By Gregory Barr
For some listeners, the release of Billy Joe Shaver – Greatest Hits on Compadre Records (Shaver’s first greatest hits compilation) will be somewhat of a revelation. Scanning the list of 18 studio and live tracks – including two previously unreleased cuts – will be a eureka moment for some longtime and fledgling fans alike when they recognize the titles of songs recorded ages ago by Willie Nelson or Johnny Rodriguez, or perhaps ones they have heard performed recently in concert by young artists paying homage to the Godfather of Honky-Tonk.
Though he has never been as well known among casual music fans outside of Texas as the bigger stars who recorded his tunes — everyone from Waylon Jennings to Elvis Presley — he has always been a songwriter’s songwriter. And he’s definitely an artist who lives up to the oft-used “authentic” label tossed around in alternative country circles, a musician who has felt the pain or joy of which he sings.
With time healing a small portion of the hurt from multiple personal tragedies — his mother, wife and son Eddy passed away between 1999 and 2000 — Shaver did enjoy a memorable 2006. (Eddy, by the way, posthumously teams up with his father on electric guitar in the cut “Step on Up.”)
He was inducted into the Texas Music Hall of Fame in August and then, on Oct. 13, with ZZ Top’s Billy Gibbons presiding, Shaver married Wanda Lynn Canady … for the second time. Unfortunately, the boisterous senior citizen cracked a vertebra in his neck during some “Indian wrestling” hi-jinks with a buddy after the wedding, and is still under medical treatment.
During an interview with LoneStarMusic.com, Shaver says the Greatest Hits CD is a chance for him to revisit some old friends, and in the process, he realized that his writing style really hasn’t changed much at all, from decade to decade. Unlike many rock ’n’ roll stars, who may seem rather silly playing songs about teenage pursuits, Shaver’s lyrics have an aura of timelessness and carry enough emotional weight that they still seem poignant. And best of all, Shaver says he can’t wait to write some new ones. It’s what he was put on this earth to do.
How were you able to sift through such a huge catalog of music to come up with this short list of tracks?
Well, the record company had some songs in mind, and I had some, so I put in my two cents’ worth. Some of what you might regard as pretty big hits aren’t in there, but I was really thinking about just some of my most favorite songs. You know, I’m just real fond of all of my songs. It’s like a big family of children; you like the kids with the buck teeth just as much as the others, so I have to think that they’re all great or I really wouldn’t have written them.
Is it possible for you to pick one song that really outshines the rest, in terms of what it represented at the time and how it sounds to you today?
I’d say my best work is “Old Five and Dimers.” I’d be hard pressed to get any heavier than that. I wrote that song in a lightning storm in Tennessee. I had rented this house for $50 with my wife Brenda, and that was some terrible old house. It was haunted, with water in the basement and bees in the chimney. There wasn’t even any electricity. Well, it was raining one night and was real rough, and I just started writing “Five and Dimers.” For me, that song says so much more, in so few words. And it’s a song that’s always stuck with me, even though so many other people have recorded it, from Bob Dylan to Willie and Waylon. And right after that one was finished, I wrote “Honky Tonk Heroes.” It was like two sides of a coin, and when you write one song, there’s another side that needs to come out, like a yin and yang sort of deal. That’s the best time for me to write a good song — right after I wrote another good one. Some people will write that one good song and run out there and try to beat it to death, and want to get it on the radio. At that moment, when you’re so full of yourself and there’s all that adrenaline and you jump up and down and feel like you could conquer the world, that’s when it’s time to sit down and write another song. I can’t remember the second song I wrote right after “Old Chunk of Coal,” but I bet it was pretty damn good.
Some artists are reluctant, or even refuse, to play some of their older songs in concert, especially if they have a new album to sell. Do you feel that way at all?
You know, I don’t really think of any of my songs as being that old. What I like is the fact that there is always somebody who has never heard of you hearing your songs for the first time, so an old song is brand new to them. When I sing those old songs onstage, it’s like a time capsule back to when I wrote them, and puts you right back there, so I never had that problem. I remember some old words of wisdom from (actor) Yul Brynner, when he was performing The King and I. They asked him, “How can you do that show, night after night, and not be tired of it?” He said that every night there was a different audience, so that the chemistry in the theater was different, so his performance could never be the same two nights in a row. I’d love to be able to play a song exactly the same way the next night if I felt I played it the best the night before. But you just can’t.
There are two unreleased tracks on the album, “Melody” and “Light a Candle For Me.” That second song, which seems simultaneously sad and uplifting, has that ageless quality you talk about, so I’m guessing it isn’t brand new.
That was written back around the time of my second divorce (from Brenda) and I had been running around on her and was involved in drugs and dealers, so there was just a lot of bad stuff going down. It was in Arizona after I had been driving around, and I just sat down and wrote it. And that was way back in the day when you would wait until you recorded a song before you got the copyright on it. I don’t think anybody every stole (a song) from me, but that just goes with the business. If they did, I could always just write another song.
What about your favorite singer who covered your songs?
