by: Thomas D. Mooney
“Nobody here will ever find me
But I will always be around
Just like the songs I leave behind me
I’m gonna live forever now.”
-Billy Joe Shaver, “Live Forever”
I’m just mesmerized by this song. Infatuated.
It may not even be Billy Joe Shaver’s “best” song, but it’s the perfect song for so many moments in life. That has always been Shaver’s greatest talent: the ability to write songs that not only healed his wounds and to ease his mind, but to do the same to yours with the same words. He’s never been shy about his ability either. There’s never been fluff. There’s nothing he’s written that leaves you feeling as though it came from a counterfeit story. Shaver’s never written anything that the bubble gum pop chart session writers in Nashville would ever dream about writing.
Shaver’s possibly the most brutally honest songwriter in modern history. He’s telling you the good, the bad, and yes, the ugly facts of life. The shady characters. The ones who redeem themselves. The drunkards and the prophets. The wise old men and the foolish youth. He’s played all the characters at different points in his life.
In 1993, Toby Keith sung that he “Should’ve Been a Cowboy” and that he should have “learned to rope and ride.” You know the song. It’s a laundry list of cowboyisms we all learned from John Wayne and Clint Eastwood. Of course you and I know both, none of that makes you a cowboy. Waylon Jennings asked Shaver in 1973, “You got any more of those cowboy songs?” They cut “Honky Tonk Heroes” that year. Chet Atkins feared the release. Of the 10 tracks, Shaver wrote nine of them. The final song, “We Had It All” had been written by Troy Seals and Donnie Fritts, a couple of fine songwriters in their own right.
They donned the era Outlaw Country, which Shaver says was more “Outcast Country.” And by all means, he’s right on point with the label. But, I’ve got to go with the Outlaw label as well. No, Shaver and company weren’t bona-fide gun slingers from the Texas hill country. They weren’t out robbing trains and raising hell (OK, maybe the raising hell would be accurate), but for the suits in the music business, they may as well have been.
Last week, when I was preparing for my interview with Shaver, I was overwhelmed. By all means, the man is an institution. A songwriting guru. He’s done just about as much for country music as anyone could possibly do in a lifetime. He’s by and far the most influential and important artist to be featured on New Slang, a sentiment I’m positive they’d all agree with. How do you interview a legend? How do you possibly talk about everything you want? What should the introduction be?
I could write a novel for Shaver’s introduction, but why? It doesn’t seem right. Shaver’s always told his stories best anyways. When I spoke with Shaver last week one afternoon, we spoke for 45 minutes. Of that 45 minutes, I spoke for maybe 10. You never interrupt a legend.
New Slang: When you really broke into the music scene, it was when Waylon recorded “Honky Tonk Heroes” in ’73. Those were almost all your songs. There’s not many times in music history when you can point to a single event or album that really revolutionized or changed the music landscape. But with this album, I really feel is the starting point for a country music revolution. How was getting those songs recorded with Jennings?
