LOS ANGELES — He may seem like the unlikeliest of movie stars, but Billy Joe Shaver is apparently just what Hollywood is looking for.
The legendary singer-songwriter — who has penned tunes for everyone from Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings to Bob Dylan and Elvis Presley — has been in front of the camera recently for two projects. He starred with buddies Kris Kristofferson and Harry Dean Stanton in The Wendell Baker Story, a film written and co-directed by Hollywood hottie Luke Wilson. And Shaver stars as, well, himself in The Portrait of Billy Joe, a documentary directed by Luciana Pedraza, longtime girlfriend of Oscar-winning actor Robert Duvall.
On a rare rainy afternoon in Los Angeles, Shaver gathered with Wilson, Duvall and Pedraza at the Gibson Guitar Showcase in Beverly Hills to talk to CMT News about their recent collaborations. Shaver said he was surprised when Pedraza approached him about doing the documentary.
“I didn’t think anybody actually knew I was worth messing with, but she did,” Shaver said with a chuckle. “I give her a lot of credit. She really honed in on it and went all over Texas.”
Pedraza, who grew up in Argentina, met Shaver when Duvall cast him in his 1997 film The Apostle.
“I’d seen him play when I was doing [TV movie] Lonesome Dove down in Austin and met him briefly,” Duvall said. “So I sent him the script, and he sent a tape back. He was so natural, like he’d been doing it all his life. Not all country singers make good actors, but he has something special.”
At The Apostle cast party, Shaver played “The First and Last Time,” a song about his late wife, Brenda, whom he married three times. Pedraza was enthralled with his raw emotion and mystery. And though she had never made a film, she was compelled to pick up a camera.
“I was just moved immensely by him,” she said. “I thought, ‘What else is behind this song? What man would write something like this?’”
Unlike many documentaries, The Portrait of Billy Joe does not rely on a variety of interviews and voices to tell the story. Pedraza did track down 102-year-old Mabel Legg, a teacher who encouraged a teenaged Shaver’s budding writing talent (sadly, Legg died shortly after she was interviewed). But besides Legg, Pedraza focused squarely on Shaver, letting him tell his own story — one that is full of heartbreak. He is candid about his drug and alcohol abuse, calling himself “The King of Sinners” in one scene during a visit to a rural church. He is also gut-wrenchingly raw when standing in his kitchen talking about his late wife and son. Brenda Tindell Shaver lost her two-year battle with cancer in 1999. Guitar whiz and bandmate Eddy Shaver died at 38 from a drug overdose on New Year’s Eve 2000. Billy Joe also lost his mother during that same year period.
“Usually when you see someone mistreated in life, they can get mean,” Pedraza said. “But Billy Joe is such a kind man, so generous. You don’t find people like that every day, and that’s pretty much what I tried to tell in this documentary — that people shouldn’t give up.”
Shaver credits his re-born Christian faith for getting him through that tough year. Talking about the dark times on camera was a kind of therapy.
“It was hard in a way, but in a way it wasn’t because I knew it would eternally be out, and it would be documented and over,” he said. “I hope [the audience] sees a lot of themselves in it because I’m like a whole lot of people. I may not be on the charts, but when people hear my songs, they understand them.”
Wilson, a fellow Texan and traditional country fan, had heard Shaver’s music growing up in Dallas, but he didn’t make the connection when he saw the singer in The Apostle.
“I thought, ‘Who is that guy?’ He was so good and had so much quiet charisma to me,” Wilson said. “When I found out it was Billy Joe, I had dinner with him one time in Austin. He’s just somebody I’m so interested in, and it’s been nice to get to know him.”
Wilson — who also appears in The Wendell Baker Story along with his brother, current Starsky & Hutch star Owen Wilson — says he knew Shaver would be perfect for the part of Reverend Shackleton, a resident in a retirement home that Wilson’s character operates after being released from prison.
“Billy Joe’s got a knack for getting a point across or getting the feeling of the scene across,” Wilson explained. “We made his character bigger and bigger and had him around more just because he did such a good job.”
Wilson also said he drew inspiration from Shaver’s salt-of-the-earth persona, something he doesn’t see a lot in Hollywood, where he now lives.
“When I’m around him, it really makes me think about being a good, strong person,” he said. “There’s just no bitterness there. There’s real strength and humor. I just look up to him.”
And Wilson hopes the film will introduce some in the audience to Shaver’s timeless music. One scene includes Shaver’s character singing the classic tune “Live Forever.”
“I really think of him as a poet,” Wilson said. “I’ve gone back and found earlier albums like Tramp on Your Street or Old Five & Dimers or more recent ones like Victory, and I’ve played them for people, and it’s funny to see them be like, ‘Wow, who is this guy?’ I so rarely do that because I figure my tastes are my own, but whenever I give somebody one of his albums, they always love it.”
The Wendell Baker Story is now in edit and could be released this fall. Pedraza’s documentary, The Portrait of Billy Joe, made its debut Saturday (March 13) at the South by Southwest Film Festival in Austin. It will also be screened at the Nashville Film Festival in April.
Whether Shaver will continue to grow his acting resume remains to be seen. Both Wilson and Duvall say he’s got the chops. Shaver says acting is “a whole lot easier” than making music, but music is still his first love. The muse is still with him.
“I’ll bop ’til I drop I guess,” Shaver said with a laugh. “We’re still driving a van and pulling a U-Haul trailer, but everybody enjoys listening to us, and we enjoy playing for them.”