Ode to Billy Joe

One morning in 1968, a scruffy-looking 29-year-old toting a guitar made his way onto westbound Route 40 somewhere in Texas, looking to thumb a ride to Los Angeles.  Despite his best efforts, however, hundreds of drivers passed him by.  Tiring of getting nowhere, the impatient hitchhiker crossed the highway and took a shot at a ride heading east.  He quickly got picked up by a trucker bound for Tennessee.

Neither country music nor pop music would ever be the same.

1939-2020

That hitchhiker was William Joseph Shaver, known to friends and enemies alike—and he had plenty of both—as Billy Joe Shaver.  He’d been many things in his life, including a sailor in the U.S. Navy, a rodeo cowboy, a nightclub singer and a lumber-mill worker, the last of which cost him two fingers when he was only 21.

Mostly, though, he was a songwriter.  When he died on October 28, 2020, after suffering a stroke at the age of 81, it was the songs that people talked about.

That trucker dropped him off in Memphis, and Shaver—who had been planning to pursue a pop career in Los Angeles—caught another ride to Nashville and Music Row, where his pricky personality, quick temper and near-messianic belief in his own talent quickly alienated fellow country singers, club managers and record-label executives alike.  But his songs were so good that there were always people willing to put up with everything that came with them—people like Waylon Jennings, who recorded a whole album of Shaver songs, and Kris Kristofferson, who produced Shaver’s first album.

Making Honky Tonk Heroes (1973) was an ordeal for Jennings and for producer Tompall Glaser, with Shaver constantly interrupting the sessions and insisting that they weren’t doing the songs right.  It paid off, though, when the album became a hit and ended up being judged by many to be the best album of Jennings’ career.

Billy Joe Shaver (left) and Waylon Jennings needed each other, but that didn’t mean it was going to be much fun.

Despite Kristofferson’s hand in the booth, Shaver’s own Old Five-and-Dimers Like Me (1974) was not a success.  Many of the shelf’s worth of chips that Shaver carried around on his shoulder related to the fact that, while singers as diverse as Jennings, Johnny Cash, Bob Dylan, Tom T. Hall, Patty Loveless, Willie Nelson, Elvis Presley, Marty Stuart and Tanya Tucker recorded his songs, assuring Shaver a living that was steady, if not luxurious, his own records never broke through.  He didn’t make it onto Billboard’s Country Albums chart until 2014, when Long in the Tooth peaked at No. 19, but even then the album’s success was driven by the popularity of “Hard to Be an Outlaw,” on which he duetted with Nelson.

In an industry that loves the outlaw image more than it loves outlaws themselves, Shaver was the genuine article.  As late as 2007, when he was 67, Shaver was arrested and charged with shooting a man in the face in a barroom brawl; he pleaded self-defense and was acquitted.  To many outside the industry, he was a big-mouthed drunk whose sense of his own importance was way out of proportion to his place in the Nashville food chain.

To many inside the industry, however—and especially to its songwriters—Shaver was a unique talent, even a minor deity.  In such songs as “Because You Asked Me To” (1973), “Black Rose” (1973), “Honky Tonk Heroes” (1973), “It Was Fun While It Lasted” (1987), “I Been to Georgia on a Fast Train” (1993) and “Live Forever” (1993), he did something that was hard to quantify, but impossible to mistake for anybody else’s work.  Even Nelson and Kristofferson, older, earlier-established men who were themselves legendary songwriters, realized that there was something about a Billy Joe Shaver song that you couldn’t find anywhere else.

What was it?  Well, some said one thing and some said another, and lots of people said it wasn’t anything you could put a finger on.

Here’s what I say.

It’s a commonplace to say that the heart of country music is the story song, a song that tells a story—usually a simple one, sometimes deceptively simple—that people can relate to.  A country song tells us a story about situations we’ve experienced, feelings we’ve had, and it puts that story into simple-but-compelling language set to a tune that sticks in your ear.  Get some great pickers and turn on the recorder, and you’ve got a country record.

Billy Joe Shaver’s songs fit that mold, but he didn’t do it the way everybody else did.

I’ve sung a lot of songs by Hank Williams, Willie Nelson and Kris Kristofferson by now, and there’s nothing gets you under the hood of a song like singing it in public.  When you have to learn every word, every note, every chord change; when you have to figure out how to sing every line; when you’re forced to puzzle out the connections between the story, the words, the rhythm, the melody and the harmony, well, it’s one step away from writing it yourself.

I’ve sung a lot of Billy Joe Shaver songs, too, and I hope to sing many more.  But as soon as I started working on them—I believe my first Shaver song was “Because You Asked Me To”—I realized that Shaver wasn’t like the songwriters I’d tackled previously.

