Billy Joe Shaver with Luke Doucetperforming as part of T.O. TWang: ALL THINGS COUNTRY at Harbourfront Centre (235 Queens Quay West), Saturday (August 13), 8 pm. Free. The documentary film A Portrait Of Billy Joe screens at Harbourfront's Studio Theatre, Saturday at 5:30 pm (followed by a Shaver Q&A) and Sunday (August 14) at 3:30 pm. Free. 416-973-4000, www.billyjoeshaver.com. Rating: NNNNN
Hardcore honky-tonker Billy Joe Shaver always seemed able to shake off physical ailments and personal tragedy like west Texas dust off his shoulder. He's just as tough as he looks, and when he gives you a firm three-fingered handshake, you don't need any further confirmation.
But the death of his son Eddy Shaver just after he buried his mother and lost his wife to cancer in quick succession was almost too much for Shaver's badly battered heart to bear.
"Oh, I wanted to die," says Shaver matter-of-factly, with the characteristic candour that puts him among country music's greatest songwriters. "It was at Gruene Hall when I felt the chest pains and I looked up and said, 'Lord, thank you for letting me die here at the oldest dance hall in Texas.' But I guess it wasn't my time.
"The next stop was Pflugerville, and I thought, 'What a dirty trick - now I'm gonna die someplace nobody can even spell?' But then we got word that a rainstorm had cancelled the show, so my T-shirt gal drove me to a hospital where the doctor told me I'd blown out all my arteries but one. They gave me a four-way bypass, and now it looks like I'll live a few more years whether I want to or not."
Like many people who go through bypass surgery, Shaver has taken his brush with death as a warning to change his lifestyle. But instead of easing up the pace, he seems to be throwing himself into more projects than ever. While working on his new album, The Real Deal (Compadre), due September 20, he found time to play the role of Reverend Shackleton in the new Luke Wilson-written and -directed feature, The Wendell Baker Story.
Shaver also participated in the feature-length documentary film about his strange life, Portrait Of Billy Joe, shot by Luciana Pedraza, the Argentina-born partner of Robert Duvall, who met Shaver while filming The Apostle. But the doc's unlikely star is actually one of Shaver's former school teachers, the 102-year-old Mabel Legg, who can still recite lines from a poem Shaver wrote as a roughneck teen a half-century ago.
"That's amazing, isn't it? I can't even remember them myself. She definitely makes that film. Mabel was quite a teacher, and a number of her students went on to to be senators and important business people. I kept in touch with her over the years. She was really proud of me and kept clippings of different newspaper articles and such.
"Sadly, she'd fallen and broke her hip about a week before that shoot, and passed shortly after. She told me she was tired."
Shaver will soon be off to Calgary to film a television mini-series with long-time pal Duvall, but for the moment he's enjoying being back onstage, previewing his new album. Judging by his stellar performances on the recent Tribute To Billy Joe Shaver - Live (Compadre) disc and recent life experience, it promises to be a real humdinger.
"These new tunes are some of the best I've ever written. They're very different from what I've done before. The album was actually a lot of fun to write and record. I'm not the sort to wallow in my own sorrow. You've got to look for the joy in life if you want to get on.
"I'm down here to finish up some business before I go on to meet the others. That's what I intend to do."