FRIDAY NIGHT CHURCH WITH BILLY JOE SHAVER:
A POET EXTROIDANAIRE
Dennis and Brenda Kippa
Brenda and I had not planned to travel to Ben Wheeler last Friday night to see Billy Joe Shaver, but a friend that we really admire practically lives and breathes Billy Joe. He would never dream of missing an opportunity to witness a performance. After awhile, such devotion becomes contagious, and we knew we needed to go, too. We had seen Shaver in June, at the Gladewater Rodeo Arena.. On that night, he shared billing with Ray Wylie Hubbard and Cody Canada and The Departed. While we enjoyed the whole evening, I can't say we came away as big fans of Billy Joe.
A call to the venue (Moore's Store, our favorite) revealed that advance ticket sales were somewhat disappointing, which was assumed to be because of Friday Night Football. However, at the appointed hour, we arrived to a rocking room full of folks who were keen on seeing Billy Joe. It was as close to a sellout you can get and still be comfortable in the room. We were seated by one of the large front windows, right in front of the stage, on the side where band members come and go. As the front band got halfway through their set, we noticed activity on the front porch. It was Billy Joe and his band, off-loading their gear. A moment later, a number of people got up from their tables and went out to greet Billy Joe. Lots of pictures were taken and many handshakes and hugs were shared. It looked like a very good friend was returning home, causing a big celebration. Brenda and I, along with others in our group, went out to the porch where I was amazed to be greeted by Billy Joe with a handshake that said to me “It's great to see you”. I felt sincere friendship that I didn't expect from an entertainer. This was my first clue that this evening was going to be very different than what I had expected.
I could jump all the way to the end and tell you that the show seemed different for Billy Joe, too, but I need to tell you the why of it.
Our friend had told me that every time he sees Billy Joe, the show is exactly the same. Right down to each gesture and the introduction for each song, it's always the same. Still, this friend will go on-line to see the show if too much time has passed since he's seen Billy Joe's show. Exactly what is the draw? What makes people like my friend want to see him again and again? It isn't the awesome beauty of his voice; it shows every bit of the wear you would expect after a long life and a lot of hard living.
When we saw him in June, there were too many distractions and the sound system wasn't the best for anyone who wanted to hear the lyrics. I remember hearing him say that he had quit drink and drugs in favor of his friendship with Jesus Christ, but most of his act seemed to still imitate the Outlaw Country image that he earned during the 1970s. At the time, I even questioned the truth of his claims; that's how convincing he was.
I am quick to overlook the fact that his act does not change. He's 74 now, so memorizing a show that works seems a prudent thing to do He has received so many awards and influenced so many new artists along the way that he can do whatever he wants. I can't begin to list all of the ways he has been recognized for his talents, but to offer a taste of it, I'll tell you that in 2006 he was inducted into the Texas Country Music Hall of Fame; and in 2007 he received the Lifetime Achievement Award for Songwriting from the Americana Music Association. Between 1973 and 2007, he released 23 albums. So you get the idea: he has earned the right to go onstage and be his own man. So... who is he?
As we stood on the porch at Moore's Store last Friday night, Dennis took a picture of me with Billy Joe Shaver. He seemed determined to speak to everyone who wanted to speak to him. In the short conversation I had with him, he told me about how he had loved his wife so much that he had married her three times, with Billy Gibbons (of ZZ Top fame) officiating each time. “We did better unmarried than we did married”, he said, “but I always loved that woman”. He was clearly enjoying himself, and I wondered if this kind of small-talk - that was really not small at all - was the true reason for his being here. I noticed that with each person, he found a reason to speak of Jesus Christ.
When he took the stage, we were finally able to understand the reason for everyone's devotion to this man. Yes, he sang “Honky Tonk Heroes”, “Wacko From Waco”, “Old Five And Dimers Like Me”, and the autobiographical “Georgia On a Fast Train”, and he swayed and brayed like the Original Old Outlaw Country Boy as he sang those songs. But it was in his delivery of “When Fallen Angels Fly”, “When I Get My Wings”, “Live Forever”, and “Lay Your Burdens Down” that everything became clear to me about why this man keeps on with his show. His introductions may be the same every time, but they tell of the death of his son in 2000, and of other painful losses in his life. Before his “I'm Just An Old Lump of Coal”, he explained that he wrote the song to beg for help in leaving his old ways behind. It was when he sang “Tramp On Your Street”, that my own tears could no longer be denied. That song brought me to the most painful event in my life.
Before you decide that the show must be too sad to be enjoyable, you need to know that this is the part where Billy Joe Shaver shines. He manages to keep his audience reminded about how precious life is, and how fun life is, and – most of all – how much Jesus Christ loves us all. He comes right out and talks about the troops who are putting their lives on the line for our freedoms, and asks the audience to take care of them when they come home. He talks about those who are in need because of drug or alcohol addiction. (“Help them; love them; feed them; but don't give them any money”).
More than once, my friend leaned over and said “This song isn't usually in the show”. More than once, Billy Joe asked the audience “Haven't you had enough yet?” When everyone shouted “No!”, he turned to the band and they decided what else to play. When he finally let the show come to it's end, he seemed grateful in a way I've never seen in a performer before. He hugged each band member, and then, as he came off-stage, he hugged me... and everyone else who wanted a hug.
Both Dennis and I wanted another word with him, but he was surrounded at the door, as any good preacher is, at the end of a very good sermon.
We aren't the only ones who appreciate the preacher in Billy Joe Shaver. In 2006, when running for governor of the state of Texas, Kinky Friedman appointed Shaver to the position of Spiritual Adviser for his campaign.