Billy Joe Shaver Soldiers On

Texas Songwriter Coming to Terms With Son's Death

Trust singer-songwriter Billy Joe Shaver , whose brilliant songs have been hits for John Anderson , Johnny Cash and Waylon Jennings , to find poetry in the deepest tragedy a father can endure.

Shaver’s son and performing partner, guitarist Eddy Shaver , died Dec. 31 in what was officially declared an accidental heroin overdose. The heart-rending loss occurred within a year of the 1999 death of Shaver’s wife and lifelong love, Brenda.

"I guess I’ll never get over it. I’m sure I won’t," Shaver said during a March interview in Austin, Texas, where he made several appearances connected with the annual South By Southwest music conference. "I’m dealing with it a little better every day."

A fine new album, The Earth Rolls On, Shaver’s last with his son, came out April 10. He appears Friday (June 8) on the Grand Ole Opry during the 7:30 p.m. (CT) portion of the show, and he will be the featured artist in the first "Opry Plaza Party" of the summer, beginning at 9 p.m. in front of the Grand Ole Opry House. Jesse Taylor, for years a member of Joe Ely ’s band, will be with Shaver on guitar.

When he sat down for his interview in March, Shaver had listened to the album "a time or two," but he did not enjoy the experience. "It’s pretty painful," he said, "but it’s a good record. I can’t fault the record. It’s just hard for me to listen to him play, it’s so good. He just really was good."

The poetry presented itself a few days before the interview, on a rainy afternoon in Waco, when Shaver went out to visit the graves of his wife and son, buried next to each other.

"I was really breaking down," the 61-year-old tunesmith recalled, his blue eyes nearly closed in a squint, his strong chin thrust out and his hair, now white, moving slightly in the wind. "I was afraid I was going to have to go to the VA [hospital] or something and check myself in. I went out there and I was really crying bad.

"When I got to the graves, there was a white dove by Brenda’s grave. And someone had put a little cherub, a little angel, on Eddy’s grave, with a guitar in its hand. There was a Texas flag stuck there. In that white part, it said ’I will always be around.’

"In the rain, there was a strand of a spider web coming from the top of Brenda’s flower all the way over to Eddy’s flower. I thought, ’This is enough time for me.’ They’re all right and they’re together and I should go on and do whatever it is I have to do. I don’t feel like I have to do anything but live until I die. I can’t imagine having any grand mission in life. I’ve done what I can.

"Nothing’s as much fun as it used to be," he continued, his voice wavering slightly, "and it’s not gonna be. It’s gonna be just, endure and go on. Everybody else has to do it too. There’s a lot of people in worse shape than me."

Produced by Ray Kennedy and recorded in Nashville, The Earth Rolls On, in places, paints a vivid picture of tension between father and son. Billy Joe and Eddy trade verses in "Blood Is Thicker Than Water." Billy Joe accuses Eddy of bringing into his home a no-account woman who is "stealing rings off the hands of your dying mother." Eddy, in his verse, admits he’s "down to the ground, I can’t get no lower," but he hits back at Billy Joe: "I’ve seen you puking out your guts and running with sluts when you were married to my mother." When Eddy turns his gaze forward, the future looms darkly: “Now the powers that be are leading you and me like two lambs to the slaughter." On the chorus, the two men join voices. Bottom line, they say, "Blood is thicker than water."

"We just kinda had it out at each other in that song," Shaver said. "He was telling me why he was the way he was, and I was telling him how it was with me. I caught the ol’ gal stealing rings off Brenda’s fingers while she was half-comatose. Everything happened. … I’m going to tell the truth all the way, because it might help somebody."

The song comes in a sequence of three by Billy Joe that explore different facets of Eddy’s ongoing struggle with drugs and the downward spiral of his life. In the first, "You’re Too Much for Me," Shaver puts himself in Eddy’s shoes. "He just got a hold of a little too much," Billy Joe says of the relationships in which Eddy found himself. The second is "Blood Is Thicker Than Water." The third, "Star in My Heart," Billy Joe wrote for Eddy when Eddy finally went into a drug rehab facility. One line goes, "I pray you’ll forgive me for not leaving sooner." Shaver admits that his presence may have been stifling to his son, but he worried about what would happen if Eddy had been left alone sooner.

"One time somebody called him up, one of the bookers called him up and cussed him out on the phone [for missing a show], just really gave him a helluva time," Shaver recalled, "and I caught him out in the garage with a syringe full of Clorox in his arm. I had to just slap it out of his arm.

"People gotta quit treating [drug users] like a bunch of dumb animals," Shaver continued. "They gotta start thinking about it as a disease. You can’t welcome them into your arms, but you can’t cuss ’em out. It’s not good. I know I was guilty of that, but I realized my error … I was mad at him and I wanted to split up with him. Then I changed my mind."

Shaver was not around the night his son died at age 38 in a Waco hotel room. Eddy’s wife, Irene, found him around 10 p.m., and he was pronounced dead at 2:58 a.m. at Hillcrest Baptist Medical Center in Waco. Billy Joe has had a hard time accepting the notion that Eddy died of a drug overdose and even suspects that there may have been extenuating circumstances surrounding his death, but he is reluctant to elaborate.

The fact remains that Shaver will never sing again with his son by his side, playing guitar. During a performance at South By Southwest, Taylor filled in admirably. Shaver and Taylor have known each other since the ’80s, when Taylor worked for Ely. At the music conference, when Shaver performed "The Earth Rolls On," he fell to his knees near the end of the performance as Taylor played the long guitar coda recorded originally by Eddy.

"Jesse was sounding like Eddy a little bit, and it was kinda getting to me," Shaver said the next day. "Him and Eddy played a lot alike. Pretty aggressive, you know? Jesse’s a good friend, and I was thinking about that a lot during the song."

Now Shaver and Taylor are on the road, playing songs from the album. The Earth Rolls On has risen as high as No. 4 on the Americana Roots chart.

"We’re going to try to punch it on up there as far as we can get it," Shaver vows. "Even though he’s not here, Eddy’ll always be around. I feel him, and he’s not mad, either. He’s not upset at all, he’s happy. It’s good that he’s happy, him and his mother both are happy."