter and storyteller has been making music and touring for more than 32 years. Over the years, everyone from Waylon Jennings and Johnny Cash to Bob Dylan and Elvis Presley has recorded his songs.

Along with Kristofferson, Shaver is one of the few remaining true country outlaws. And, as one of country's rebels, Shaver is a survivor. "Honky Tonk Hero" portrays the songwriter as the ultimate survivor.

One that has survived: bad business deals, deaths to his wife, mother, and only son in the same year, losing parts of three fingers, a heart attack and a quadruple bypass, among other ordeals.

As Shaver describes in the book's introduction, even before he was born he was a survivor: "I was not even born yet when my father first tried to kill me."

This autobiography delves into all aspects of Shaver's life: from his early years in Texas where his grandmother raised him to his songwriting struggles and successes in Nashville. This well written depiction is a bit of a coming of age tale - the musical equivalent to James Joyce's "Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man."

The one criticism about this autobiography is the length. Shaver's side of the story only lasts for 72 pages - the remaining 119 pages is a compilation of the Complete Lyrics to his recorded songs. This is great if you are a lyric buff and want to analyze Shaver's songs and read all his stories, but for this section to take up more than half the book's space, as a reader one feels short changed.

Granted one could argue that Shaver's songs are his stories and tell his tales, but it would have been nice to have him expand on his adventures and tell some more of his life lessons and the genesis for more of his songs.