Billy Joe Shaver's autobiography starts out like no other:
"I was not even born yet when my father first tried to kill me. It was June and the evening light had started to fade, but it was still hotter than nine kinds of hell. We were outside of Corsicana, a little cotton town in northeast Texas, and I was in my mother's belly, two months from entering the world."
He follows with the story of how his father nearly beat his mother to death that evening, tossing her into a cattle watering tank before leaving for good.
"I'm not supposed to be here," says Shaver in a call from his Texas home. "Every now and then I get reminded of it. I don't seem to fit anywhere. But I've come through a lot of hardships and made it."
Shaver is the author of some of country's classics, including "I'm Just an Old Chunk of Coal," "Georgia on a Fast Train" and "Live Forever." He is also the quintessential country outlaw, even if his late wife was so opposed to the term that Shaver had to decline being included in the "Wanted: The Outlaws" album that shot Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson into superstardom and might have done the same for Shaver. Jennings had already recorded an entire album of Shaver's songs called "Honky Tonk Heroes" when he made the offer.
"It hurts me to even think about it," says Shaver. "Waylon said, 'Now listen, you're passing up something real good here.' I told Waylon, 'Waylon, I'm not sleeping with you. I'm sleeping with Brenda, so I gotta get along with her and I'll try to get along with you.' But he got mad. He wouldn't speak to me for a long time."
Shaver says he'd been in some trouble in the past and his wife was sensitive to it.
"Every one of them was fights. She was a good-looking old gal and if I took her out somewhere I'd end up getting in a fight. Somebody mumbling something and I'd ask them why they're mumbling and then a fight would get started. And she would always manage to grab me and they'd get a clean shot at me while she was grabbing me! ... I hate mumblers!"
Born on Aug. 16, 1939, Shaver started writing songs at a young age.
"I was about 8 years old when I started writing songs. When I started talking good I started writing."
The family didn't have a radio, so the young music-loving boy would cross the train tracks to listen to music with black families who worked picking cotton.
"There was a stand-up piano on one of the porches and I'd hang out there all day long and up into the night. My grandmother would have to come get me and switch me all the way home. They all liked me because I could sing. I was real good at it and I'd just go home with whatever I heard over there and I couldn't remember all of it, so I'd just make up some of it. Then my kinfolks got so they wanted to hear it. I'd just sing about myself and what was going on."
His grandmother bought him a Gene Autry guitar, but his stepfather gave it away. He says he and his stepfather made up later in life, but their relationship was rocky.
"It's hard to raise another man's son. I understand that. It's bound to have been hard on him. I was a little bit of a rounder. I'd take off and hitchhike here and there. I guess when I was gone things were happy and when I was back they weren't."
Shaver joined the Navy at 16, with his parents' consent.
"My mother and my stepfather were glad to see me go," he says.
When Shaver finished in the Navy, he married and had a son. At the age of 21, Shaver lost nearly all of his index and middle fingers and part of the other fingers on his right hand in an accident at the sawmill where he worked. Afterward, he dedicated his life to music.
"I knew I was good," says Shaver. " I tried to go to L.A., but I couldn't get a ride, so I decided to go on up to Nashville."
He divorced his wife (they later remarried) and moved. After four years in Nashville, Commander Cody and his Lost Planet Airmen recorded Shaver's "Georgia on a Fast Train." And soon artists, including Jennings, Kris Kristofferson and Johnny Rodriguez, were singing Shaver's songs.
His most famous, "I'm Just an Old Chunk of Coal," was written after Shaver, at the time hooked on drink and drugs, walked to a cliff in the middle of the night, determined to jump off. Instead, he passed out and woke up praying and got the first part of the song. He moved his family back to Texas and finished the song after going cold turkey.
Johnny Cash had intended to release the song as a single as had Shaver himself, but John Anderson beat them to the punch.
"I don't think you could do it any better than John Anderson did," says Shaver.
Over the past many years, Shaver has had his share of tragedy and trouble. Over the course of two years, 1999 to 2000, his mother, wife and son Eddy all died.
"You never forget it," says Shaver. "You're not supposed to forget it. I think it's a reminder that God gives and takes, too."
The following year, Shaver had a heart attack. More recently, in 2007, Shaver shot a man in the face with a pistol at a bar in Lorena, Texas. Shaver said the man threatened him with a knife and he was later acquitted of the charges.
Shaver says he's been surprised at how much he still enjoys performing and creating music. He estimates he has about 300 songs that haven't been recorded yet and all-in-all, he seems happy.
"You've got to have a sense of humor. That's one thing I've maintained. It's a whistling past the graveyard kind of thing. You know just what I'm talking about. You've got to just pick yourself up and go on — and always wonder why am I the one that got left? I'm the sorriest one of the bunch! It's mysterious, yes it is. But I work hard and try to do the best I can and try not to hurt nobody ... I've run into some wrinkles and trouble and stuff, but I didn't start it and I know it in my heart that I'm not guilty of anything. I've just tried to defend myself. I can't fault me for anything. I wish I was better looking. It gets kind of hard to shave sometimes when you gotta look at that all the time!"
Billy Joe Shaver
With: Mic Harrison and the High Score
When: 8 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 15
Where: The Shed, 1820 W. Lamar Alexander Parkway, Maryville
Tickets: $20, available at www.smh-d.com/shed
© 2012, Knoxville News Sentinel Co.
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