BELLOWS FALLS -- Honky-tonk hero and pioneer of the "Outlaw Country" movement Billy Joe Shaver performs at the Bellows Falls Opera House on Sunday, Dec. 2, at 5 p.m.
Shaver is the real deal. Outlaw Country pioneer, he has written some of the most towering songs in the last half-century of country music. He sings deeply felt songs about salvation and repentence one moment and slings off a line about "The devil made me do it the first time, but the second time I done it on my own" the next.
Abandoned by his parents in infancy ("my father was half-French, half-Blackfoot Sioux, and one-hundred-percent mean"), raised by his grandmother, as a boy he fell in love with music after a seeing a Hank Williams show in Corsicana, Texas. He left school after the eighth grade to pick cotton, joined the Navy at 17, worked as a rodeo cowboy, then as a roofer, and, at age 28 got a job in a sawmill. One day, his hand slipped and he lost parts of three fingers.
"Well, that’s that," he recalls thinking on the way to the hospital, "I never did learn to play guitar."
But it was after that that he did learn to play, then to start writing songs. The Allman Brothers, David Alan Coe, Elvis Presley, George Jones, Jerry Lee Lewis, Kris Kristofferson, Willie Nelson and Johnny Cash are just a few of those who have made those songs, such as "Old Five and Dimers," "I’m Just an Old Chunk of Coal (But I’m Going to be a Diamond Some Day)" and "Willie The Wandering Gypsy and Me" their own. Waylon Jennings’ breakthrough "Honky Tonk Heroes" was entirely composed of Shaver songs.
"Country music is essentially the blues," he has written, "And the blues have never left me. I’ve lost parts of 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." And in 2010 he was acquitted for shooting a man in a Waco, Texas, barroom brawl (Willie Nelson watched the trial from the visitors’ gallery). That night he played a scheduled show.
"My songs are just little poems about my life, and I’ve never pretended they were anything more," says Shaver. "But after my shows, people always come up to me and thank me for writing those songs. 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."
At age 73, Billy Joe Shaver still puts on a show that’d be the envy of a performer half his age.
Doors to the Bellows Falls Opera House open at 4 p.m. Premium seating (first three rows center) is $35, general admission is $25, in advance. A limited number of VIP Packages are also available. These include premium seating, VIP "green room" with free food and beverages, band meet and greet, merchandise, backstage and after party passes. Details are at brattleborotix.com. Tickets are also available at PK’s Pub in Bellows Falls.