Billy Joe Shaver: It wasn’t easy. When I finally got to Waylon–I had to go through a lot of stuff–but he told me to bring my songs up to Nashville. We had met at Dripping Springs Reunion during the Fourth of July. It was the first one they had. It was in ’69 or something like that. I can’t keep up with years. But anyway, it was the first one before Willie took it over. Everybody in the world was there. He had me playing “Willie the Wandering Gypsy and Me.” We had this little guitar pull in this trailer. We were passing the guitar. He come out of the back. He was back there doing who knows what. He said, “Whose song was that?” And I said it was mine. He said, “Well, I ought to record that song.” He sat down and we went over it and he asked if I had any more of those cowboy songs. I said, “Sure. I’ve got a whole sack full of them.” He said to come up to Nashville and that he’d record them. So I got up to Nashville and chased him around for about six months. When he’d see me coming, he’d take off [laughs]. One night, a good friend of mine, he let me in to this recording session over at RCA. I think it was RCA; it was a great big building anyway. He let me in unbeknownst to Waylon. There was only a select few. Girls lining the walls. Bunch of groupies and hanger-ons. He was in the control room. He got wind that I was there. Somebody told him. He come out of the room kind of mad like. He had already sent a hundred-dollar bill down there to me all folded up in a square and told me to take a hike. Course I told them to tell him where he could stick that [laughs]. So he come out of the control room and he was mad. He had two bikers on his side–one on each side–big ol’ boys. And he said, “What do you want, hoss?” The hallway was just lined with people. I said, “Man, I don’t want much of nothing. All I want is for you to listen to these songs. And if you don’t, I’m gonna whip your ass here in front of everybody.” I could too. Then these two bikers started coming toward me and I kind of got to thinking my mouth got overrode myself [laughs]. But he stopped and came down to me and realized he wasn’t really being fair to me. He said, “Tell you what, let’s just go in here. I already know that one song. I’ll do that.” So we ducked into this room, no body else was in there. I had my guitar with me. And he said, “Play one song. If I like it, I’ll let you play another. But if I don’t like it, you’re going to hit the road and we’re never going to see each other again.” I said that was fine with me. So I played him “Ain’t No God in Mexico.” He said to play one more. He figured I just had a few. But I laid a whole gang of them on him. Played “Old Five and Dimers.” When I finally got to “Honky Tonk Heroes,” he slapped his leg and said, “I know what I’ve got to do.” and went in there, ran everybody out, got his band in there, and started recording these songs.
The main reason I think was because Waylon and I had a lot in common. We came up poor. Both of us had pretty parallel lives. He could understand exactly what I was saying. My words were really rough–for then. They wouldn’t say God in there. Or hell. I was real weird. I started when I was eight-years-old. I knew I had some good stuff. And he did too. He went in there and recorded it and that was it. Chet Atkins got all upset because he thought it was going to ruin Waylon. Waylon was the next big thing coming out of Nashville. Figured it would ruin Waylon and would ruin Nashville. It kind of did in a way. It was kind of a good foundation for him. They didn’t have something that could sink in like these songs could. They just became the cornerstone of the whole thing instead of the outcast. Chet finally came around years later saying that it really helped Nashville since Waylon had the first album that went platinum for country. That was a big deal. Then everybody started trying to do songs like that. Got around real good. Everybody was trying to write outlaw stuff. Everybody was calling us outlaws, but we were really more outcasts. All of a sudden it changed. You used to have to go into joints with a tie. It was kind of one of those type towns–a dress up town [laughs]. And it changed overnight to blue jeans and whatever you wanted to wear. We–me and him, Kris, Willie, we kind of took over. It’s a good thing we did because I don’t think they (Nashville) would have made it the way they were going. It was too wishy-washy. Don’t get me wrong though, I do love George Jones. It was just that all those cheating songs and stuff are good, but it’s the same songs they’re singing [laughs]. I couldn’t find anybody around there–most of them were dead–the ones I liked. I just feel like I really helped in my own way. I didn’t mean to. It never crossed my mind to help Nashville do anything.
I did though. I have yet to be conducted into the hall of fame and I doubt I ever will be. I just think they rung a bell on me and you just can’t unring it. I’m really known as a damned outlaw. I’ve done a few things along the way that I guess would encourage them to call me that. I’m not really though. I’m a good Christian person.
NS: Something I find really interesting–and really, it’s something that has me puzzled–is that after “Honky Tonk Heroes,” Waylon never recorded any more of your songs. You’d have thought after the success of that record, he would have recorded more of them.
