Gimme Back My Bullet: An Eyewitness Account of Billy Joe Shaver's Trial

Even by his own rather lofty standards (marrying the same woman three times, losing several fingers on his right hand... oh hell, just read this story here), Billy Joe Shaver's recently concluded trial has to rank pretty far up there on the legendary Waco singer-songwriter list of exploits. As you may have read, Shaver was acquitted late Friday afternoon of aggravated assault charges surrounding a parking-lot shooting outside a Lorena bar in March 2007.

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No one, least of all Shaver, is disputing that the author of "Old Five and Dimers Like Me," "Black Rose" and "Georgia on a Fast Train" shot Billy Bryant Coker in the face after the two got crossways at Papa Joe's Texas Saloon. But the 70-year-old musician was able to convince a McLennan County jury, which deliberated for less than two hours Friday afternoon, that he acted in self-defense. The Austin American-Statesman reported that Shaver told prosecutor Beth Toben he confronted Coker because to leave the bar without doing so would be "chicken shit." 

Shaver's actions have already inspired Dale Watson to write the song "Where Do You Want It," which witnesses testified hearing Shaver ask Coker just before the shooting. Rocks Off's neighbor, Shaver's bassist Nick Gaitan, attended the trial last week along with Shaver's good friends Robert Duvall and Willie Nelson. We spoke to Gaitan, whose band Umbrella Man plays Tuesdays at the Continental Club when he's not on the road with Shaver, earlier this afternoon.

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Rocks Off: Describe what it was like in the courtroom.

Nick Gaitan: It was a trip. At first, when we got there Wednesday morning, the seats weren't completely full or anything. There were a lot of Billy's supporters around. That morning, I walked up to the third floor and found out Willie Nelson had gotten there because the first person I saw was [Nelson's ex-wife] Connie. Then Willie and his wife Annie showed up. I saw them on the third floor before we walked in, so they were there from the beginning.

The courtroom wasn't that full, but when more and more people started hearing it was around and heard about the case, more and more people showed up as the week progressed. It would get crowded at times, then they'd take a break and people would leave. The climate in the courtroom was stressful, just because you were hearing a lot of the prosecution witnesses talking about what they saw. That's when you started hearing all the "Where do you want it" and all that stuff that everybody had been talking about. It seemed like the prosecution must have went on forever.

Thursday, they were going through and calling out all the doctors and forensics, people talking about the bullets and what kind of treatment [Coker] got. They were talking about the whole bar situation - there was a card game. Basically, it was really stressful, but it would get really funny and crazy at times. It really started to get strange with the defense.

When Billy got up there, the prosecutor seemed like she was totally trying to make him look like a gun-waving dude. They started trying to use his book against him, like, "Isn't this the image you want to portray of yourself - above the law, outlaw? Haven't you been an outlaw all your life?" He said, "More like an outcast."

She starts talking about his book and reading him the situations. They would twist stuff up and say, "Didn't you get your neck broken in a barroom brawl?" He said, "I got my neck broken on my wedding night by my best man - we were Indian wrestling." He tried to explain what Indian wrestling was. She said some more stuff about his book and he tells her, "I wish they had a book out on you."

Whenever that happened, people laughed in the courtroom. This one journalist gave out a big old "Haw!" and the judge jumped up and said, "Who spoke out in my court?" and kicks this guy out. Right before that, the prosecutor tried to say something to the effect of "You'd save that song for a new song to write, wouldn't you?" like a big jab to him being a songwriter. Somebody shouted out, "Come on, woman!" and he got kicked out of court too. It was turning into a circus there. It was just wild.

RO: How was the judge? Was he pretty stern, or did Billy ever crack him up?

NG: The judge seemed to be listening to both sides. He'd get on the prosecutors about this or that, and he'd get on [Shaver's lawyer] Dick Deguerin about something. They'd have objections, and he'd keep calling them back to his office, but he seemed to be a reasonable man, really. I didn't get the vibe of the, you know, gavel-swinging or anything.

RO: Anything else Billy said on the stand that stood out to you as funny?

NG: Billy was talking about this guy acting like a bully. He was trying to have a drink and how he felt threatened. Billy had just had surgery on that disk in his neck and he wasn't trying to fight. It was interesting hearing him tell his side, but after the [trial], I was walking out of the courthouse with him. The news stops him and says, "Do you have a message for the Coker family?" He says, "Well, I'm sorry this whole thing happened, and I'm just hoping we can become good enough friends where he can give me my bullet back."

Right after that, they asked him, "How are you going to celebrate being not guilty?" Billy says, "I'm going to drive down to Houston and play music all night."

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