STORY BEHIND THE SONG
"I'm Just an Old Chunk of Coal (But I'm Gonna Be a Diamond Someday)"
Written by Billy Joe Shaver
Performed by John Anderson
Billy Joe Shaver admits he'd hit rock bottom when he wrote "I'm Just an Old Chunk of Coal." Drinking and drugs had taken their toll to the point where the singer/songwriter considered suicide.
One night, Billy Joe saw a vision in his bedroom.
"I know some people aren't going to believe this," he begins slowly, "but I saw Jesus sitting on the end of my bed. His eyes were red as coals. He tried to lock eyes with me, and I just couldn't do it, I was so ashamed."
Billy Joe became so frightened that he fired up his truck and drove to a cave along the Harpeth River, just outside Nashville. Beneath the cave, a huge cliff jutted upward with a treacherous trail leading to the top. He began climbing the trail with one intent -- to leap into the rocks below and end his life.
"I was gonna go ahead and end it all," he says.
But on the way up the trail, something made him change his mind. "I went back down that trail," recalls Billy Joe, "and I started singing the first part of 'Old Chunk of Coal.' When I got to the bottom, the whole first part of it had been written, melody and everything."
He finished the song six months later in Houston, where Billy Joe had relocated his family. But every publishing company he contacted turned it down.
He finally found a supporter in Johnny Cash, who included the tune in a made-for-TV movie, The Pride of Jesse Hallam. "It was going to be his next single," Billy Joe remembers, "but something happened and they decided not to do it."
Then a funny thing happened. John Anderson and his manager heard the song through the wall of the publishing firm next door -- and John ended up recording it. It became a Top 5 hit in 1981.
More than 20 years later, fans still respond to "Coal" 's rock-solid message. "So many people have told me how that song pulled them out of despair and made a human being out of them again," says Billy Joe.
"It's helped me a lot, too," he adds in an emotion-filled voice.
"This song actually saved my life."
-- Marianne Horner