BJS: No, he didn’t. Know what happened was, was that there was this big write-up in Rolling Stone. It said–I can tell it now, but Waylon always scared me [laughs]. You never knew what he’d do. Kind of like a monkey. They’ll lean one way and jump the other. You never knew what he was going to do. Anyway, what happened was, Rolling Stone magazine wrote up a big article on him and said that the real hero of the thing was Billy Joe Shaver since he wrote the songs. Waylon, he got his temper up. He got me over there and said, “You know, I’ve been waiting a long time to get wrote up in that magazine and heck, all they do is write about you. Every time somebody records one of your songs, they say it’s actually a Billy Joe Shaver song. Well, I’ll never cut another one of your songs.” Boy, had he, he would have been a monster because I had some great songs that fit him to a T. Matter of fact, he kind of spread the news that he didn’t like me and Johnny Cash didn’t like me. That a bunch of them didn’t like me. I don’t know why. Most of the songwriters got mad at me because none of them came to town and got an album like that just off the bat. I’d been there since ’66. By God, how long do you have to be there? Claiming I wasn’t paying my dues or something. That I was too young. Now, I’m too old, so I don’t know. I think when you run into writers that can’t be you, they try and do it in other ways. Kill them with kindness. I’ve heard plenty of people say, “Ol Billy Joe, he’s a great songwriter, but too bad he’s got this drug habit.” Or he’s an alcoholic. And I’m not. I kicked them drugs 25 years ago. I don’t even smoke. I’m a pretty clean ol’ boy right now.
NS: A lot of people say you’re a great songwriter. Some even say you’re the best songwriter out there.
BJS: Yeah, but I don’t know about that. There’s just so many great ones out there. Bob Dylan. I mean, shoot. Bob Dylan is probably the greatest. I never have met him. I really do respect him and think the world of him. He’s probably the greatest–if there ever was one. Kris Kristofferson, Paul Simon. Good God, there’s a whole gang of them [laughs]. I don’t know how in the world you’d figure. I tell you what, Harlan Howard was probably the best. Harlan Howard wrote over 500 songs. He was awfully good. Thought the world of him.
NS: Being known as a songwriter foremost, did you feel as though you had to grow into being a performer or was that just as natural? How was that?
BJS: No. I’d been playing when I was eight-years-old. I sold papers on the corner in Corsicana, Texas. I’d sing and tap my foot. Sold a lot of papers. Then I’ve always had a band here and there. Then my son, when he was about 12-years-old, Dickey Betts found out that Eddy could play [laughs]. Gave him a couple of guitars. Gave him a 335 that had belonged to Duane Allman and a 55 Strat. Dickey kind of took him under his wing and taught him some things. Eddy learned a lot from him. Then Eddy took over and started doing his own thing, which was outstanding. I had him in my band and we’ go and play. Everybody was saying I was ruining my career. That I wasn’t country. We were kicking it pretty hard like they do down here in Texas. You’ve got to be with all the talking. Texas always has a little more kick to it. I just kept on doing it. We were playing to packed crowds so I don’t know what was going on in their heads [laughs]. The powers that be were cutting us off at the corner and this and that. Other songwriters were kind of jealous. Sometimes you get to wondering what in the hell it is they don’t like about you. It’s hard to be an outlaw when you aren’t wanted.
It’s hard to figure out sometimes. Here I am 73-years-old and still playing. But my singing back then wasn’t good enough for those songs. Those songs were bigger than me. I couldn’t possibly do it like Waylon could. Waylon Jennings was the best singer alive at the time. He could be the best singer, but I don’t know–I think he is. At the time, he was the best one alive. That’s why I got lucky. He delivered them good too. But that’s all I got out of him [laugh]. I wish he’d had done some more. I tell you, he could have had a whole nother album of kick ass songs. I just don’t know why. I guess it was just his pride I guess. Or maybe it was family or friends or who knows. But Waylon and I were good friends. Me and him and Shel Silverstein, we’d go out on Waylon’s tours and go out and have a great time. I loved Shel, he was really something.
NS: You’re obviously still hitting the road and playing live. How do you go and pick a setlist? I’d imagine if you chose every song you wanted to do, you’d be up there forever.
BJS: Oh, I know [laughs]. I pick the ones that were hits. Then I pick the ones that I like and the ones that kick. The fast ones. Every chance I get, I’ll throw in a slow one that’s got some really good lyric content. I have a big ol’ setlist because I started doing it when I was on drugs. I’d sometimes end up doing the same song twice. Stuff like that. It’s really the best thing to do. All I need to see is a title and I can remember all the songs. But you’re right, I could probably sing for two or three days [laughs]. I was talking with someone the other day. They asked what songs I liked the best, and I said, “Well God, everybody says this, but they are just like children.” If one of them is bucktoothed, you don’t like it less because of it. You love them all the same. There you go. That’s just the way things go. I wouldn’t have written it if I didn’t.
