Billy Joe Shaver: Original Freedom’s Child

“Just about everybody was crazy back then,” says Billy Joe Shaver . “The great writers were, anyway. I was a little crazy. Always was. I’d go completely insane when I’d get in a fight.”

Shaver is reflecting on what it was like in Nashville in the late ’60s when he arrived in Nashville and began forming friendships with folks like Johnny Cash , Waylon Jennings and Kris Kristofferson . Shaver isn’t the wild man he once was, either, but you still sense the underlying attitude in his new CD, Freedom’s Child.

During the past two years, the 63-year-old singer-songwriter has walked through the valley of the shadow of death. He survived a heart attack and bypass surgery, but he lost his mother and his wife to cancer. And Eddy Shaver, his son and bandmate, died of a drug overdose.

Many of Shaver’s fans were surprised at the upbeat tone of Freedom’s Child. “That’s the way I wanted it to be,” Shaver tells CMT.com. “I’ve gotten myself into a position now where I want to live. I didn’t want to live for a while. I’m closer to God now than I was. I feel like Eddy’s inside of me. It’s strange. It’s like he melted into me somehow. I can even play guitar a little better. He used to unplug me, man.” Shaver looks at his hand and the missing fingers as a result of a sawmill accident and jokes, “I wish I’d gotten Eddy’s hands. If I’d just thought, I’d have had him donate his hands.”

As much as the deaths devastated Shaver, he points out, “We’re Christians. That makes a big difference. The sting of death … it’s silly to even think about it. We actually mourn for ourselves. I did it today, even. I even burst out crying a little about Eddy today, mainly because I wanted him to enjoy what’s happening now. He did the demos on a lot of these songs, and we did a lot of them pretty close to what the demos were.”

Shaver spent many years in Nashville but returned to his native Texas several years ago. Far from being a local celebrity, Shaver says, “There are guys in Waco who will come up to me and say, ‘Hey, Bubba, you stayin’ out of trouble?’ They don’t even know what I do.” He laughs, adding, “In Waco, for some reason or another, even if they know what you do, they’re just not that impressed.”

As a young man, though, Shaver wanted to get away from life in nearby Corsicana, Texas. “When I was a kid, I started rambling,” he says. “I’d make little hitchhiking trips, do a little work here and there.” After a hitch in the Navy, Shaver thumbed his way from Houston to Nashville, finally arriving in the back of a cantaloupe truck. “Unmistakable odor,” he says. “When I got into town, I smelled like cantaloupe. I didn’t have enough money to get a room.” When asked what his plans were at the time, Shaver admits, “I had no plans at all. I just thought, ‘I’ve got music in my head. I can do this.’”

One songwriter who befriended him was Hal Bynum, whose credits include Kenny Rogers’ “Lucille” and Patty Loveless’ “Chains.” Shaver says, “Hal said, ‘You can stay over at my place. But I’ve gotta warn you: I’m crazy.’ For some reason, everybody caught on that I was good writer, even though I just blew into town. Hal let me sleep on his couch.”

Bynum provided housing — and an education. “At the time, Hal was a serious drinker,” Shaver says. “Every night, I’d wake up with this rusty knife on my neck. He’d say, ‘Billy Joe, how are you on your poetry? You’re going to have to listen to Alfred Lord Tennyson and some other stuff.’ I said, ‘Just take the damn knife off my neck, please.’ He’d finally take it off my neck. It’s a wonder he didn’t slit my throat. But he’d sit down and read this great poetry, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and all that bunch. He’d finally get sleepy and he’d go off into his room and go to bed. I told Bobby Bare about the rusty knife deal and said, ‘I don’t know why I just let that go on. I must’ve liked the poetry.’ Bobby said, ‘No, I think you liked the knife!’”

Shaver has noted the changes in Nashville during the past three decades, but even Freedom’s Child and his touring band includes a significant connection to the late ’60s. Ironically, when Shaver was forced to hire a guitarist to take his son’s place, the immediate choice was Jamie Hartford — the son of singer-songwriter John Hartford, who died in 2001.

“I knew John fairly well,” Shaver says. “I’d seen Jamie as a little tow-headed kid. That’s about all I thought about him. But I think he’s one of the best guitar players around. He’s world class. I had no idea I would stumble on such a good guitar player. I was really lucky. Every time he hits the ball, it’s a home run.”

Shaver and his band are continuing a heavy tour schedule through December, including shows Wednesday (Dec. 3) in Philadelphia and Thursday (Dec. 4) in New York City. It will be more of the same in 2003. “I’m just gonna bop ’til I drop, I guess,” he says.

Of course, he’ll still be writing songs.

“I’ve never had a dry spell,” he says. “I still love doing it. I get off on doing it. I used to hunt and fish, but now I just write. It’s also the cheapest psychiatrist there is.”

Calvin Gilbert has served as CMT.com’s managing editor since 2002. His background includes stints at the Nashville Banner, Radio & Records and Westwood One.