The first thing I noticed was that his songs are shorter than most other songwriters’.  Where Kristofferson favors long lines packed with information, for example, Shaver’s lines are shorter and often favor irrelevant details over basic information:

                Busted flat in Baton Rouge and headed for the train,
                                feeling near as faded as my jeans.
                Bobby thumbed a diesel down, just before it rained,
                                that took us all the way to New Orleans.

versus

                Long ago and far away,
                                in my old common-labor shoes,
                I turned the world all whichaway,
                                just because you asked me to.

It’s amazing how much information Kristofferson jams into the first four lines of “Me and Bobby McGee” (1970).  By the time you get to the end of those lines, you know everything you need to know to understand the rest of the song.  His sense of structure is architectural in its strength.  Savor the string of verbs that drives those four lines:  “busted,” “headed,” “faded,” “thumbed,” “rained” and “took.”  These are powerful, resonant verbs with hard consonants, free of cliché or slackness.  This verse is about a trip, a truck ride in the rain, and it gives us everything we need in the first four lines, which begin “in Baton Rouge” and end “to New Orleans.”  Mood, emotion, detail, poetry … Kristofferson is arguably the greatest songwriter of the 20th century, and these four lines—24 metric feet, alternating iambic heptameter and iambic pentameter, if you want to get technical—are a master class in why he’s so great.

By contrast, Shaver’s first four lines for “Because You Asked Me To” offer only 12 metric feet (iambic trimeter), and he starts out by telling us that he’s not going to give us when or where:  “Long ago and far away” (is George Lucas a Billy Joe fan, I wonder?) is as good as we’re going to get.

More important, perhaps, he doesn’t tell us what’s going on.  He tells us that “I turned the world all whichaway,” but that’s all.  In three more verses, all equally concise, he’s not going to tell us what it was that the singer did to throw the world out of kilter.  He is, though, going to tell us what shoes he was wearing when he did it.

What the hell?  I mean, really, what the hell?  The first time I tackled this song, I couldn’t come close to getting a handle on it.  It’s a good rule of thumb that a songwriter tells us what’s important and omits what’s not important, especially early on—but can it really be that the shoes are important and the basic story isn’t?  It was some time before I had a clue what Shaver was up to.

Before I tell you what I think that is, let’s look at the beginning of what may be my favorite Shaver song:

                Way down in Virginia,
                                mid the tall-grown sugar cane,
                there lived a simple man with a Dominicker hen
                                and a rose of a different name.

As in “Because You Asked Me To,” Shaver begins “Black Rose” with four lines (half the first verse of a song that has only two verses) that tell us virtually nothing about the song that it introduces.  It’s set in Virginia (which is utterly unimportant and, in fact, Shaver—possibly mocking people who tried to understand his songs—sometimes sang it as “Way down in Louisiana”), and it’s about a simple man who … well, we know what breed of hen he had, but that’s about it.  (I’ve heard this sung as “Dominator hen” and “doubledecker hen,” but it’s a corruption of Dominique, America’s oldest breed of chicken.)

Spoiler alert:  We aren’t going to hear any more about the hen, any more than we’ll hear about the shoes in “Because You Asked Me To.”  It’s not important.  If you spend time trying to figure it out, you’re just spinning your wheels.

Back to “Because I Asked You To”:  Shaver offers a second verse that finally tells us what this song is going to be about—good thing, too, because by the end of it we’re halfway through the song.

                Like unto no other feel,
                                simple love is simple truth.
                                                There’s no end to what I’d do,
                                                just because you asked me to.

It’s natural for a listener, hearing the first verse of the song, to expect that the second verse will tell us what it was that the singer did to “turn the world all whichaway.”  Instead Shaver tells us something else.  He tells us why it doesn’t matter what he did.  It could have been one thing, it could have been another; the important thing is why he did it:  “There’s no end to what I’d do,/just because you asked me to.”

(Yes, he’s also deep-sixed the rhyme scheme.  The first verse leads us to expect the third line of the second verse to rhyme with “feel,” but it doesn’t; we expect the fourth line to rhyme with the second line, but no—it rhymes with the third line.  The first verse’s fairly standard ABAB becomes a highly unusual ABCC.  Shaver typically keeps his rhythm consistent, but he doesn’t really care about rhyme schemes.)

Now we know what this song is about.  It’s about what almost all of Shaver’s songs are about: not the story, but the emotion behind the story.  By robbing us of the details of the story, Shaver forces us—unless we want to spend the whole song thinking about those shoes—to focus on the emotion, the same way that the narrative voice does.

Next Shaver kicks into the chorus:

                Let the world call me a fool,
                                but if things are right with me and you,
                                that’s all that matters, and I’ll do
                                anything you ask me to.

(Yes, ABAB and ABCC have given way to ABBB.  Like I said, consistency of rhyme scheme isn’t among Shaver’s priorities.  Besides, I think he’s … well, we’ll get to that later.)

Again, the point is the emotion—that’s all that matters.  The singer will do whatever he has to do to please her (or him? even something as basic as the genders of the people involved isn’t specified in the song, because—yes—they don’t matter).  We’re three verses into the song, and by now we’ve accepted that this isn’t going to be a conventional narrative at all.  It starts out pretending to be a story song, but in reality it’s anything but.  Two verses in a row now, he’s explicitly said that it doesn’t matter what he did, does or—as we’ll learn in the final verse—will do in the future.

