It's one of the great stories out of Nashville.
Texas songwriter Billy Joe Shaver used to tell how he first arrived in Music City by hitching a ride on the back of a cantaloupe truck. If it's not a true story, it ought to be. It fits right in with the persona of the fabled Billy Joe.
Although his name may not be a household word, he's well-known by many music aficionados, especially those who gravitate toward songwriters and Texas-based country music. His passing in October 28 is yet another loss for American music. Coming the same week as the recent passing of Jerry Jeff Walker, the subject of last week's Ramblin' Round, made for an especially tough week with the loss of the two artists inextricably linked with the so-called outlaw movement.
Many who who aren't familiar with Billy Joe Shaver himself have no doubt heard his songs.
Probably one of the most well-known is "I'm Just an Old Chunk of Coal (But I'm Gonna Be a Diamond Someday)" — which hit number 4 on the country charts when recorded by John Anderson.
I always liked how Shaver likened his rough-hewn self to a piece of coal that would eventually become a diamond. He wrote the song after he had his own road to Damascus moment one night atop a mountaintop overlooking a river in Tennessee.
"Hey, I'm just an old chunk of coal, but I'm gonna be a diamond someday," Shaver sang. "I'm gonna grow and glow till I's so blue pure perfect, I'm gonna put a smile on everybody's face." Shaver also sings of his determination to become someone different: "I'm gonna kneel and pray every day, lest I should become vain along the way. I'm just an old chunk of coal, but I'm gonna be a diamond someday."
Anderson wasn't the only one who liked Billy Joe Shaver songs. They've been recorded by other artists, including Elvis Presley, who recorded "You Asked Me To," as well as Johnny Cash, Kris Kristofferson and Bobby Bare. Waylon Jennings even fought with his label RCA because he wanted to release an entire album of Shaver songs. Waylon won and the resulting "Honky Tonk Heroes" became one of those influential albums that helped changed the course of American music history.
That's how I first heard of Billy Joe Shaver. I checked out the songwriting credits on "Honky Tonk Heroes" and felt amazed that all of the songs except the final one, were written or either co-written by Shaver. They were great too, from the title song to others including "Willy the Wandering Gypsy and Me," "Ride Me Down Easy," "Old Five and Dimers Like Me,'' "Black Rose" and "You Ask Me To" — several of which became enduring classics in their own right
Getting the songs to Waylon didn't come easy, though.
Waylon had reportedly heard Shaver sing during the 1972 Dripping Springs Festival in Texas, the big festival that gave Willie the idea to start holding his own Willie Nelson Picnics — which helped usher in a national audience for the music going on down in Texas at the time. After hearing Shaver sing, Waylon invited him to Nashville to write some songs for Waylon's next album.
For whatever reason, Waylon had apparently forgotten the offer by the time Shaver made it to Nashville in the back of that cantaloupe truck. Shaver certainly hadn't though — and he wasn't about to let Waylon forget his offer.
Shaver later recalled how he accosted Waylon outside a recording studio and reminded him of his offer. Waylon, accompanied by a couple of tough-looking bikers attempted to brush Shaver off and offered to give him $100 — which Shaver indignantly refused, telling Waylon he would fight him on the spot if he didn't listen to those songs.
Waylon's biker friends bowed up, but before they moved in for the kill, Waylon stopped them. Waylon told Shaver he would listen a song — and if he liked it, Shaver could sing another. Waylon must have liked what he heard, because by the time Shaver had finished, Waylon had decided to record his album filled with Shaver's songs.
Shaver grew up in Texas, picking cotton as a child, living with his grandmother. He remembered his hardscrabble upbringing in a song: "I just thought I'd mention, my Grandma's old age pension, is the reason why I'm standing here today. I got all my country learning, living and a-churning, pickin' cotton, raisin' hell and bail' hay."
The chorus always made me grin: "I've been to Georgia on a fast train honey. I wouldn't born no yesterday. Got a good Christian raisin' and an eighth grade education, ain't no need ya'll treatin' me this a-way."
While other people made his songs famous, Shaver recorded his own series of outstanding albums — finally hitting his highest placement when his "Long in the Tooth" made the top 20 — barely — when it hit no.19 on the country charts in 2014.
I'm glad Shaver lived long enough to receive the Academy of Country Music's Poet's Award in 2019 — a fitting tribute to the man Willie once called America's greatest living songwriter.
Willie was such a good friend that he and actor Robert DuVall attended a trial in Waco,Texas, in after Shaver was arrested for shooting a man in the cheek with a .22 pistol in a patio area outside a bar in 2010. Shaver's attorney successfully argued self-defense when Shaver said he felt threatened by a knife the man had been using to stir drinks.
When prosecutors asked Shaver why had didn't simply leave if he felt in danger, Shaver replied "I'm from Texas." Enough said. Wille told reporters Shaver wouldn't do anything wrong. Hey, having Willie on your side in front of a Texas jury must be as good as a get out of jail free card.
Willie's not the only other brilliant writer to hold Shaver in high esteem. I'll never forget how one night at an outdoor concert underneath a bright moon at a Minor League ballpark in Grand Prairie, Texas,I heard Bob Dylan sing Shaver's name in a song Dylan had co-written with Robert Hunter, chief lyricist for the Grateful Dead. In the song, Dylan coupled Shaver with the brilliant Irish author who'd written the novel, "Ulysses."
"I'm listening to Billy Joe Shaver and I'm reading James Joyce," Dylan sang. "Some people they tell me I've got the blood of the land in my voice." The same could be said for Shaver, too.
One of Shaver's best songs is called "Live Forever." Former News-Capital reporter Doug Russell, who sang and played guitar, used to do a great version of it when some of us would get together to play music. Shaver sang "I'm gonna live forever, I'm gonna cross that river. I'm gonna catch tomorrow now."
Another line in the song goes "You're gonna miss me when I'm gone." So true.
One thing's for certain. If people always love heartfelt, well-written songs packed with poetic insights, the music of Billy Joe Shaver is going to live forever.
Contact James Beaty at jbeaty@mcalesternews,com.