By Richard Skanse
You wouldn’t wish the last couple of years of Billy Joe Shaver’s life on your worst enemy. By now, his chain of sorrow is nearly as well known as his best-loved songs, in part because every time life has dealt Shaver a bad hand, he’s turned to song as his best means of therapy. It was the death of both his mother Victory and wife Brenda from cancer within a month from each other in 1999 that spawned Shaver’s last album, 2001’s epic The Earth Rolls On. Then, on December 31, 2000, shortly after the album was recorded and before it even hit shelves, Shaver found himself in a Waco hospital praying for his son’s life. Shortly before 3 a.m., Eddy Shaver, who for 24 of his 38 years had played lead guitar in his father’s band, was pronounced dead of a heroin overdose.
In the months that followed that last loss, you can bet Shaver longed to shuffle off his own mortal coil and join his loved ones in a better place. He came close last summer, when he suffered a heart attack onstage at Gruene Hall. But Shaver is nothing if not a survivor, and with the help of bypass surgery, his strong Christian faith, and no small amount of support from friends like Kinky Friendman and Willie Nelson, he’s found a new lease on life at age 63. His new album, Freedom’s Child, is the proof. Recorded with famed producer R.S. Field, who last worked with Shaver on 1993’s acclaimed Tramp On Your Street, Feedom’s Child is an album Shaver didn’t think he could make but soon found that he had to. Not to fulfill a record contract, not to keep his fans happy and not even to put food on the table, but simply because he was still living, and thus, still writing songs about his life and family that he couldn’t bare to keep to himself. Rest assured that as long as Billy Joe Shaver walks the earth, he will continue to write songs, and he will continue to record them, because as he’ll tell you himself, what else is he going to do with them? Because when Shaver writes, he writes about himself, and they’re not the kind of songs you peddle to any passing hat act on Music Row in Nashville.
Of course, other people have covered Shaver songs. Big people. People like Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Bob Dylan, Willie Nelson, Kris Kristofferson, Patty Loveless, and of course, the late Waylon Jennings, who recorded an entire album (well, all but one song) of Shaver songs — 1973’s outlaw country landmark, Honky Tonk Heroes. But the best Shaver cuts have always been the ones he’s cut himself, and his records — beginning with his 1973 debut Old Five and Dimers Like Me and continuing right on up to Freedom’s Child — have earned him a place of honor amongst the greatest songwriters to ever come out of Texas. And with the new album premiering some of the best songs he’s ever written, including the opening “Hold On to Yours (And I’ll Hold On to Mine),” the title track, and “Day By Day” (essentially, the story of his life told in four minutes), there’s still the promise of hopefully many more great songs to come.
Once you went back into the studio to record this new album, it came along really quickly, didn’t it?
Yeah. I wanted this album out right away, and Brad Turcotte, who owns the label, and Bobby Fields, the guy who produced it, both wanted it out right away, too. It just seemed like it needed to be put out right away.
Why the urgency?
Well, because of the song “Freedom’s Child.” It has some views of things that I think need to be heard.
Did that stem from September 11?
No, not exactly. It’s about a soldier that gets killed, an unknown soldier. We just kind of wanted everybody to hear it. It’s an older song, but I just never had occasion to record it. I don’t even know why I wrote it. It just came out, so I wrote it. But it’s new. You’ve got to figure if no one’s ever heard them, then they’re new. If you didn’t, then you’d have to write all the songs in one day. So I find songs that no one’s ever heard and put those out along with a lot of songs that I’ve just written.
This is the first album you’ve recorded in well over a decade without Eddy playing on it. It must have been really hard to go back into the studio without him.
Yeah, it was really rough. Right at the first, I wasn’t really sure what was going to happen. But I trusted R.S. completely. That song “Day By Day,” about my life with my family, with Brenda and Eddy, was the very last song completed. It just chronicles the things that happened to us, and says how their deaths affected me, how it knocked me to my knees and my heart broke. Of course, I had a heart attack, but I got up. But I’d been writing on that song for about 20 years, and it kept changing. Finally I told R.S., “This has got to be the last song that I put on the album, because I’ve got to have all the time I can — something else might happen.” [Laughs] But I’ve always said that the cheapest psychologist was writing songs, and it actually did happen that way this time, because this was something I needed to get out of me, and it helped me a lot. But it was gut wrenching. Boy, was it ever hard.
