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Rolling alone

Billy Joe Shaver copes with loss through his music


Note: On Saturday, Aug. 25, Billy Joe Shaver suffered a heart attack during a performance in Texas. He finished the show, and when he received treatment it was determined he had four blocked arteries. At press time, Shaver was scheduled for surgery. All upcoming performances, including the one scheduled for Saturday at the Harvest Moon Bluesfest in Winder, have been cancelled until further notice.

The painful events singer/songwriter Billy Joe Shaver has faced in the last few years would test the will of Job, but in spite of it all Shaver continues his pilgrimage, fueled by his faith and his commitment to honor the memory of his lost loved ones.

On Dec. 31, Eddy Shaver passed away from a reported drug overdose. He was Billy Joe's only child and bandmate for many years. Together they had created the signature "Shaver" sound, described by Shaver himself as "a blues-rock outfit with a hillbilly singer." Eddy's death came a little more than a year after Billy Joe lost his mother and his wife (Eddy's mother) within a month of each other.

The passing of his wife and Eddy's ongoing substance abuse problems were the source of much of the material for Shaver's most recent album on New West Records, The Earth Rolls On. There is a disturbing irony in many of the lyrics, as the songs written in memory of Shaver's wife take on an added meaning in light of Eddy's passing, and the songs written about Eddy are almost prophetic in their sense of impending doom. The album was released about four months after Eddy's death, which makes the loss even more painful for Shaver.

"It's not easy," Shaver says in a recent interview from his home in Waco, Texas. "I live in the same home, and there is so much that reminds me of him. Sometimes I wake up in the middle of the night, and I don't know what to do."

Dealing with so much loss in such a short period of time can seem almost insurmountable, but Shaver has a strong source of comfort. "I'm a Christian, and I just keep telling myself that Eddy got a better gig."

Another thing Shaver has done to cope is to keep himself as busy as possible by touring to support the new album, but it's purely a labor of love. "I'm doing this for Eddy. I don't want anyone saying that I didn't give this project 100 percent, so I am giving it everything I got," he says.

Joined on lead guitar by Austin legend Jessie "Guitar" Taylor for the present tour, Shaver finds consolation on stage. "It's comforting to play, and I feel like Eddy is in me. The shows have been great, and it's always fun to play. ... Jessie is fantastic, and plays a lot of blues stuff like Eddy did."

The rest of the band consists of Tall Tom on drums, David Carroll on bass and Bob Brown on a variety of other instruments. They originally focused almost exclusively on songs from the new record, but as time passed Shaver was able to reintroduce some of the songs he and Eddy performed together for years.

Shaver's career has been wrought with peaks and valleys, ranging from the honor of having Waylon Jennings record almost an entire album of Shaver tunes, to the sad fact that many of the record labels he has worked with folded following the release of one of his 12 albums. Shaver acknowledges all this with a chuckle.

"I love Waylon," he laughs, "but I fought with him all the way on that Honky Tonk Heroes album. I thought he was changing my melodies too much. Waylon used to say to me, 'Hoss, I love your music, but I don't like you worth a damn!' We are great friends now, though."

Shaver is quite stoic about the label woes, and is quick to point out that almost everything he's recorded has been reissued. He's especially proud of Lucky Dog Records putting out Salt of the Earth again, an album Shaver says he did in "a couple of days" and is one of his favorites.

As he reflects on the tragic circumstances of the recent past, Shaver admits to a firsthand knowledge of substance abuse problems in the music business. "A lot of folks in this business drink and get high out of frustration. It's rough on real people, and a tough thing to deal with."

Shaver managed to overcome his own demons a while ago, and his openness about it has reaped some rewards. A few years ago, he was given the part of Robert Duvall's best friend in the film The Apostle. Shaver recalls, "Bobby [Duvall] and I met when he was making Lonesome Dove around Austin a while ago, and when he started making The Apostle, he asked me to audition for a part. I was supposed to play an ex-drunk ... that was me." He laughs. "The best advice Bobby gave me was to try not to act, so it was pretty easy."

Grief tends to fade as time passes, and Shaver is doing the best he can to survive. Shaver's close friend Willie Nelson has been there for him, and can share the incredible sense of loss, since Nelson lost his son to suicide several years ago.

So as "the earth rolls on," Billy Joe Shaver keeps playing music and finding solace in the good word. "I read the Bible every day, and I learn something from it every day. There's nothing in there to hurt you. Sometimes I read it out loud to my two dogs, although they don't always pay attention. But there is nobody else there to listen."

Billy Joe Shaver's performance at the Harvest Moon Blues Festival has been cancelled due to medical emergency.

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