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Odes to Billy Joe

Honky-tonk hero Shaver's life is celebrated with a tribute album and a '60 Minutes' story

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When you see musicians on 60 Minutes, by and large, they tend to be of the variety described as legendary--you know, Miles Davis, Tina Turner, Bob Dylan, Bono, Madonna. Believe it or not, when Texas singer-songwriter Billy Joe Shaver appeared on that august CBS newsmagazine earlier this month, he fit right in.

As Mike Wallace said during that report, Shaver is the "biggest country star you've never heard of."

The number of people who have heard of Shaver--also a celebrated memoirist and sometimes-film actor--more than likely pales in comparison to the number who have heard his music.

Revered among his fellow artists in the outlaw country genre for more than three decades, Shaver has written songs recorded by Dylan, Elvis, Johnny Cash, Bobby Bare, Willie Nelson, Johnny Rodriguez, Kris Kristofferson, Tom T. Hall, the Allman Brothers Band and Waylon Jennings. Indeed, Shaver penned most of the tunes on Jennings' 1973 milestone album Honky Tonk Heroes.

Shaver and his backup band are heading our way to play under the stars Saturday night at the Tucson Museum of Art. Respected local country-rock act Kevin Pakulis and Rancho Deluxe will open the show.

By the time we tracked Shaver down for a phone interview, he had just watched the 14-minute 60 Minutes piece about his life and his art--not a whole lot of separation there--after having spent the better part of a week trying to help a pal fix his truck.

"Darn old truck air conditioning," a mock-exasperated Shaver said from his home in Waco.

"Mike Wallace done it right," Shaver said of 60 Minutes. "He's a good man, and he loves music. I think he genuinely likes me."

Something of a renaissance man, Shaver's written his autobiography, Honky Tonk Hero, which was published this past March by the University of Texas Press. Shaver's done a little acting, too. Moviegoers may remember Shaver as the best friend of Robert Duvall's preacher character in Duvall's The Apostle.

"But I've been in, hmm, about three movies," Shaver pointed out.

"In Second Hand Lions, I played the one who sold them (aging bachelor brothers Duvall and Michael Caine) the biplane. And I'm going to be in The Wendell Baker Story, which was made by the Wilson Brothers. You know Owen and Luke and Andrew--they're good Texas boys and a lot of fun. Luke actually wrote and directed it. It's going to come out January, I think."

Duvall, by the way, has known Shaver for years--a condition that more often than not leads to everlasting friendship. In fact, Duvall's wife, Luciana Pedraza, directed Portrait of Billy Joe, a much-lauded 2004 documentary about Shaver's life.

On the phone--as he has done in the documentary, in his book and on 60 Minutes--Shaver did as he's always done, talking candidly about the hills and valleys of his storied life.

Born in 1939 in Corsicana, Texas, he's seen his share of trying times. His father abandoned the family before Shaver was born. He fought his way through troubles in school and in the military, and he lost 2 1/2 fingers in a sawmill accident. Shaver struggled for years in Nashville, juggling the usual alcohol and drug problems, before gaining attention in the music industry.

Times turned especially dark when he lost his mother, wife Brenda and son Eddy, a smokin' hot blues-rock guitarist, in the space of about a year during 1999 and 2000.

Under the name Shaver, junior and senior had been performing together for several years, yielding some excellent albums, including the critically acclaimed 1993 Tramp on Your Street. Eddy died from a heroin overdose on New Year's Eve 2000, before the release of his and his dad's The Earth Rolls On, a terrific album of redemption and salvation.

Shaver has been quoted as saying songwriting got him through tough times: "Writing songs is the cheapest psychiatrist there is."

And, no, he doesn't feel artists need to suffer for their art. Most people do anyway, he said.

"A lot of people have hard times and face obstacles. I don't feel I have been especially unique in that way."

Although Shaver is working on an album of new songs--tentatively titled The Real Deal, it is due out this September--his latest record in stores is A Tribute to Billy Joe Shaver: Live, which documents a concert held to celebrate his 65th birthday last August. Shaver performs a number of tunes on the disc, as do friends such as Robert Earl Keen, Guy Clark, Todd Snider, Dale Watson, Kelly Willis and Joe Ely.

After all he's been through, and all he plans on going through, Billy Joe Shaver has one secret for staying happy and engaged in life.

"I'm just happy to wake up to each new day and have Jesus in my heart. Any day you wake up alive, that's a good day."

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