I was not even born yet when my father first tried to kill me.
It was June and the evening light had started to fade, but it was
still hotter than nine kinds of hell. We were outside of Corsicana, a
little cotton town in northeast Texas, and I was in my mother's belly,
two months from entering the world.
Buddy Shaver was convinced that my mother, Victory, was cheating on
him. That was bullshit, and he probably knew it. But he'd been drinking.
My father was half-French, half-Blackfoot Sioux, and one-hundred-percent
mean. He drank a lot, and the booze didn't mix well with his Indian
blood. You know there are some guys who are just born naturally strong,
with big shoulders and a chiseled upper body even though they never work
a lick at it? That was my father, and my mother didn't have a chance.
It's just a story I've heard, told by family members who don't enjoy
the retelling. But I can see it as clearly as if I was there. They were
standing next to a small stock tank with black, still water. It was the
middle of nowhere, with no roads or houses in sight. Who knows what he
told her to get her out there, or whether she knew what was coming when
they stopped there? He held nothing back, yet his cold gray eyes showed
no emotion as he beat her within an inch of her life. When she was down,
he stomped her with his cowboy boots until she stopped struggling. Then
he tossed her limp body into the water like a sack of potatoes. Years
later, when I was a grown man, my momma couldn't stand to be around me
when I wore cowboy boots—she never could forget what they did to her
Momma laid there for hours until an old Mexican man showed up to
water his cattle. Even though he knew my kinfolk pretty well, he didn't
recognize her at first. He thought she was dead. But she spoke to him
through the bruises and the blood, and he threw her over the back of his
horse and carried her home.
The violence of that night set the stage for my childhood: It's the
reason my father left, it's the reason my mother didn't want me, and
it's the reason I went to live with my loving grandmother. In many ways,
I think that night is the reason I write country songs.
When you get right down to it, country music is essentially the
blues, and that night introduced me to the blues. In the years since
then, they've never left me. I've lost parts of three fingers, broke my
back, suffered a heart attack and a quadruple bypass, had a steel plate
put in my neck and 136 stitches in my head, fought drugs and booze,
spent the money I had, and buried my wife, son, and mother in the span
of one year.
But I'm not here to complain or ask for pity. Life is hard for
everybody, just in different ways. I'm not proud of my misfortune—I'm
proud of my survival. For years, my family kept a bundle of life
insurance on me because they were sure I would be the first to go. But
as I write this, at sixty-four years of age, I'm still here and they are
The question is—why? That's something I've been thinking about a lot
Throughout my career as a songwriter, I've just written songs about
me—the good and the bad, the funny and the sad. I've written songs about
other people, but I don't sing other people's songs. They're just little
poems about my life, and I've never pretended they were anything more.
Despite all my ups and downs, I've never been to therapy or rehab or any
of that stuff. The songs are my therapy.
But after my shows, people always come up to me and thank me for
writing those songs. They tell me about their lives, and how a song of
mine helped them through a tough patch or made them smile during a
difficult time. Sometimes they say I inspired them—that if I can make it
through my life, they can damn sure get through theirs. When we're done
talking, I give them a hug and tell them I love them. I know exactly
where they are coming from.
My point is, it's truly a miracle I survived that night by that stock
tank, and I don't mean that the way most people say it—like it's a lucky
break. I think God allowed me to live. He wanted me to tell my story.
Praise be songs of sin and salvation
"(c) The Globe and Mail 2002, All Rights Reserved"
Outside the walls of church or school, the first time music met God in
was in the back of a station wagon one night, driving from somewhere to
somewhere. My cousins already had said the rosary by the dashboard
spooky enough experience for a visitor from a far-less-observant family.
then came the Johnny Cash eight-track.
I don't know what album it was, but it had A Boy Named Sue and a lot of
I'd never heard Cash before, and felt like we'd tuned in some
fire-and-brimstone preacher: Since when were hymns entertainment? It
like cultish indoctrination, and a cruel letdown from my Toronto
they were supposed to show me urban sophistication, and this was what I
Sometime on that same trip, I knuckled under and went to confession at
cousins' church; the priest cursed me out violently for not making my
me to mass more often, and my already rocky relationship with
in bitter divorce.