How long did it take to record that song?
Not very long at all. Will Kimbrough was sitting right straight across from me, and he got into the song real good, I could see tears in his eyes. I was sitting across from him in a chair in an open room, and he was playing 12-string guitar, and we just knocked it out as soon as I finished writing it. As a matter of fact, I was still writing on it while he was tuning up.
Did you feel Eddy with you in the studio?
Oh yeah. Eddy’s still with me. I fell his presence, yeah.
Eddy actually is on this album –— the hidden track at the end, “A Necessary Evil,” is Eddy all by himself. When did he record that?
Right before he passed. It was out in the garage. He had a little bitty amplifier, just a little cheap thing. And he was out there playing at night, and I said, “I’m going to set this tape recorder up.” And he did it so perfectly, I just couldn’t believe it. It knocked me out. That’s the only pass he took at it, too, and I stuck it on the end of the album. I started writing the song, and he just went out there and finished it. A lot of that stuff was real personal to him, so I guess you could say that he wrote it.
When you finish an album, is it always just the latest batch of songs, or do they each mean something specific to you?
This album here is like, oh — it’d be like a person would feel if they were an artist and they’d painted a bunch of pictures, put their heart and soul into them, and then R.S. just took them and hung them in the right spots and we have a gallery opening and people get to go and they get to look. It feels kind of like that to me.
But what would you say it’s about? The last album seemed to be dealing a lot with the passing of your wife and mother and mortality. What about this one?
This is about, I’d say, all in all … the beginning of forever. This is the way it’s going to be from now on. Not just that album, but this is what I’m going to be dealing with from now on. It’s just myself. I don’t have Brenda and Eddy anymore. Not so much personal, but I have to just churn out some really good work and continue to make my mark. It would be so easy to quit. It would actually be a lot easier to quit than it is to go on, but I’m going on because, well, I enjoy writing songs. And to write them and then not be able to put them anywhere would be a sad thing. They pile up on you and they get like furniture in a warehouse. They’re quality work and really good stuff, and you just hate to sell them to people and let them put barn paint on them. That’s the way it seems to me sometimes that it happens. You take a great song and you give it to just anybody, and they slap barn paint on it and sell it. [Laughs] I don’t know any other way to say it.
Freedom’s Child is your first record for the new label Compadre, after a three-album stint with New West. How did the label change come about?
I just decided it was time for me to move on, that’s all. Actually, I didn’t know if I could do another album, and I figured it’d be best to get out of that contract because I didn’t feel like doing another album. Then I got all right after I’d already gotten out of the contract, and I could have gone back to them, but I decided I’d go with something new, because it’s good for me to be doing something with these people.
Before signing with Compadre, someone started a rumor that you’d signed to the Chicago label Bloodshot.
Yeah, I don’t know who did that. I actually had about three deals working, and somebody knocked me out of all of those deals by reporting that. [Laughs] But then I wound up with this one, so I guess I’m just as well off. It doesn’t matter.
Let’s talk about some of the other songs. My favorite is the first one, “Hold On to Yours (And I’ll Hold On To Mine).”
Oh yeah, that’s a great song. I was hoping someone would pick up on that, and I think a lot of people will. Brenda and I, we were on again, off again, but I believe relationships can go a long way or forever even if you just hold on to your identity. Just like the song says.
Did you ever lose your identity?
Somewhat. I was always searching for it, kind of. Not sure about what I wanted to do, all during the younger parts of my life, until I got into the music, then I knew what I wanted to do. But it wasn’t easy. I got in late — I was pushing 30, or I might have been 30. But I was in such bad physical shape — I’d fallen off many horses and bulls, chopped off fingers and stuff, so I sort of fell back on music.
Sounds like music was the last thing your body could handle.
It really was! [Laughs] But it got pretty hard there for a while, and it still is pretty hard, because we still travel around in a van. It’s not like somebody bringing you your guitar with it in tune and stuff like that. A lot of work has to be done before you even get to that stage. So I’m naturally going to give it everything I’ve got when I get on stage, because I’ve worked so hard to get there, and I enjoy it.
But after doing it the hard way — no roadies or posh bus — your whole career, do you think you’d even be able to handle that kind of luxury at this point? Wouldn’t it all feel kind of foreign to you?
