When singer/songwriter Billy Joe Shaver was 10 years old, he walked barefoot for a round trip of 10 miles to see the Light Crust Doughboys play at the Wonder Bread Co. in Corsicana, Texas. He got in big trouble with his grandma when he got back because he was just a kid and wasn’t supposed to be traipsing off late at night like that. I suppose it was worth it, though, because unbeknownst to him, it would be a chance to see Hank Williams sing, and he later wrote about the experience in his song “Tramp on Your Street:”
“A long time ago
No shoes on my feet
I walked ten miles of train track
To hear Hank Williams sing
His body was worn
But his spirit was free
And he sang every song
Looking right straight at me”
Young Billy Joe got tired of having his bare feet stepped on, so he wedged himself up against a pole in the middle of the crowd. He recalled that the band introduced Hank as “a new guy around here” that they wanted people to hear, but no one was really paying attention but for this young boy up against a pole, so Hank focused on him as he sang.
Can you imagine the impression that made on that young boy?
Billy Joe was already a musician at heart. He claims to have been writing songs as early as 8 years-old, and he had seen country musicians perform at the nightclub where his mother worked. But the idea of having someone like Hank Williams singing straight to him had to have been a pivotal moment in his life, even if he didn’t yet know how iconic Hank would become.
The rest of the song reads as if he is writing about a woman, so intimate is his description of the way it affected him. He describes himself as a lowly tramp that Hank engages, holding his “soul at his feet” and his “heart in his hands.”
The last verse says:
“Still you opened yourself
And you held me inside
You made a stray dog like me
Feel welcome tonight
I’m just a tramp on your street”
You really get a sense of how important that experience was to him, and I wondered about who had made such a strong impression on me as a child. Those childhood heroes are so important to shaping who we become, even if we are not as vividly conscious of that moment of impact that Billy Joe so eloquently describes.
I, too, fancied myself a bit of a musician and songwriter when I was young. I gave up on piano lessons in about the 2nd grade because I found the song choices to be completely boring. The teacher would tell me what I was to learn and play for the recital, and every week I would show up and struggle through it because I had spent all of my practice time working on something I found more interesting. In hindsight, I wish I had pressed her to let me play the more interesting songs, because it was harder and challenged my development much more deeply, but instead I gave in and eventually gave up.
I continued to plink on the piano, teaching myself songs from the “Reader’s Digest Family Songbook,” the “110 Hit Songs of the Million Record Sellers” and the book the teacher had started me on, “60 Progressive Piano Pieces You Like to Play.” I was never disciplined enough to get very good, but that childhood piano and the books still live at my house today. In fact, I broke out an awkward rendition of “Red River Valley” just last week.
My attraction to music and my renegade approach to it came naturally. My Aunt Regina, you see, was a professional singer, and I was sure I was destined to be just like her. Who needed to mess around with a boring old Minuet in G when I had country and pop stardom coursing through my veins?
Regina made an impression on me in so many ways, and I could not imagine a cooler person to emulate. She cooked the most interesting food, lived in the most modern house I’d ever seen, had the most hip wardrobe of anyone I knew and sang in big city clubs at night. At least that’s what I remember. How could you get any cooler than that? She even made an album, but the producer carted all the recordings off to England in a breakdown before it ever made it to record store shelves.
I thought I was younger when this happened, but she has informed me that I was a very mature 14-years-old when I wrote what I think was my first song. It was titled “You Treat My Heart Like a Pile of Cow Manure” and I would stand in the middle of the living room and sing it for the family, swinging my hair over my shoulder the way Crystal Gayle and Cher did on TV, and I’m sure I’d seen Regina do, too. As a child, I didn’t get to see her perform very often, but after hearing Billy Joe’s story, I wish I had cut out at night to watch her in some Atlanta club. Maybe then my musical career might have stuck.
I sang with a friend in college and had a short blues/rock n’ roll gig as a lead singer in a local band, but then life and other interests took over. I now enjoy the occasional karaoke performance, as I have discussed here before, and it is always a reminder to consider what might have been had I followed the influence of my childhood hero. Where might I be now? Billy Joe is still performing today at 79 years old and has enjoyed a long and prolific career following in the footsteps of Hank Williams and others. Where did your childhood heroes lead you?