John Sieger
Sieger on Songs

The Greatest Outlaw Country Artist

Georgia On A Fast Train exemplifies Billy Joe Shaver's deep and nutty lyrics.

By - Sep 15th, 2016 03:47 pm
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Billy Joe Shaver. Photo from Facebook.

Billy Joe Shaver. Photo from Facebook.

If music was simply about skills and you could grade everyone on how well they play, sing and write, Billy Joe Shaver would come in close to dead last. He has an excuse for his somewhat pathetic guitar skills, he’s missing the index and middle fingers on his strumming hand. He could claim old age and infirmity as an excuse for his rattly, scratchy out-of-tune singing. I saw him celebrate his 77th birthday by showing up late at Shank Hall. He had an excuse for that, too — they had left Waco that morning. This guy, who could best be described as human tumbleweed blowing here and there with no discernible pattern, might just be the greatest Outlaw Country Artist on the planet. Certainly in Texas and that state pretty much owns them all.

The Shank Hall show began with a roar when he strolled in long after the opening had packed up. As the band set up behind him, he pulled out his guitar and began mumbling into a dead microphone. He didn’t seem to be aware no one could hear him. When the soundman finally got his guitar up, it was not the greatest sound. Eventually things fell together and you could hear him. The band eventually they caught up. He sang somewhere in Keith Richard’s boozy neighborhood, maybe not as in tune. Unlike Keef, Billy Joe is a teetotaller and born again, solid as a rock Christian man. He also shot a guy.

Half his time was spent with talking — one thing he does really well. His long shaggy dog story about a bar fight gone bad was a classic. It winds up in the back of the club with some varmint either shooting at him (the story at Shank), or threatening him with a knife. Billy Joe’s shot the guy in the mouth and sped off in his truck. It wasn’t fatal but easily could have been. These couple lines from Wikipedia could have been pulled from a Cormac McCarthy novel: “Shaver said that he shot Coker because he was “Such a bully” and that “I hit him right between a mother and a fucker. That was the end of that. He dropped his weapons and said, ‘I’m sorry.’ And I said, ‘Well, if you had said that inside, there would have been no problem.’ “

I am rabidly anti-gun, and not terribly religious, so why was I charmed by this outrageous tale? There is something in his loose and somewhat goofy charisma that has probably allowed a lot of people to forgive him. His shaky skills are balanced out by a gift for rough poetry on the lyric side. They’re both deep and nutty, like the world he seems to inhabit. My favorite that night, “Georgia On A Fast Train,” is a good example:

On a rainy, windy morning that’s the day that I was born on
In the old sharecroppers one room country shack
They say my mammy left me, same day that she had me
Said she hit the road and never once looked back

And I just thought I’d mention, my Grandma’s old age pension
Is the reason why I’m standing here today
I got all my country learning, living and a churning
Pickin’ cotton, rasin’ hell, and bailin’ hay

I’ve been to Georgia on a fast train honey
I wudn’t born no yestday
Got a good Christian raisin’ and an eighth grade education
Ain’t no need in y’all a treatin’ me this way

And now sweet Caroline, I don’t guess I’ll ever find
Another woman put together like you all
With your wiggle and your walkin’, and your big city talkin’
Your brand new shiny Plymouth rag-top car

Yeah it’s hurry up and wait, in this world of give and take
Seems like haste makes for waste every time
And I pray to my soul, when you hear those ages roll
You better know I’m gonna get my share of mine

I’ve been to Georgia on a fast train honey
I wudn’t born no yestday
Got a good Christian raisin’ and an eighth grade education
Ain’t no need in y’all a treatin’ me this way

I’ve been to Georgia on a fast train honey
I wudn’t born no yestday
Got a good Christian raisin’ and an eighth grade education
Ain’t no need in y’all a treatin’ me this way
Ain’t no need in y’all a treatin’ me this way

© Billy Joe Shaver

The chorus, with its misspelling, sounds like hillbilly Elmore Leonard mixed with Mark Twain. Either would have loved to claim “I wudn’t born no yestday.” The myth making is mostly based in fact. He left school after 8th grade — but it was his father who deserted. I like a man that has the sense to avoid code-of-the-cool cliches like Chevies and Fords, choosing the more obscure Plymouth ragtop. It tells me he’s not desperate to be loved.

Legend that he is, Shave never rose to the top like Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings or Johnny Cash. Of course all those guys adored him, but being erratic and maybe just slightly crazy, he operated one notch lower. Not a bad place to be. He endured the death of his son from a heroin overdose about a year after his wife passed away in 1999. That may have sent him back to church. But you get the feeling in his world Jesus and the occasional redneck with a gun sometimes happen on the same day. That’s when it really gets interesting.

2 thoughts on “Sieger on Songs: The Greatest Outlaw Country Artist”

  1. Thanks for writing about Billy Joe. I discovered him in the outlaw days when I was following Waylon and Willie around and trying to get Bill Camplin to listen to them. Waylon did a few Shaver tunes over the years so Billy Joe certainly reaped some rewards from the top echelon. But I lost track of all of them after awhile. Glad to know he’s still at it.

  2. Christina Zawadiwsky says:

    Great image, a human tumbleweed! Wish I had been at this show at Shank Hall! Interesting lyrics!

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