Waylon (Jennings) would have to be it. I’ve always thought the world of him, and I admired him long before he recorded my songs. We didn’t always get along that good, and butted heads a lot, but there were a lot of chemical reactions going on between us, in more way than one. Man, what a waste of fucking time that was (doing drugs) for those two or three years. But at the beginning, I sure did show up at the right time and place (when Jennings recorded 10 of Shaver’s songs and released his landmark Honky Tonk Heroes album in 1973) because at the time, Waylon could sing circles around everybody. It’s when I realized those songs were bigger than I was. We were lucky to run into each other. I also like the version that Willie (Nelson) did of “Five and Dimers.” I think his is the best version; it was up close and personal.
Have you crossed paths with Waylon’s son, Shooter, who has been in some big tours lately?
Back at a show on the Fourth of July we were able to sing “Honky Tonk Heroes” together. I really like him a lot. Maybe (a collaboration) could happen some day.
What about other singers on the music scene?
Jackson Taylor is a guy I really like. And I’ll be a fan of Todd Snider until the day I die. Actually I can’t think of a real bad one in the bunch that I’ve heard lately, especially the ones who aren’t as hip as all the rest. It’s those ones who are under the radar that have a lot of the talent, and you’d better go catch them now.
What other projects are you working on?
I’m always writing new stuff, and I’ve got this new CD that John Carter Cash is producing, with a duet with me and Kris Kristofferson on a song that Johnny Cash wrote. There are going to be a lot of other songs on there that are on the edge and spiritual, like “If You Don’t Love Jesus Go to Hell.” There’s also a duet I did with Johnny back in the day with my old band, the original Honky Tonk Heroes. The thing is really going to kick ass. Other people will be on there singing with me, like Willie and Tanya Tucker.
And what about acting? You worked a while back on The Wendell Baker Story with Owen and Luke Wilson, but it hasn’t been released.
Yeah, I play a retired preacher in that. Kris (Kristofferson) is also in it, and I loved doing it. I think if Robert Duvall (with whom Shaver starred in The Apostle) were to call me up to do something I might, but otherwise at this point I think I’ll pass (on acting) for now.
Let’s run through the rest of the songs on the Greatest Hits album, and just toss out a random thought or two about them, starting with the opening track, “Good Ol’ USA.”
That’s a song that should be sung by someone a hell of a lot bigger than me. That’s the best commercial I know of for this country. We should be writing more songs that have something good to say about the country.
“Georgia on a Fast Train”: That’s one of the first songs I ever wrote and is pretty much my whole life in a song. Even Commander Cody & the Lost Planet Airmen recorded it, but they stank up that puppy real hard. Willie sometimes opens up his shows with it.
“Freedom’s Child”: That’s another war song, and it’s about an unknown soldier who gets killed. It isn’t about any specific time or place.
“Try and Try Again”: That’s a song I had to write just to stay alive. I wrote it just before my wife passed away, when I knew it was going to happen.
“Old Chunk of Coal”: A lot of people have played or recorded it. Widespread Panic does it in their shows, and John Anderson does a great job on it.
“Step on Up”: You know, Eddy had written that melody before he passed, and I put the words to it, a la Billy Gibbons (of ZZ Top). I remember when Eddy was 15 years old he came up to me once, all serious, and grabbed me by the arm. He said, “You know, you’re not my real daddy.” I said, “If I’m not then who the hell is?” He said it was Billy Gibbons. I said, “Well, then get him to come over here and start feeding your ass!”
“Hottest Thing in Town”: Man, I love that song. I thought maybe Brooks and Dunn should record that one. I wrote that one about Madonna.
“That’s What She Said Last Night”: That’s just a crazy song. Eddy wrote part of it and I finished it off.
“When Fallen Angels Fly”: Patty Loveless titled one of her albums after that song. [Released in 1994, it was her biggest selling album with four Top 10 country singles.]
“I Couldn’t Be Me Without You”: Johnny Rodriguez recorded it, and it was his 11th No. 1 hit. I wrote it about my wife (Brenda).
“Black Rose”: “The devil made me do it the first time, and the second time I did it on my own …” Well, I guess I know all about that!
“Ride Me Down Easy”: That was one of the very first songs of mine that was recorded by Bobby Bare.
“Melody”: Not much to that but a beautiful melody. And it’s about a girl named Melody.
“You Asked Me To”: Willie and I wrote that one together, and Waylon came in after and stuck the bridge in there, and Elvis ended up recording it. I remember that we were over at Bobby Bare’s place and the lights were off because he didn’t pay the electric bill. The only light was from a neon light (outside) that was flashing. We wrote it in about five minutes.
“Live Forever”: That’s the song I wanted at the end of the CD, the one I did with Big & Rich. Doing that song with them was quite a big deal for me — I had to hitch myself up a few gears to get with it and enjoyed the heck out of that whole experience. Eddy and I wrote that one together. I guess when you think of it, writing all these songs means that in a way, I might just live forever, whether I want to or not.