NS: You’ve always been a real blunt songwriter. Always been real honest in your lyrics. You’ve written about all the good and bad times. The difficult times in your life. How hard is it to be that honest and to write about so many things that are so personal?
BJS: It’s kind of like going to a psychiatrist. It’s the cheapest psychiatrist there is. Everybody ought to write songs [laughs]. You’ll tell yourself things you wouldn’t tell a psychiatrist. But that’s where my edge is. I’ve always tried being brutally honest. Always tried doing it as simple as possible. Simplicity doesn’t need to be greased. You don’t need to put grease on it; it just goes. I say it was simple as I can and in as few words as I can so that knotheads like me can understand it and the smart ones will get it [laughs].
And as few chords as I can use. Two or three chords. I never was a big player. I used to play pretty well until Eddy started playing. Then he’d get over there and unplug me [laughs]. So I got to where I knew he wanted to be the guitar player of the family so I decided to back off and just do chords and play as little as possible. Now my shoulders are so messed up–got screws all in me, having heart-attacks and everything. You could chunk me out and get more than what I’m worth. Thing about it is that I don’t have to play much now. I’ve got a good three-piece band. My guitar player, Jeremy Woodall. My bass man, Matt Davis. And my drummer, he’s been with me for about 15 or 20 years now, Jason McKenzie. I know these guys in and out; they’re good guys. We go down the road in a 15 passenger van pulling our little trailer. We tried a bus for about a month. It wrecked actually [laughs].
NS: Obviously you’ve been writing songs for a long time…
BJS: Yeah. And poetry a lot too. When I’m wanting to, I just sit down and write one. I’ve got a whole store-room full. Sometimes I’ll reach in there and get me a handful of them.
NS: Your debut album came out around 40 years ago. How do you relate to those songs 40 years later?
BJS: Oh, they’re so old, they’re new [laughs]. I’ve seen people’s eyes pop open when they hear them. I really laid into them and so glad I did. I want them to live forever. Every time I sing one of them, they’re almost like a little time capsule. I get to go back and at least touch up on some feeling when I wrote it. It’s very entertaining for me.
NS: Does that feeling ever changes for a song? You ever look at it differently years later?
BJS: No, it never changes. I always have a great time. I really enjoy it. I guess I’ve matured enough to know I’m blessed to have all these songs. Because, I went to hell and back to write them. I didn’t have to. I just put myself through, but some great songs came out. I always wrote. Didn’t matter if I was high or drunk or whatever, I always wrote. I figured as long as I was writing songs, and I was happy with them, I was successful. If nobody was recording them, that’s OK. If I wasn’t recording them, that’s alright. As long as I was happy with them and was doing what I was supposed to do. This was the gift God gave me and I’m doing the best I can with it.
NS: I was going to ask if we could talk about a few songs in particular.
NS: Well alright. I’m going to try and go with a few of the lesser known ones. First song, “West Texas Waltz.”
BJS: Boy, that’s a great song. It’s mostly about way back when I met my first wife. When I first met her, I just gave up what I was doing. I was heading in the wrong direction anyway. When I went in there and tried being a good husband–and was until I started doing the music [laughs]. The music ruined me [laughs].
NS: Another song I really like is “When Fallen Angels Fly.”
BJS: Boy, I tell you, you like some real good ones. This and “West Texas Waltz.” “West Texas Waltz” just has a beautiful melody. “When Fallen Angels Fly,” Patty Loveless did that on an album. She had to fight to get it on there. They didn’t want one of my songs on there. It got named the album.
NS: The next song, “Honey Bee.” I believe you wrote that as a kid, right?
