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Listen Up: Billy Joe Shaver, the Oldest Living Punk in America

December 14, 2009  |  8:00am
Listen Up: Billy Joe Shaver, the Oldest Living Punk in America

Eddie’s Attic isn’t exactly the kind of place you’d ever expect to see a punk show, but I think I might have done just that a couple of weeks ago.

The place is just down the street from where I live in Decatur, Ga. and my dad had been wanting to come down from Tennessee to see a concert there for a while. When he saw that Billy Joe Shaver was on the schedule for early December, he decided to come down in the middle of the week just for the occasion. I’d been vaguely familiar with Shaver for a while just because my dad has always liked him so much, but I wasn’t totally sure why it was worth it for him to take a day off work and drive over a hundred miles down here and sleep on a tiny crappy air-mattress on my floor just to see this guy play, especially since he’d seen him just a couple of months ago in Chattanooga.

But he’s my dad and he was buying my ticket and my dinner (hi, Dad! I know you’re reading this and right about now probably laughing so hard that that one vein in your forehead is bulging so hard Mom and Sarah think it’s gonna burst!) and I love him (hi, Dad! now you’re probably crying!) so I decided not to ask too many questions.

At Eddie’s, we sidled up to the bar and ordered dinner (side note: the taco plate is excellent but any grown men interested in ordering the chicken quesadilla should be warned that it’s about the size of a silver dollar—Dad learned the hard way) and as we waited I scanned the room and realized I had single-handedly brought the average age of the crowd down by about fifteen years. I’m pretty sure I was the youngest one there. This is the reputation Eddie’s has among a lot of people in Decatur and Atlanta, I think—that it’s for old folks—but the previous two shows I’d been to there (Jill Andrews a couple weeks ago, Joshua James a bit before that) had actually been weirdly kind of hip. Kind of like a show at The Earl but, as per the venue’s pre-show admonitions, with less talking. But when we went for Shaver, it was a whole different crowd: Most were in in button-downs and dress-pants from having just gotten off work, though there were few biker-looking guys congregated in the corner.

And then there were the couple of folks who walked in wearing Billy Joe Shaver t-shirts, featuring the man’s signature hand-print, which is missing the better half of two fingers. Shaver’s pushing 70 these days and he’s had tough, tough life, which I knew little of when the evening began but soon got a pretty good idea of: He was married and remarried to the same woman several times over several decades, but she died a few years ago within twelve months of their one son, who used to play in his dad’s band, overdosing on heroin. Shaver lost those two fingers in a lumber mill accident when he was much younger, and had to re-teach himself to play guitar. He also shot a man in the face outside a bar in Texas two years ago, which I already knew, because that’s just the kind of thing you Already Know.

Any one of those things would make for a pretty tough run, but all together they—combined with the fact that Shaver’s a killer songwriter, though cruelly unheralded throughout his whole career—make him one hell of a badass.

Over our tacos (and what we later dubbed The Tiniest Quesadilla Ever Served To Man) my dad gave me an idea of what we were in for. I don’t remember his exact description but it involved the phrases “kinda raunchy” and “part tent-revival.” And when Shaver and his band finally took the stage after an opening set from Ken Wil Morton (who is, let’s just say, not quite one hell of a badass), that’s pretty much what we got. He’d swing his hips and hoot and holler and play “That’s What She Said Last Night” (which contains lines like “Billy, I know you’re attached to that thing, but it’s too small for me” and predates The Office’s eternal punchline by several years) then get real somber, take off his hat and play “When the Fallen Angels Fly” (which Patty Loveless made famous, but which he wrote). That sounds a little erratic but never seemed so at the time—maybe it’s just a country music thing that lets dirty jokes and lying and cheating coexist right along side praying to Jesus and staring death right in the eye.

He’d probably hate to hear it but there’s something kind of adorable about Billy Joe Shaver—he’s spry and a bit grandfatherly, and (as mentioned) things come out of his mouth that you just do not expect to be spoken by a septuagenarian. He grins like a schoolboy with a secret and dances like a marionette, all jerky movements and sharp angles, and he kept doffing his brown leather cowboy hat to reveal a shock of white hair that looked like stray cotton batting stuck up on his weathered head. And he had this great band with him, all guys that could easily be his sons or grandsons, including an upright bass player with a rockabilly pompadour and an electric guitar player that looked scarcely old enough to be out on a school night, let alone on tour. “He looks fourteen!” I hissed at my dad as the band took the stage. A few songs later, I was corrected: Shaver introduced the little guy, whose name I’ve forgotten, but not that he was, in fact, fifteen years old.

So I wasn’t the youngest one there after all. Not that it even mattered: Turns out, Shaver played with more raw spunk and gusto than most young bands I’ve seen recently, and the crowd there to see him chattered on more during the set than any other show I’ve ever seen at Eddie’s. But they clapped more, too, and hooted and hollered right back at the man on stage. Most people would probably give a guy his age, and with his history, a free pass—they wouldn’t expect him to tour the country, get up on stage every night, pour his heart out, make people laugh and cry and scream and clap like he does. After making more than twenty records and having his songs covered by some of the greats of country music—Johnny Cash, Steve Earle, Waylon Jennings—the world would probably forgive Shaver if he just wanted to stay home with his dogs or his cats or his pet komodo dragon (dunno if he has one, but if anyone would, seems like it’d be him) and take it easy until it’s time for him to shuffle off this mortal coil.

For reasons unrelated, I’ve been thinking a lot about punk rock lately, what it used to mean and what it means today. Most people probably associate it with safety-pins-as-facial piercings, shredded tartans and a vague, “fight the man” sensibility that sounds good on stage but doesn’t so much pan out in the world, but it never really was like that. It was about these musicians forging their own way, grating up against a music industry and a world that thought in terms of dollar signs and seemingly only spoke words like “no” and “can’t.” It was just about getting up on stage and doing it, doing whatever it was, spilling your heart and blood and sweat without any thought to being known or making money or even making fans. There was a purity, an urgent essentialness, to early punk music that doesn’t exist very widely today, even among the acts that have come in punk’s wake, that have benefited directly or indirectly from its unwitting largess.

There’s a real reckless abandon to punk, too, a sense of immortality. And so given all this, it’s hard for me to hear Billy Joe Shaver sing his song “Live Forever” and not think, my God, this man is the oldest living punk in America. He’s singing about going to Heaven, but there’s still the sense that maybe he never will die, maybe he’s just bold and brave and stupid enough to grate up against the one biggest “no” in the world, always daring death to make the next move. Seems like he’s been doing that most of his life, anyway. It’s like he knows, like punk knew, that he’s keeping some vital balance in check, that the world is better with him in it.

At Eddie’s, he didn’t play an encore. The band played the last song and he waved and thanked us all, and they shuffled off stage, and the crowd spilled out the doors and into the cold December air, my dad and I with them. I felt like I hadn’t felt in a while, like I was very, very young. We went back to my apartment and my dad slept on a tiny crappy air-mattress on the floor and in the morning he drove the hundred-something miles back home.

Just to see this guy play.

And it was worth it.

Rachael Maddux is Paste’s assistant editor. Her column appears at PasteMagazine.com every Monday.

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