It was the end of a warm fall day, sometime back in the early ’90s. I stood in an asphalt parking lot in Greensboro, facing a temporary stage set up for a festival of some sort.
It would be a good day when said and done. Joyful hearts, as I see it now.
There might have been a theme to the festival, a catchy name to attract people downtown to spend money on dream catchers and funnel cakes, but the real theme, at least for me and the missus at the time, was “drink beer in a parking lot and listen to good music.”
We had specifically travelled 140 miles and scraped up enough money on a young reporter’s salary for a mid-priced downtown hotel room to see Billy Joe Shaver at this outdoor hootenanny.
You may or may not know this, but Billy Joe was a honky-tonk hero. He died Wednesday, Oct. 28 at the age of 81. He had COVID-19 in June, recovered, but then suffered a massive stroke, according to those in the know. Music lovers will lament he is another victim of the worst year most of us can recall, a year in which we’ve lost Jerry Jeff Walker, Spencer Davis, Eddie Van Halen, John Prine, Little Richard – the list goes on.
I had discovered Billy Joe’s music years before that day back in the early ‘90s, mostly from looking at liner notes and writer’s credits on other people’s albums. Often, I was more intrigued by who wrote the song than who sang the song.
Billy Joe wrote a lot of ‘em.
In fact, he penned all but one song on Waylon Jennings’ 1973 album, “Honky Tonk Heroes,” which helped launch the outlaw country movement, but only after threatening to whip Waylon’s butt for not listening to his songs like Waylon promised he would. Or so the story goes.
There are a lot of stories about Billy Joe. How he lost two fingers on his right hand in a saw mill accident. How he married the same woman three times. How he took a lot of drugs. How he took even more drugs after that. How he broke his neck Indian wrestling his best man on one of his wedding days. How he found the Lord. How he shot a guy in the face in a bar.
In fact, he’s probably the nicest fellow I ever shook hands with who shot a guy in the face in a bar.
As the story goes, in 2007 Billy stopped by a beer joint with one of his former wives when a fellow started making trouble – being rude, stirring his drink with a hunting knife, which most of us find annoying as all get out – and they ended up outside and the other guy ended up getting shot in the face with a .22, though not fatally.
Billy Joe claimed self-defense. During the trial, Willie Nelson and Robert Duvall showed up to be character witnesses. Apparently, Billy Joe understood his lawyer to say, “We need some characters in here to be your witnesses.”
But it turned out fine, at least for Billy Joe, who was found not guilty.
“I am very sorry about the incident,” Billy Joe said following the verdict. “Hopefully, things will work out where we become friends enough so that he gives me back my bullet.”
When I met Billy Joe following a show sometime after that, I was wearing a Ric Flair T-shirt. Billy Joe took a look at it, grinned and said, “Whooo!” in a pretty good Ric Flair imitation. I “Whoooed!” right back and we had pleasant conversation. I did not stir my drink with a hunting knife.
Let’s get back to that parking lot in the early ‘90s, the first time I saw him:
He sang about going to Georgia on a fast train, being an old chunk of coal, roaming with a wondering gypsy, just about everything I wanted to hear. As that late afternoon show wound down, he stopped, pointed over the heads of the crowd and said, “Hey, y’all. Turn around and take a look at that. Ain’t that purty?”
The sun was going down behind the buildings in the distance, lighting the sky up orange.
Billy Joe stood there silently, his arms open wide toward the heavens and watched the sun disappear.
Then he grinned, and the honky-tonk hero kicked off another song there in the parking lot. It was a good day. Joyful hearts. So long, Billy Joe.
Scott Hollifield is editor of The McDowell News in Marion, NC and a humor columnist.