Billy Joe Shaver is a living legend. He’s left a decades-long imprint on Texas music, from his songwriting on Waylon Jennings’s 1973 Honky Tonk Heroes to his perseverance and continued recording after the loss of wife Brenda and son Eddy in 1999. Shaver has always written his life story into his songs. Now he’s fleshing out his legacy with Honky Tonk Hero from UT Press.
The first half of Honky Tonk Hero is the memoir section. At 72 pages, it is a brief chronicle that presents little new information for those already familiar with Shaver’s life and work. But written in Billy Joe’s engaging voice, it still manages to captivate even when covering familiar territory.
Shaver is a natural songwriter. Like one-time contemporary Townes Van Zandt, he views each lyric as an artistic creation. “To me, the song is poetry. That’s all it is. It’s the way I describe the world around me, make sense of it. … I believe my songs will live long after I’m gone.”
Since Shaver’s songs have been so openly autobiographical, it’s fitting that lyrics comprise the second half of Honky Tonk Hero. Every song penned by Billy Joe and included on recordings from 1973 to 2002 is represented. Preceding the lyrics is a handy index that divides the songs into albums.
At 65, Billy Joe Shaver has already been the subject of a feature-length documentary and recipient of the American Music Association’s Lifetime Achievement Award. And now he’s written his autobiography. But that doesn’t mean that he’s content to ride out his remaining years.
In addition to his usual heavy touring schedule, this year Shaver has been featured on “60 Minutes II” in an interview with fellow Texan Dan Rather, released a compilation CD from his star-studded 65th birthday party last summer in Austin, and then released a new full-length album, The Real Deal. And throughout it all he is serving as “spiritual advisor” to Kinky Friedman’s gubernatorial campaign.
With so much living left to do, perhaps Honky Tonk Hero will be only the first installment in Billy Joe Shaver’s life story.