BJS: “Honey Bee,” yeah. I wrote that when I was about eight-years-old. It was about a little ol’ girl. I grabbed her and kissed her and she fell into a mud hole. Her daddy, he owned this grocery store. He done pinned me in against this fence with his pick-up truck. He got out and beat the compound hell out of me. I had knots on top of knots. I went and walked all the way back to the house. My grandma, she raised me. She was tough. She looked at me, grabbed me by the skinny arm, walked me up to the grocery store. She said, “You stay right here.” I said, “OK.” I did everything she told me because she’d whoop your ass in a minute. She went in there and pretty soon she came out dragging that man and threw him down and just beat the compound hell out of him. People had gathered round. People were taking pictures. It was kind of ridiculous. I don’t know if it got in the paper or not. We didn’t check it. Then she grabbed me by my skinny arm and walked on home. It was dang near 10 miles. When we got to the house, she whooped my ass too [laughs]. I got the short end of the stick that time.
NS: In 2001, you had a heart attack on stage at Gruene Hall. I read that you said you wished you had died there. Thought it was kind of fitting.
BJS: Yeah. It’s the oldest honky-tonk in Texas. I said, “God, thank you for letting me die here at the oldest honky-tonk in Texas!” Sure enough, I didn’t. Jesse Taylor was playing guitar for me. When Jesse was a young kid, one ear got messed up in a car wreck and he couldn’t hear out of it. That particular ear was pointed towards me. I kept showing him one finger and saying ‘This is it. This is the last one.” He kept thinking I was saying to do one more. He kept on playing [laughs]. We were just surrounded by people. You know how that place is. It’s just so hot in there. No air conditioning. People all around you. It’s just kind of hard to get out of there even after you’re done. I had this big time heart attack happening. Kept on telling him that this was it and not one more song. Finally I just shook him and told him I was having a heart attack. I went out and signed a few things and got into my truck. Went to Pflugerville. We were playing there the next night. I just kind of had a little conversation with God. I said, “That was a pretty dirty trick to letting me die in Pflugerville. Don’t even know how to pronounce it.” My T-shirt girl came by and said I needed to go to the hospital. She took me from Pflugerville all the way down to Waco. They stuck me in there and they said, “Oh you’re all right” and was fixing to leave, and they said I had to wait an hour because of some blood tests. All my arteries had laid down except one and it was going only at 10 percent. All my hair turned white overnight. It was pretty wild. I got out of there and was going, down in Waco, the guy who was going to operate on me said he thought he could get two of them things and knew he could get one. And I thought, “Good Lord. You can’t get no more than that [laughs]?” I said, “I hope you don’t mind, but I’m going to look around to who can do better than that.” I went down to my old doctor and he knew Chip Oswalt, surgeon. They said they could fix all four of them things. Meanwhile, my heart had grown another one. It just grew another artery. He went in there and cleaned everything out and got me running on all four. He got me done in an hour and 43 minutes. I couldn’t believe it.
Actually, before the operation, Kinky Friedman came to me and said, “Billy, we got to go to Australia and do this tour over there now.” I said, “I remember now. It’s about a month-long. I can’t do it Kinky. I had a heart attack and I’m about to get operated on.” He said, “Heart attack? Hell, people have heart attacks everyday. You’re going to ruin my career.” I thought, what’s the matter with this guy? And I’ll be darned if he didn’t talk me into going over there for a whole month. I was over there a month and when I got off the plane over here, they grabbed me. I went in and got operated in less than three days.
NS: You recently released “Live at Billy Bob’s Texas” this year. You’re constantly writing and have a few new songs on there. When do you think we’ll hear a new album from you?
BJS: Yeah. I’ve got some new songs. A whole album worth. We’ve already done two or three of them. Todd Snider is behind it. I’ll be on Lightning Rod with James McMurtry and some others. James a good friend of mine. Logan Rogers owns it and he’s a good friend of mine. Todd reached out to me. I don’t think people wanted to mess with me much. They keep thinking I’m too old. He helped me out quite a bit. They’re all new. They’ll curl your toenails, some of them are real good. I’ll always write good songs because I’m always trying to write better than the previous ones. Sometimes it’s just damn near impossible [laughs].
NS: When do you think this new record will be coming out?
BJS: Well, we were hoping to get it out in February.