Waco's Billy Joe Shaver, one of country music's talented and enduring performing songwriters, turns 80 years old today, Aug. 16, a fact that may surprise him, but not his longtime fans, who've seen him weather surgeries, a heart attack, alcohol, grief, loss and the grind of the road with only temporary pauses in those 80 years.
Shaver still travels and performs across the country, returning with little fanfare to his home in between gigs. I almost said quietly, but quiet isn't a word used much with Shaver, whose passion, impulsivity, anger and hot-headedness have run like streaks through his life, flavoring his songs at times. At the same time, the personal transparency of his songs shows there's also room for love and a stubborn Christian faith.
His birthday arrives a few days before a major celebration: On Wednesday, the Academy of Country Music will honor him, fellow Texan Rodney Crowell and Nashville songwriter Kye Fleming as recipients of the ACM's Poet's Award for their lyrical songwriting. It's part of a larger ACM Honors celebration, which will feature a headlining performance by Miranda Lambert and appearances by a host of other country stars and notables.
Shaver's gift, as fellow songwriters have long noticed, is capturing truth in conversational language and chaining its rhythm into hooks that stick in the mind. To borrow one of his most famous metaphors, he squeezes the common coal of speech into something embedded with hard and lasting diamonds.
Happy birthday to a Waco five-and-dimer working on his eighth dime.