I don’t know, but I’d like to try it on! [Laughs] I’d like to start living in a style that I ain’t accustomed to, buy some shit I don’t need. That might be worth a try. Especially at my age and the shape I’m in. If this album goes, it’ll be a godsend, because that way maybe I’ll be able to go down the road a little longer. Because it’s getting really hard. It’s a lot of work, stuffing everybody into a van and going, it’s hard to get people who will do that, because it’s a lot easier for them to just go and get a job with somebody that’s got a bus. It’s a world of difference — no strain on the body or anything like that. No up-close stuff where you get to wanting to kill each other. That’s why when I go, I do try to get everybody a single room, so at least when we stop we can get away from each other. Some people have them pair up in rooms, and golly, they get to where they want to kill each other after a while. I always thought people should get their own room.
How many miles do you have on your van?
On this one here I don’t have but about 140,000, but my last two vans, I had 600,000 on one and more than 600,000 on the other one. And they’re still going. I just change the oil on them or change tires. Every once in a while the transmission will go out and I’ll fix that. As a matter of fact, this big ol’ 15-passenger van that I’m driving now, the rear-end is about to go out, so more than likely I’ll have to have a rear-end put in it just before we hit the road.
[Bassist] Keith Christopher has told me stories about going on the road with you and Eddy when he was part of the Shaver band, and how the van would always break down and you’d pull over to fix it with like, duct tape and spit.
Yeah. Duct tape, bailing wire, anything I could find. I have a little bit of knowledge about mechanics, just enough to keep it going. One van, I bet I spent as much time under that son-of-a-gun as I did in it. And they’d all go have coffee or beer or something, because Keith, he couldn’t even hand you a wrench. [Laughs]
Back to the songs. Tell me about “Wild Cow Gravy.” That’s about your mother’s childhood, isn’t it?
[Laughs] Yeah, my mother and all my kinfolks. I wasn’t involved in that — I put myself in there, there’s a little fiction involved. But my mother, when she passed away, we were all over at her house, you know how everybody eats when somebody dies? And my cousin, Donny Ray, he says, “You know, us Watsons never would have made it if it hadn’t been for that wild cow gravy.” I said, “What? Man, that’s the funniest thing I’ve ever heard of in my life! Tell me more.” He said when they’d get real hungry, they’d hunt up an old wild mama cow, and they’d head-and-heel her like they do in rodeos, stretch her out, and my Aunt Claudie would duck walk up there and milk it and get a fruit jar full of this wild milk. And it was some rank stuff, but with just a fruit jar, you could take it back and mix it with water and make gravy for biscuits and eat it for weeks. I went, “My god, I’ve never heard of such a thing.” He said, “Yeah, it’ll make you live forever even if you don’t want to!”
I love that line — it really sums you up.
It does. [Laughs] He didn’t really say that, but I kind of got that from him. They were a pretty tough bunch running amok in the Arkansas hills. My mother’s from Texarkana; they said grandmother had one leg on the Texas side and one leg on the Arkansas side when Mama was born — which is a bunch of crap, really.
I was going to ask, how do you milk a wild cow — but I guess the answer is …
Very carefully! [Laughs] It’s a funny song. I had a lot of fun with that song.
It actually sounds like you had quite a bit of fun making this record, all things considered. My favorite moment is after the end of “That’s What She Said Last Night,” when you’re laughing and mumble, “That’s terrible!”
Oh yeah. You know what I said before that? They cut it out, but I said, “Shit…That’s terrible!” I just made all that stuff up in that song. Actually Eddy started it. We kind of wrote that song together, but he wasn’t here for all of it. I made up the cell phone part [In the song, Shaver’s girlfriend throws away his cell phone, telling him, “It’s too small for me!”]. I started to make it a big cell phone, and I thought, that ain’t that funny. And I actually do have a little bitty cell phone, and it’s about the only thing that men brag about being small. [Laughs] I had fun with this album. It was good for me to do it. At fist I didn’t think I would. R.S. actually talked me into doing this, and it’s good he did.
You co-wrote “Deja Blues” with Todd Snider, who also sings on the track. In the past, you’ve called him one of your favorite songwriters. How did you get turned on to him?
Eddy turned me on to Todd, because he played on his first album. Eddy said, “You know Dad, he reminds me of you when you were his age.” So I got to listening, and I said, “Shit, I wasn’t that good!”
