I was already in New York when I saw in the New Yorker listings that Billy Joe Shaver was playing on Saturday night at the Hill Country Barbeque on W 26th.
I didn’t know what to expect, and really didn’t know all that much about him, except the outlaw thing. I could only afford to see one show, and decided this was it.
It started at a very civilized 11pm. I’d been to The Cloisters in the afternoon, had dinner with friends, and at 10:30 ran through the craziness of Times Square to get the subway.
I went down the stairs just after 11, he was already on stage. The room was not full, as I’d expected. And it wasn’t just him and a guitar, as I’d suspected. The band was rocking and I was immediately immersed in the best honky tonk music I’ve ever heard.
Billy Joe was a vision in a Wrangler shirt and Wrangler jeans. Double denim is clearly not a put on for this guy. I took a video of the next song he did, “Heart of Texas”, so I could put the tablet away and enjoy the show.
I had to take my little camera out from time to time. I moved up almost to the front amid some regular looking guys who were singing to almost every song.
What I had seen earlier in the day, people having sublime moments to re-processed medieval music, in a re-processed medieval chapel, could not have been further from my mind. Another few songs in, as he sang, Billy Joe closed his eyes and held his arms straight out, lowering and raising them like a flying bird, the sides of his shirt going in and out like a bellows.
He only did that once, although he would put his arms out from time to time during other songs, he only flew during that one. I pictured him soaring through the Texas sky.
I could see from the set list there was lots more to come. He drank water all night, a few times doing a good trick of dropping the bottle so it landed and stayed upright.
He wasn’t talking much between songs.
He’d do one without his hat, and then put it back on.
Eventually I noticed the backdrop was a stylized Texas flag made of cut up t-shirts and jeans, covered in signatures.
He took a break and the drummer did a pretty long solo. The band were all young guys from Austin. This wasn’t no alt-country gang.
I finished my beer and didn’t get another.
He spoke briefly about his son Eddy, a guitar ace who played with Dwight Yoakam and overdosed on heroin in 2000 . “If you know anyone on that stuff, you want to do whatever you can to them get off it” he said.
Shaver grew up in Waco, where his mother ran a honky tonk called Green Gables. Losing several fingers in a sawmill accident around age 20 made him turn to songwriting and head to Nashville, where he pursued Waylon Jennings till he used his songs to make Honky Tonk Heroes.
At the end, he said he’d go back to the merch table and sign anything, or pose with anyone. I was tempted to wait. There weren’t many people there. In spite of how taken I was with the show, I just left.
I was a little worried about a rash that was growing on my neck. I didn’t know what had caused it, I suspected an allergic reaction to something I’d eaten or drank but had never experienced anything like that before, so I wanted to get back to where I was staying, down in Soho.