Waco-born, Corsicana-raised Billy Joe Shaver is the quintessential unsung hero of American music; a sorely overlooked contributor to its formidable canon. Even though artists from Waylon Jennings and David Allen Coe to Willie Nelson and the Allman Brothers have enjoyed success on the coattails of the songs he began writing some four decades ago, Shaver remains on the periphery. In 1993, his luck began to change with the release of his first solo foray in several years, Tramp On Your Street (Zoo). The release two years later of Unshaven: Shaver Live at Smith's Olde Bar (Zoo) very nearly catapulted him to the forefront of country music, Texas-style. But, arguably, it was the stunning guitar work of his only son Eddy that made the elder Shaver remarkable to the ears of listeners, despite the fact that his gritty songwriting over the past 50 years or so makes him eligible for any Hall of Fame in existence.
But Eddy's tragic passing on New Year's Eve, 2000, cast some doubt on the elder Shaver's future; doubt that the patriarch of the Shaver name would find the strength to carry on. Within the following year and a half, Shaver would also bury his on-again, off-again wife, the mother of his son.
But like any country songwriter worth his silver-buckled razor-strap belt, Shaver soldiered on, turning heartbreak and his own bent-kneed messianic pleas to the God that has seemingly so often used him as a whipping post, into more of what can truly be described as some of the most compelling, timeless American songs ever written. Just take a listen to 2001's The Earth Rolls On or 2003's Freedom's Child for proof.
Finally, after 50 years of losing fingers, loved ones, royalties and occasionally his health, the legend of Billy Joe Shaver is getting at least some of the recognition the man has deserved since he first put pen to paper. This year alone has seen the release of a long-awaited tribute album, as well as a live recording waxed a couple of years ago at Shaver's 65th birthday bash and the publication of Honky Tonk Hero, his autobiography.
If you see one country artist this year, it ought to be Billy Joe Shaver for more reasons than I could possibly put on paper.