Twice in my life I’ve put my head in my hands and cried after learning that a singer-songwriter I loved had died. The first time was when Johnny Cash went to his reward and rejoined his beloved June. The second time was yesterday, when I read the news that Billy Joe Shaver had passed away at eighty-one years old.
I saw Billy Joe play only once, now well over a decade ago, at a small theater in Virginia. There was no opening act. Instead, his set was preceded by a screening of the documentary The Portrait of Billy Joe, which had just been released—an intimate, gut-wrenching look at the truest of all the Texas troubadours. The teaser for a profile of him published in Texas Monthly in 2003, not long before the documentary came out, gives a sense of the life that provided such abundant material for the filmmakers:
In his 64 years, the Corsicana native has been a cotton picker and a roughneck, a screwup and a scoundrel. He’s hit the bottle, hit rock bottom, and been born again. He married the same woman three times, mounted multiple comebacks, survived a heart attack onstage and the deaths of nearly everyone he’s ever loved. All of which explains why he’s one of the greatest songwriters in the world.
One of the details missing from this description is that, when he was a younger man, Billy Joe lost two fingers on his right hand during a stint working at a lumber mill. The accident meant that, while he sometimes strummed along as he sang, more often he set aside his guitar and performed his songs—flapping his arms, punching a fist into the air, using his entire body to convey the emotion behind them. The night I saw him, he made his way down from the stage after the show, wading into what remained of the crowd. And there he was, right in front of me. The only reaction I could muster was to stick out my hand and tell him that he was great. That instant, however, I knew I’d ventured into awkward territory—the hand I went to shake was the one with the missing fingers. He saw the look on my face, but didn’t flinch, grasping my hand and replying, “Thank you, that means so much.”
Many singers tell tales of drunks and addicts, cheaters and brawlers—many are those things. But their names will be forgotten while Billy Joe Shaver’s endures. What set him apart is that he never flinched, as an artist or as a man. He offered his wounds to listeners, just as he offered me his hand.