From then on, the only religious references I allowed in my music were
partly blasphemous -- Jim Carroll's heroin-shooting altar boy was a
and I loved to hear Patti Smith sing, "Jesus died for somebody's
sins/ but not
mine." Leonard Cohen got a pass (his Christ-besotted Zen Judaism
anybody's orthodoxy) and Jesus Christ Superstar held a perverse
But that was about it.
Adulthood brought a few encounters with Bible-thumping musicians, most
memorably New York free-jazz giant Charles Gayle screeching out
against abortion between sax solos. But I would skip over the gospel
Al Green albums. I learned to appreciate Johnny Cash, but his
continued to give me the wig, as did Bob Dylan's gospel phase.
Today, God, in all his or her or their forms, still strikes me as one of
most wanton bogeymen the human imagination ever loosed on the world. But
to admit that half the world's great music has come out of the mystic.
Billy Joe Shaver in Missouri in June was the last straw for my gospel
Shaver, who hails from no less a faith-plagued locale than Waco, Tex.,
his 6-foot, 63-year-old self up on stage to play the most moving set of
music I've ever heard. Through cussedness and bad luck, Shaver has never
achieved the fame of some of his friends, but when he takes the stage he
all the force of legend -- as Torontonians will witness at his first
in eight years, on Wednesday at Hugh's Room (2261 Dundas St. W, 8 p.m.,
He played the classics he wrote for everyone from the late Waylon
(whose 1973 disc of Shaver songs, Honky Tonk Heroes, was the Rosetta
the "outlaw country" movement) to the Allman Brothers, Bob
Presley, George Jones, Jerry Lee Lewis, Kris Kristofferson, Willie
Billy Paul, Scott Walker, and Dylan and Cash themselves. He sang lines
"The devil made me do it the first time/ The second time I did it
on my own,"
and "I'm just an old lump of coal, but I'm gonna be a diamond one
He did material from The Earth Rolls On, his great album with his only
Eddy on guitar, recorded after Shaver's mother and wife died within a
each other in 1999. And he previewed some of Freedom's Child, his first
recording since Eddy died of a heroin overdose on New Year's Eve, 2000.
Meanwhile, Shaver has undergone back surgery, had a heart attack on
year and ended up having a quadruple bypass.
Songwriting is a profession Shaver has said he "fell back on"
two fingers on his right hand in a sawmill accident at 28, and after
a bronco buster, Navy man, roofer, boozer and brawler.
His father abandoned Shaver's honky-tonk-waitress mother, and Shaver
divorced Eddy's mother Brenda twice and married her three times (first
was 17, and last while she was dying of cancer).
This is a man whose life was a country song already, and he makes the
it in tunes such as I've Been to Georgia on a Fast Train ("I've got
Christian raisin'/ And an 8th-grade education/ I don't need y'all to
So when he gently, humbly mentioned on stage that he owed it all to
who he's said came to him when he was drugging, drinking and cheating,
pulled him back from the lip of a cliff where he was about to jump --
could think was, "Whatever gets that man through the day is fine by
My world already had been rocked that weekend by the electric gospel of
Steel" guitarist Calvin Cooke, but I could chalk that up to sonics.
impressed me was the unassuming character of Shaver's creed: You might
your own beliefs, but Jesus works best for him. Who could object?
When a rural Texas cowboy poet sings of sin and salvation, it's as
potent as the great Pakistani quallah singer Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan
transcendent love songs to Allah. And not necessarily a campaign for
Sometimes, we squeamish secularists are the ones who need to learn to
"There's many a moonbeam got lost in the forest," Shaver sings
on his stunning
new family saga, Day By Day. "And many a forest got burnt to the
son went with Jesus to be with his mother/ The father just fell to his
I hope I never get that deep into the woods. The point is that Shaver
like Cash) found his way out, not which light he travelled by. And when
songs he's brought back run so deep and ring so true, you can't help
give thanks and praise.