Do you listen to a lot of music?
No I don’t. I’m usually working on my own, and not that I’m too good to listen to other people’s music, but I’m usually in the middle of writing something myself and I don’t want to accidentally get somebody else’s stuff or have mine derailed. It’s pretty much like osmosis to me — I soak in whatever’s around me.
What do you do when you’re not writing or playing music?
I play with my dogs and stuff. And I love to travel. If I get any time to travel and not play, I’ll get in the truck and just go somewhere. Anywhere. Little towns. And I usually end up writing songs when I do. Songwriting to me is still a hobby, and it’s the cheapest psychiatrist there is, and I still need one. So that’s my hobby. Other people go fishing or hunting and stuff. I used to fish, used to hunt, but now I enjoy writing more than I do anything. I guess I’ll get started writing a book, which I never have. I can’t imagine it’d be any harder than writing songs. I’ll see.
You had a small role in the Robert Duvall movie The Apostle. Do you see yourself doing any more acting?
I’ve got a small part in this movie called Secondhand Lions that they’re doing there in Austin. I don’t know who’s the head of it, but Robert Duvall and Michael Caine are in it, and I’ve got a part with them in it. I’ve spent a lot of time with Robert here lately and his lady friend, Luciana Pedraza. She’s doing a documentary on me. We filmed my English teacher — she’s 102. We filmed her the other day at this rest home, and she’s sharp as a whip. She wasn’t really my English teacher — she was my homeroom teacher when I was in 8th grade, and she encouraged me in my writing. I wrote a lot of poems and short stories and things, and I didn’t really tell a lot of people and made her agree to keep the things anonymous so nobody would know, because people would call you a sissy, and I didn’t want that. But she reeled off a couple of my poems, and we were all astonished. She broke her hip last week, but she sat right up in a wheel chair, 102 years old, just clicking.
You still live in Waco. Do you have many friends there?
I have kinfolks, but not too many people come over. They all know I have these pit bulls and they don’t get along with anybody, so not too many people come by. So I stay to myself a lot, and I kind of enjoy it. My most favorite people were Brenda and Eddy and my mother, and they’re gone. I haven’t cultivated any big time friends. Kinky’s a friend from way back, and every once in a while I’ll talk to Willie, but there’s not too many.
When was the last time you talked to Waylon Jennings?
I talked to him right before he passed. I was going with Kinky to Australia, and Waylon left a message on my phone. And I took it over to Australia with me, and I went to check the message, and the message somehow got garbled and I lost it. He was cussing me out anyway. [Laughs] But then we got to Australia and he passed on while we were there. We all pulled over and we had bottle of wine, so we cried a little and drank wine.
When was the last time you got to see him?
Boy, it’s been a long time ago. When they first opened that stadium in Nashville for the Titans.
What’s your favorite Waylon memory?
Just a lot of the time that I spent with him and Shel Silverstein out on the road. Waylon doing shows and us just hanging out, having a good time.
My favorite music story ever is the one about you and Waylon getting on a little charter plane in Australia, and him being nervous of course because of the night he gave up his seat on the plane that Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and the Big Bopper died in, and you teasing him by singing “Chantilly Lace.”
[Laughs] That is funny. Yeah. Captain Midnite — Roger Schutt, he’s the one that wrote the liner notes on Honky Tonk Heroes — the other night he was telling me about Waylon and Willie and Johnny Cash all being together, and Waylon said, “You know, I was on the stair case, and I couldn’t figure out if I was going up or I was going down, if I was going upstairs or downstairs.” And Willie says, “Yeah, I know the feeling. I had my hand on the doorknob and I couldn’t figure out if I was leaving or coming out.” And Johnny Cash says, “Boys, I’m glad I don’t have that trouble. Knock on wood.” And he knocks on the table and says, “Come in!” [Laughs] I guess you could tell it a little better than that. But those three, I’ll tell you what — you get them together, and they’re funny. Especially Willie.
Do you have any idea what Waylon would he have been cussing you out about on that last message he left you?
Oh, just in general, anything. Waylon was that way. He’d just take off on a rant. “You sorry motherfucker what are you doing …” [Laughs] You know how he is. But he was a good fellow — I couldn’t have made it without Waylon. We helped each other. He helped me, and I helped him too.