Smile Politely

Just an old chunk of coal

“We ain’t got no pride, really. We just haul in on an ol’ truck and kick ass.” — Billy Joe Shaver

Billy Joe Shaver, perhaps the most underappreciated songwriter in the history of outlaw country, will take the stage at the Historic Rose Bowl Tavern in Urbana at 7:30 p.m. on Sunday. It’s great to see a WWHP-sponsored show back at the Rose Bowl; tickets are $20 in advance and $25 at the door.

Shaver, with whom I spoke on the phone on Saturday night before his show in Florence, Alabama, wrote songs that have been recorded by such luminaries as Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson, Bob Dylan, and the Allman Brothers Band, but stardom as a performer has eluded him. “The singing thing, I thought I’d do real well, but I never did get a hit with it, and I’m still trying (laughs),” Shaver explained.

One of his most oft-covered songs is “Georgia on a Fast Train.” When Shaver’s asked about how he came to write that song, the story is almost too good to be true. “That was one of the first songs that I came into [Nashville] with,” Shaver related. “Actually, how it got started was, when I was in the Navy, I went AWOL with a buddy of mine, he was a paratrooper. He come down from Virginia, at Portsmouth Naval Hospital there in Virginia, and I come down there and got with him, and we took off and went back to Waco, headed toward Waco.

“And we was out there on the highway in Georgia, somewhere in Georgia, Fort Smith or something like that. Anyway, they picked us up and thought I was in the Army. And I kept telling them, I’m not in the Army, I’m in the Navy – we had civvies on, you know? They finally figured out I was in the Navy, and they put me on a train, and they handcuffed me to this black guy. And he was a bigot, and I was a bigot, too. But we hit each other every chance we got, we had a hell of a time, and we finally ended up being real good friends; we’re still in touch. And I don’t know, it just came into my head: I’ve been to Georgia on a fast train, I wasn’t born no yesterday, buddy. That don’t make a very good video, but that’s where it came from.”

Speaking of videos, here’s a live performance:

After his stint in the Navy, Shaver worked in a sawmill to support his young family, setting aside his dream of becoming a musician. “And then I got in my durn sawmill accident, and it lopped [off] two of my fingers on my right hand, and messed the other two up,” he recalled. “I just about lost my arm over it. In the period of time where this all was taking place, I said, ‘God, if you’ll just get me out of this mess, I’ll go be what I’m supposed to be.’ I knew I was supposed to be doing music, because I was real good at it. So, I did. I had to divorce my wife, though. She didn’t believe in it, and I had to divorce her.”

But his musical career didn’t get off to a very auspicious beginning. “I got out on the highway with ten bucks in my pocket, and I was trying to hitchhike to L.A., and I couldn’t get a ride,” Shaver explained. “So, I jumped onto the other side of the road, and the closest car that came picked me up, and took me all the way to Memphis – I was in Houston. So, I guess it was supposed to be. They threw me in the back of a truck that had a bunch of cantaloupes in it, and I smelled like a cantaloupe when I got to town. People started calling me cantaloupe for a long time ’til I got a good shower and everything.”

Shaver normally plays guitar, but he’s suffering from a pair of shoulder injuries that are keeping him limited to singing duties. Of course, there’s a colorful story behind the shoulder problems. He said, “I had [one shoulder] operated on and it was healing up real good. But I was driving back from there, and I stopped in Nashville and decided I’d better fly. I got on one of those doggone escalators and started going up, and somehow or another it started doing one of them jerk numbers. It was one of them real old ones, and it didn’t have any safety switch or anything on it, and it toppled me and I fell down. I had my hand and arm in a sling, and I couldn’t use it to put any weight on it, and I’m trying to get out of the durn thing. People were trying to help me to get out, and trying to stop it, and they couldn’t find any way to stop it, and they finally freed me, but it jerked my shoulder out of place, and it’s still out of place.

“I can raise it up so high and I can play guitar, so I’m just going to work through it. They were going to give me – they said, ‘You need a new shoulder,’ and I said, ‘Well, I just don’t got time to mess with that kind of stuff,’ but they said you need one. And I said, ‘Well, how much can you lift?’ And they said, ’25 pounds,’ and I said, ‘How long does that go on?’ and they said, ‘Forever.’ You can only lift 25 pounds, and I said, ‘Shoot, you might as well not even mess with that.’ I just work through it, and keep what I got, because I afraid that might mess me up real good. I got new knees, I got a plate in my neck – I broke my neck three times – I had a heart attack, four-way bypasses and stents and stuff after that, and I guess I got enough metal in me you could probably part me out for more than what I’m worth. I’m still keeping on though, I love it, I love to travel, always have, and I wouldn’t be able to afford it if it wasn’t for this music, so I’m getting to do what I love to do.”

Shaver describes his itinerant band as “truck drivers who get to play music every once in a while.” Don’t miss the chance to see this living legend while he’s still fit enough to tour.

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