The final verse nails down the centrality of the emotion by looking into a hypothetical future:

                Knowing how much I love you,
                after all that we’ve been through,
                I’d turn and walk away from you,
                just because you asked me to.

(One more change in the rhyme scheme.  Throughout the song, the conventional rhyme scheme of the first verse has been breaking down, and it ends with a final, obsessive AAAA.  The listeners don’t hear the rhyme scheme consciously, of course, unless they’re really thinking deeply about how the song does what it does—but their subconsciouses pick up the way the song’s form is mirroring its content.)

As the final verse makes clear, this isn’t even a song about a man who will do anything to keep his lover—something of a cliché of country songwriting.  It may not even be about a man at all, because nothing in the song, other than the vocal register of the person singing it, says anything about gender.  It’s about a person who will do anything to make his/her lover happy, even if it means leaving.  That’s a very specific emotion, not the generic love of the usual country or pop song; it’s obsessive, self-abnegating, tortured—but to the singer that emotion is the defining force of the world as he knows it.  This is powerful stuff.

Let’s turn back, then, to the first verse, because now we can see answers to the questions of why Shaver won’t tell us what this guy did, but does want to talk about his shoes.  The answers have nothing to do with the narrative voice of the song, and everything to do with the brilliance of the man writing the song.

The thing about specificity in songwriting is that it’s a double-edged blade:  Specificity makes a song feel real, with the details lending a lifelike quality to the world the singer is conjuring up; but it also excludes people for whom that specificity doesn’t resonate.

A song about a woman losing her man resonates for women who’ve lost their men—and with men who’ve lost their women, but not as strongly, because the song’s details don’t line up with a man’s experience as closely.  It resonates even more powerfully for some listeners if the song is about a woman losing her man because he drinks too much, because that detail jibes with their experience; but that further detail risks excluding the woman who’s lost her man because he was cheating, or the man who’s lost his woman because she valued her job more than him.

The power of Shaver’s approach is that, by withholding what would seem to be the essential information of the story, he frees the listener to fill in the blanks for him/herself.

I can’t sing a song without having the story of it in my head, and when I sing “Because You Asked Me To” it’s about a man (because I’m a man) who left his wife and children to be with another woman—and regrets that, but doesn’t see it as something that could have gone any other way, because of how he feels about the other woman.  But that’s my story, not Shaver’s.

Shaver leaves a listener free to hear it as being about that, or about a man who left his wife and children to be with another man, about a man who moved from one side of the country to the other to be with the woman he loves, about a woman who quit her dream job to go with the man she loves, about a priest who left the church to marry a woman, about a criminal who went straight for the sake of a woman … there are as many different ways to hear it as there are people to hear it, and because Shaver doesn’t insist on one reading as “the real one,” each listener is free to read it as she chooses to—or, in most case, as she does without even really realizing that the choice was hers and not the songwriter’s.

So we have details to ground the song, but they’re shoes and hens and the like, and they’re there and gone—unlike the watches, cars, Bibles and guitars which are running elements through many country songs.  The details provide grounding, but they don’t resonate, they’re not signposts telling us how the songwriters wants us to think.  Shaver is OK with us deciding that for ourselves.

In short, the same way that specificity is the key to what Kristofferson does in his songs (the singer in “Me and Bobby McGee” doesn’t pull his harmonica out of a bandanna, but out of “my dirty, red bandanna”), careful ambiguity is the key to what Shaver does in his.  Kristofferson gives us what we need to understand the complex, event-filled stories he wants to tell us; Shaver gives us what we need to get the feeling underlying his deliberately elliptical stories—not to understand them, but to feel them.

I’m not saying that Shaver is a better songwriter than Kristofferson, or a worse one; the world of country music would be immeasurably poorer without either.  All I’m saying is that what Kristofferson does is to take conventional country songwriting a step further, playing within the rules but doing it better than almost anyone else ever had, while what Shaver does is a different approach entirely, one that violates most of the conventional rules but achieves the same goals as the great country songs always have.

I’d close with a wish that Billy Joe Shaver might rest in peace, except he never had much interest in peace.  What Shaver wanted was for people to listen to his songs, and to acknowledge how brilliant he was.  So here are links to “Because You Asked Me To,” “Black Rose,” “Honky Tonk Heroes,” “I Been to Georgia on a Fast Train” “It Was Fun While It Lasted” and “Live Forever”; check them out, and see if you think I’m onto something.

And, if you like what you hear, delve deeper into Shaver’s songbook.  He make not have been the messiah of country music that he thought himself to be, but he came remarkably close.

One thought on “Ode to Billy Joe

  1. Pingback: Program Notes: Tennessee Walt’s ‘A Year in a Distant Country’ | Tennessee Walt

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