Shaver finally applauded for singing others' hits which he wrote

May 06, 1994|By J. D. Considine | J. D. Considine,Sun Pop Music Critic

Billy Joe Shaver has spent more than 20 years as one of country music's great unknowns.

As a songwriter, he's had tremendous success. Over the years, Shaver churned out such classics as John Anderson's breakthrough smash, "I'm Just an Old Chunk of Coal (But I'm Gonna Be a Diamond Some Day)"; the Tom T. Hall hit "Old Five and Dimers"; and "Ride Me Down Easy," which was a chart-topper for Bobby Bare.

But his influence is even greater than his compositional achievement suggests. His work was the cornerstone of country's Outlaw movement -- Waylon Jennings' landmark "Honky Tonk Heroes" album consisted almost entirely of Shaver's songs -- and his tough, Texas approach to the music presaged much of today's country sound.

Trouble was, nobody outside of country music's inner circle knew who Shaver was until recently. Needless to say, that made it hard for him to get the credit he deserved.

"People would come up to me and say, 'Boy, you sure do that Tom T. Hall song just as good as he does.' And it'd be one of my songs," he says, over the phone from a tour stop in Alexandria, Va. "When it first started happening with me, I'd usually get my feelings hurt and go off and get drunk. But now I don't. I just say, 'Thank you.'

"But that must have been about three years ago," he adds.

"Now, they don't say that. They know about me writing these songs now. It just finally got around to people knowing what I've done."

Well, most of the time, anyway. "Last night, we played 'Old Chunk of Coal,' and the owner of the place said, 'I didn't know you wrote that song.' I guess I ought to put out an album of stuff that I've written," says Shaver, laughing. "Maybe name it, 'I Didn't Know He Wrote That.' "

What finally changed things? Obviously, some of it has to do with the critical acclaim Shaver garnered for his latest album, "Tramp On Your Street," and some with the success of his current single, "Georgia on a Fast Train." Mostly, though, it was a matter of persistence -- his.

"All I did was kept writing songs and playing," says Shaver. "I've had the same bass player for the last five, six years now, and Eddy, my son, has been playing with me since he was about 14.

"We just kept on playing. Of course, we were trying to get a deal with somebody, but nobody would bite."

Ironically, part of the problem was that he was too far ahead of the times. His last album before "Tramp On Your Street" was "Salt of the Earth," a 1987 album Shaver describes as being "like what they're doing now. We've always had more bite on our music. It kicks a little harder. But it's still country, you know?"

Shaver isn't surprised by the country establishment's resistance change. "When Waylon did that 'Honky Tonk Heroes,' people there at RCA and everywhere would tell him that he couldn't make it doing that kind of thing, because it was so different from what was going down. But it turned out to be the cornerstone of the whole deal, and people started growing a little bit."

It also helps that contemporary country audiences are more concerned with getting to the emotional heart of the music than with merely following the latest trends.

"I think that's why so many people are showing up at these shows," he says. "I really believe they enjoy hearing the guy sing the song that wrote the song. Because you can deliver it exactly like it should be, and the song is actually alive. It's like a little time capsule. You're in the moment, and they are, too."


When: Saturday at 10 p.m.

Where: Club Stabile's, 3919 Eastern Ave.

Tickets: $10

Call: (410) 342-8462

Listen in

To hear excerpts from Shaver's "Tramp On Your Street," call Sundial, The Sun's telephone information service, at (410) 783-1800. In Anne Arundel County, call 268-7738; in Harford County, 836-5028; in Carroll County, 848-0338. Using a touch-tone phone, punch in the four-digit code 6228 after you hear the greeting.

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