Billy Joe Shaver.
Freedom's Child CD cover.
Country singer-songwriter Billy Joe Shaver has lived through some hard times, but nothing compares to the past three years. His mother and wife died within a month of each other in 1999. His son Eddy — a guitarist who performed and recorded with Shaver — died in 2000. Then Shaver's own health problems culminated in a massive heart attack.
"I'd wanted to die up to that point because everything just broke my heart," Shaver tells NPR's Bob Edwards in a Morning Edition interview spiced with the musician's unsinkable sense of humor.
"I had a heart attack at the oldest Honky Tonk in Texas,"the 63-year-old musician says. "I figured, well, hey, this is a great place to die. It didn't work out," he jokes. Now after successful heart surgery, Shaver insists he feels better than ever.
Shaver grew up in Corsicana, Texas, and moved to Nashville in the late 1960s. While his own records haven't exactly topped the charts, Shaver had an undeniable influence on country music. Shaver penned most of the songs on Waylon Jennings' 1973 breakthrough album, Honky Tonk Heroes. His gutsy, often hard-nosed songs have been recorded by Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, Bob Dylan and Patty Loveless.
Songwriting is "a hobby with me and it's also the cheapest psychiatrist there is," he says. "I'm able to recall things, so I never run out. I've always been able to write."
When he was young, an English teacher encouraged Shaver to pursue his talent for poetry. "'Remember, whatever you do in life you can always fall back on this,'" Shaver remembers her telling him. "That's what happened."
His new album, Freedom's Child, features songs about his own personal losses ("Day By Day") as well as some patriotic songs (the title cut and "Good Ol' U.S.A."), though they were written before the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. "They just seem to fit this day and time, the futility of war and also the heroes that go and enlist and they volunteer and they know in the back of their mind that they could wind up in an unknown soldier's grave," Shaver explains.
Another song, "Drinking Back to You," was written during one of his separations from his late wife and childhood sweetheart. He ended up marrying her three times. "Very few women marry the same man three times," he says with a laugh. "I mean, that kinda made her the dumb-ass, not me."