Songs of the Outlaw: Yours, Mine, and Billy Joe Shaver’s “Serious Souls”

Kris Kristofferson is known to have said that Billy Joe Shaver may be the greatest […]

Ethan Richardson / 2.16.12

Kris Kristofferson is known to have said that Billy Joe Shaver may be the greatest living songwriter, the Hemingway of songwriting, but also that, if life were TV, he’d be on at 4 A.M. He has written songs for Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Bob Dylan, George Jones, Patty Loveless, the Allman Brothers; Waylon Jennings used his songs for most of Honky Tonk Heroes, Willie Nelson has made a name with his songs. He’s legendary, but paradoxically hidden. As if he had a knack for it, some privately premeditated scheme to lay low–like Jesus or something–he managed to work behind the swinging saloon doors, only showing his boots below, his hat above, every now-and-again his severed fingers to swing the hat off, all the while producing poetry through the known faces of outlaw country music.

This isn’t to say Shaver couldn’t play the part on stage. He is the part. Billy Joe is the real deal outlaw. He’s lived the grit-raucous, boot-in-teeth kind of life unsuited for much else. He writes country songs like a bard more as an extension of who he is than what he loves. Listen to how he describes the personal effects of the wandering life in his memoir:

I’ve lost parts of three fingers, broke my back, suffered a heart attack and a quadruple bypass, had a steel plate put in my neck and 136 stitches in my head, fought drugs and booze, spent the money I had, and buried my wife, son, and mother in the span of a year.

It’s ridiculous an Outlaw series like this didn’t begin with him but, to be honest, it sort of did–the Waylon and Merle discography (particularly Waylon) are unspeakably indebted to his genius. And it wouldn’t really be true to the Outlaw movement to put him first when he’s chosen lastness, really chided the limelight so successfully.


Old Five and Dimers Like Me, first produced when Shaver was 33, is a masterpiece of country songwriting. Many of the songs are old familiars that you’ve probably known through their covers, such as “Black Rose” (“The devil made me do it the first time, / Second time I done it on my own”) or “Low Down Freedom” (“I’d rather leave here knowing / I made a fool of love before it made a fool of me”). For Shaver, as Mbird has pointed out previously, the Outlaw’s predicament is as soul-deep as the love he refuses to let himself accept. It is soul-deep, God-deep. The rambler is only a highway rambler because his soul swings between heaven and hell, redemption to fall to redemption–his motel-life, roadhouse-life is a sacrament of what the soul itself is singing, that “moving is the closest thing to being free.” Like all of the great writers, Haggard included, Billy Joe Shaver depicted the Outlaw’s life as almost always self-induced rather than suckered-swindled; unlike most honky-tonk heroes, though, the conditions in his songs are ever punctured by a Christ-haunted and God-hungry soul.

A hidden pearl in the Five and Dimers record is “Serious Souls,” an indelible picture of simul iustus et peccator, the seriousness with which we strive to be better, the integrity we lack to bring it to bear. We are men and women bound to wandering, bound to “looking-for” something that’s only always going to be “more than my share of mine.” Our yearnings are real, and our yearnings are really misdirected–making us laughable at best, unlovable at worse. Who could love someone who’s always looking for something else, who drinks from the fountain, but must always venture downhill? By lighting upon our misbegotten ventures, we find a silly love that takes us in anyway, which is why “You Just Can’t Beat Jesus Christ.”

Blue was the stream flowing clear from the mountain
To the grassy green valley below,
Yes and many were the days we all drank from that fountain
Leavin’ no way but downhill to go.

We’re all wayfaring, wandering gypsies alone
Looks like looking-for is where we’ll always be.
Cursed to be born as serious souls
No one will take seriously.

Lord, I’ve touched me the country
I’ve seen me the life
I’ve found what I wanted to find.
And the ready-road living,
And taking and giving,
I’ve had more than my share of mine.