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In this song, the Texas singer/songwriter Billy Joe Shaver tells a story of transformation, using the coal to diamond metaphor to represent his faith in Jesus, and the change he anticipates when he makes his transition. In our 2010 interview with Billy Joe Shaver
, he explained: "that's when I got born again, when I wrote that song. It's just so long, it would take me forever to tell you, but I wound up on top of this mountain-like thing in Kingston Springs outside of Nashville. And I was about to die because I'd been doing so much dope and just everything in the world you could think of, and drinking, and I was just about to drive everybody crazy. And there was this place outside of Nashville that's called the Narrows of the Harpeth River. And there's a peak-like thing out there, and it's a real sheer drop-off cliff, and you had to go up a real treacherous path to get to it. Not many people knew about it, but my son had showed it to me. He was with a bunch of these guys called spelunkers that go into caves.
And this river, you could see the chisel marks, one of the slaves had actually cut a hole in this big ol' thing so that the water would run over this mammoth plantation. And it was at the top of this thing that I arrived one night when I was about to die. There was an altar up there, it looked like the wind, rain or something had hewn that altar out, and it looked like a giant mushroom. It was just a small place there between the altar and the sheer drop-off on the cliff. I could have swore I jumped off that cliff, because I was just so ashamed of myself for what I had done. And I asked God to help me. But I thought for sure I had jumped off, because I thought, I'm just a worthless old good-for-nothing dragging everybody down, but I found myself on my knees turned the other way on that altar on my knees and with my hands and arms and elbows on top of the altar, and I was asking God to help me. And that's when He gave me that song."
Regarding how he completed the song, Shaver told us: "I came down the path singing the first part of it, and I got to the foot, and I had the first half of it. This voice inside me was telling me to get my family and get out of town. I was in Nashville, I was about to become the next big deal or something, but I was just so crazy it was ridiculous. I was having a hard time even talking, much less putting a song together. But all of the sudden everything brightened up for me and this inaudible voice told me to go to get out of Nashville. I couldn't drive in the shape I was in, so we got a bunch of U-Haul trucks and moved down to Houston. Left Nashville and I went cold turkey on everything. I quit smoking, drinking, doping, doing the whole smear. And it took me about 7, 8 months and I dropped down to about 150 pounds and couldn't keep food down. I would eat Melba Toast and drink a diet root beer. There was this little store down the road; my wife was still living, my son was still living, and I'd walk down to that store. I was making money on my songs, but I couldn't afford to drive, because I thought I'd run over somebody or get run over. But I'd walk down to that store every day, get some Melba Toast and a diet root beer. And finally one day I just finished that song, the other half of it, and I told my wife, 'Honey, why don't you cook me some eggs?' and she said, 'Well, you won't be able to keep 'em down.' I said, 'Yeah, I will, too.' And she fixed 'em, and I ate 'em, and sure enough they didn't come up. And from then on I've been all right. And then I was even timid about walking into a bar. I was raised in honky tonks, but I was afraid, because I was so young in my new life. But I grew up quickly and I knew a lot of things. You hear people say, 'I wish I knew then what I know now.' But that's what happens when you get born again. You are as young as you were then, and you know what you know now. And you understand that you could get hurt, and stuff like that. You start preaching, too. I started telling everybody about it, driving everybody darn near crazy and it took me about a week or two to figure out that I wasn't supposed to do that. I had to learn everything on my own, which I'm glad I did, because it's real personal. I kept writing great songs, though, so I'm in good shape. I've done some crazy things lately, but they're not crazy. They're just things that happened. It's unfortunate incidents, and I'm sorry about it, but I came out all right. God saw me through, and I got exonerated, and I'm not guilty of anything."
John Anderson recorded a popular version of this song in 1981 which went to #4 on the Country charts - his biggest hit to that point. Other artists to record the song include Johnny Cash and Kris Kristofferson.
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