In the last text that Billy Joe Shaver sent to Brad Reagan, he signed off by saying, “Your eternal friend, Billy Joe Shaver.”
Reagan posted that memory on his Facebook page on October 28, the day that 81-year-old Shaver died after a massive stroke at a hospital in Waco.
Reagan, a graduate of Midway High School and now deputy tech editor at The Wall Street Journal, met Shaver while writing some articles about the singer during Reagan’s time as a freelance writer several years ago. They had some things in common — both had grown up in Corsicana, and they had both moved to Waco about the time of their eighth-grade year in school — so they struck up a friendship, and Shaver eventually asked for Reagan’s help in writing a book. Their collaboration, “Honky Tonk Hero,” was published in 2005 by the University of Texas Press.
“I was in his world for a while, driving around the country, him telling me stories and me listening to him play,” Reagan said.
But their friendship wasn’t without its hiccups. Shaver had a falling out with just about everybody in his life, “and I was no exception,” Reagan said.
“He would get mad at me and leave me angry voice messages for some perceived slight, and then a few days later he would call and apologize and say, ‘Let’s be friends again,” Reagan said. “We had that experience, but that was part of who he was. He was a genius, but he was also incredibly insecure at times. People talk about his self-destructive behavior, his early wild years of drugs and alcohol, and that was certainly true, but he was also self-destructive in how he handled his relationships with people. He drove off a lot of people who wanted to help him over the years. And he felt badly about that, but unfortunately, that was part of who he was.”
Reagan said that his favorite memory of Shaver is from 2004, when they were working on the book. Shaver came to visit Reagan. He hadn’t been to New York in a while, and Reagan offered to take him sightseeing. Shaver said he wanted to visit Times Square.
“We rode the subway, and when we got out, he said, ‘Where are we?’ and I said, ‘Times Square.’ He was puzzled and finally asked, ‘Where are all the peep shows and drug dealers?’ He clearly had no idea that Times Square had been cleaned up and Disney-fied — and he was disappointed.
“To me, it signified how even though Billy Joe had fans around the globe, his songwriting and his view of the world was very much rooted in small-town Texas and his experiences there.” Reagan said. “It’s a big part of what made his songs and his life so authentic and one of a kind.”
Reagan said that Shaver had been in touch shortly before his death about another book, sort of a continuation of “Honky Tonk Hero.” Shaver told Reagan that he was also writing new songs and that he had been in touch with someone about writing music for a Broadway adaptation of “Tender Mercies,” the 1983 film starring Shaver’s good friend Robert Duvall.
“He was making big plans. He was always looking for the next big thing,” said Reagan, the son of Ross and Nelwyn Reagan, of Woodway. “He never could stop.”
“Honky Tonk Hero”
Shortly after the news of Shaver’s death was announced, there was one copy of “Honky Tonk Hero” available on Amazon, with an asking price of $902. The UT Press issued a paperback version of the book in December, which is widely available, and the hardback is a print-on-demand title that can be ordered directly from the press website. About half of the 191-page book contains stories from Shaver’s life. The remaining pages of the book are committed to lyrics from Shaver’s songs.