The Day Billy Joe Shaver Saved My Life

A few days ago, I was on a train from Rome to Genoa, after my coverage of the Rome Film Fest for FRED Film Radio. It’s a long ride, about five hours long. Usually, I don’t mind. I’m actually quite fond of trains. I’ve always appreciated their romanticism. But this time it was different.

October has been the worst month for me. Like many people, I have experienced hardships in the time of COVID and feeling trapped. This month, a whole bunch of worries piled on me that I won’t discuss here. All this amounted to some kind of panic attack. I could hardly breathe.

As I looked for songs to play on Spotify to calm me down, my mind went to Billy Joe Shaver. I thought about his life and how he hadn’t had it easy. I felt I could do with the voice of a man like him to come to my aid in a time of need.

I put on Old Five and Dimers Like Me, probably my favorite outlaw country album. Released in 1973, this was the record that ought to have shot shaver into superstardom. However, mismanagement and general business decisions proved insurmountable obstacles. He’d be forced to watch the star of Waylon Jennings rise while remaining in the shadows as the forever unsung hero of the genre.

In a way, the tragedy of his career makes him all the more iconic. Would Billy Joe ever truly fit in with the “in crowd”? I doubt that and in a way, I even hope no. Guys like Billy Joe are the guys whom I trust. The forever outlaws, honest and free. A little bit scary and strange but the type of guy you’d like by your side when hell comes calling.

Not one song on the album did not help me a little and by the third listen, I felt much better. The song that soothed my mind the most was “Willy the Wandering Gypsy and Me.” I really listened to it, taking in every word. I could hear it resonating in my soul and made me smile, looking at the reflection of my face in the filthy, small toilet on that ghost train.

People hating country music have always seemed silly to me. It’s such a narrow-minded and unfounded prejudice. Why should someone who likes jazz or rock or dance and any other genre not also take an interest in country music? In fact, the more music you like, the more options you will have when you’ll need music to save your life.

The next day, I sought comfort in music completely different: Luciana Souza’s Duos II, a guitar and voice duo album reveling in the tradition of Brazilian percussive music. Today it was another and tomorrow, it will be another.

What links all music together is a fundamental spirituality. Some people label it differently. Billy Joe Shaver would have referred to it as God. Regardless of labels, it is a spirituality that even the greatest of atheist looks for and believes in when he is confronted with it. And it is a spirituality that only exists in art, from the paintings of Picasso to the films of Fellini to the music of Billy Joe Shaver and beyond.

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