Music to Your Ears
Honky Tonk Hero
By Michael Henningsen
Anyone hoping for an in-depth page-turner of Texas country legend Billy Joe Shaver be warned: you're not going to find it here. Considering the life Shaver has led, the accomplishments he's achieved through raw perseverance, deep-seated faith and good ol' West Texas gumption, Honky Tonk Hero's 191 pages seems a paltry sum. Only 72 of those pages, however, contain any narrative, while the rest are dedicated to reprints of all Shaver's song lyrics.
There's little doubt that Shaver is telling his own story here. Scenes tend to leap out and fade away with lightening speed, and some of what begin as the most harrowing and heartbreaking parts of the book wind up getting glossed over, as if to tell the reader, These are painful stories I'd really rather not relive in great detail, which is an odd perspective from which to undertake one's autobiography. Ultimately, Honky Tonk Hero describes a Billy Joe Shaver who grew up a bruiser and a bully, and was only truly happy when he was writing songs or getting liquored up in roadhouses. True enough, as Shaver's fans already know. But where's the rest of the story? Who is the Billy Joe Shaver who wrote tender lines like "There's many a moonbeam got lost in the forest/And many a forest got burned to the ground/The son went with Jesus to be with his mother/The father just fell to his knees on the ground" to describe the tragic death of his son and musical partner Eddy Shaver? Both are questions the book barely addresses, much less answers.
But perhaps the case here is that the legend is simply too big to be crammed into a book of any size. And, after all, nearly every question worth asking about the life and times of Billy Joe Shaver can be found tucked away within the dusty, flatland poetry of his lyrics.
In that sense, the book is a triumph, but not what most readers will feel comfortable accepting as a true autobiography. But there's a good chance they'll be so busy leafing through the back half of the book, reading along while Shaver sings the classic American country tunes he's spent most of his life toiling over, they won't have time for any exhaustive play-by-play. Perhaps that book comes later, after the dust has finally settled once and for all.
Honky Tonk Hero by Billy Joe Shaver with Brad Reagan (University of Texas Press, hardcover, $19.95).
Ryan McGarvey • blues, guitar at Low Spirits
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