By Holly Gleason
(LSM July/Aug 2014/vol 7 – issue 4)
Legend has always cloaked Billy Joe Shaver: As an 8-year-old living with his grandmother, singing on the counter and extending his grandma’s old age pension with his precocious gifts; as a roughneck songwriter who told Waylon Jennings if he didn’t listen to his demo tape, he’d kick his ass — and ended up being the lion’s share writer on Jennings’ landmark 1973 album Honky Tonk Heroes, considered by many to be the birth of the Outlaw movement; as a man who lost his guitar-partner son, Eddy, his wife, and his mother within a matter of months — and in the abyss of grief found the grace to carry on. And yes, as a man who shot another man outside a bar, fled to Willie Nelson’s place to negotiate his surrender — and was eventually acquitted of the deed, claiming self-defense.
All those stories are true. Great as they are, though, they miss the root of what makes Shaver iconic. More than the humility to walk with a real man’s confidence, the ability to surrender all to the Lord and, ahem, shoot out the lights, Shaver’s songs — like his life — capture the fragility that comes with strength, the faltering realm of conviction, and the hard, ragged edge of love as well as its thrilling rush and incandescence. Distilling life to small things of profound proportions, his songs have perhaps most famously been recorded by Bobby Bare, Johnny Cash, Tom T. Hall, Jennings, and Nelson (who sings two brand new Shaver songs on his latest album, Band of Brothers). But Shaver has also supplied signature songs for John Anderson (“I’m Just an Old Chunk of Coal”); Patty Loveless (“When Fallen Angels Fly”); Asleep at the Wheel (“Way Down Texas Way”); and a pair of raucous fringe roots outfits, Commander Cody & His Lost Planet Airmen and BR-549 (“I Been to Georgia on a Fast Train”). And the list goes on and on: Elvis Presley and Alison Krauss (“You Asked Me To”); the Allman Brothers (“Sweet Mama”); Jerry Lee Lewis and bluegrass icons the Seldom Scene (“Ride Me Down Easy”); Kris Kristofferson (“Good Christian Soldier ”); and Joe Ely (“Live Forever”). And of course Shaver has recorded all of these songs and many more self-penned gems on his own albums, too, beginning with 1973’s Kristofferson- produced Old Fiver & Dimers Like Me.
But Shaver, who lost three fingers in a saw mill accident and still shakes hands firmer than most men, knows it isn’t about what’s already happened. With shoulders wide enough to carry the world, he looks forward and takes whatever steps are in front of him. Those steps recently led him from his home in Waco back to Music City, U.S.A. to record his first new studio album since 2007’s Grammy-nominated, gospel-leaning Everybody’s Brother — and his first album of all new songs in nearly a decade. Working collaboratively with Ray Kennedy (Steve Earle, Ray Davies, John Hiatt, Todd Snider) and longtime friend, guitarist and now co-writer Gary Nicholson (Delbert McClinton, Chris Knight, Bonnie Raitt), Shaver created Long In the Tooth, a loose, roots-grounded take on country, blues, and roughneck rock.
Shaver may be turning 75 this August, but his latest batch of songs proves the Outlaw’s outlaw is still every bit as committed, wild, and willing as ever. He opens the album on a bawdy note with “Hard To Be an Outlaw,” in which a 21-year-old girl spends the night playing with his “gun” and leaves at daybreak, whimpering and unable to take any more. After Willie joins him later in the song to question the legitimacy of some modern-day, so-called “country” stars, Shaver moves onto the stomping title track, all saber-tooth tiger growl and warning. But he keeps his faith, too, tackling the divine on “I’m In Love,” a song of passion and commitment to his savior.
The divine and mortal have always marked Shaver’s records. On Long In the Tooth, those themes define and deliver him. With palpable joy in his voice, after a decade of personal struggle, the Corsicana-born Texan is back and ready to sop it all up like a biscuit in gravy. At a not-so-rock-’n’-roll 10 a.m., Shaver is on the phone from his home, getting ready to pack for a few-week run of shows and ready to talk about where he is in his life, his music, and his reasons for believing. Sounding positively jubilant, the hardcore songwriter is fired up about being back in a creative zone. For one who has bottomed out, hit the wall, and somehow always come back, his new music seems to signal a different kind of rebirth. If he’d been up late the night before, he was certainly ready to meet the day.
Did you have extra strong coffee this morning?
[Laughs] Naw — I get up earlier than this! Even when we’re playing … and we start Saturday night. Doing Houston, over to Mississippi, then Nashville. We play for three nights, then we travel … we’re going up north, to New York. Eddy and I played up there so much, we have a great following. They really come out, all kinds of people. Heck, the people and their kids, even their grandkids. That’s how long we’ve been doing it.
It’s hard to draw people out for a lot of acts these days. What’s your secret?
Well, we toured pretty hard. People know what they’re gonna get, and I know we’re gonna get people showing up. Especially on Sundays. We got a lot of Christians who come out. I pretty much stay in the same place. People know … and it’s simplicity. I got that cornered. You don’t have to put no grease on it. The music’s easy to understand. Nothing tricky. Just plug in, listen.
Is that what defines Long In The Tooth? How did it come about?
You know, it was a low-budget record. We had to do it when (co-producers) Gary and Ray could get the time. Ray’s always busy, so whenever he got time, I’d drive up to Nashville to get a little something done. I love to drive anyway, so I’d get in the truck. Sometimes it’d be in a hurry, but that’s how serious we all were about it. And it felt like a lot of fun. Leon (Russell) and Tony Joe (White), all the players were such good friends. We love and respect each other so much, just getting together was reason to celebrate.
Gary played guitar with me back when Eddy was alive. We had twin guitars, kinda like the Allman Brothers. Gary goes way, way back. He was one of the Can’t Hardly Play Boys, back when I was Slim Chance. [Laughs] Gary came down to Waco to get me stirred up a little bit. It’d been seven years since I’d made a record, and he thought it was time. We’d be setting and talking, start writing a song — and I’d never co-written with anyone before. But Gary’s a good friend so it didn’t feel weird.
How was it working with your new label?
Lightning Rod Records! Logan Rogers gave us everything he had. That’s the thing about smaller labels: everybody’s really hands on all the way. Everybody’s part of what they’re doing, and you get more attention that way. Plus, they let you make the record you want to make. That’s the deal.
That’s not always the case! The first track on the album, “Hard to Be an Outlaw,” sure hits Nashville on the chin.
[Laughs] I ran the title by Willie, and he said, “Write that!” So I did, and I ran it by him. He said, “That’s great …” If you can get one by Willie, that’s pretty good.
It’s a pretty straight-up take on outlaws versus today’s country.
I’m an old country throwback. Country, to me, is just being honest about it: simple and honest, and I’ve got that simplicity thing cornered. I don’t have much schooling; what I’ve learned I’ve picked up by osmosis. So I write about myself, because I don’t want to be judging anybody else. But I’m enough like people, a song about me might apply to them, too. So that’s what I do. I don’t listen to the radio much. But what little I’ve heard seems like kids who don’t like to think too much, and just wanna be having fun. I’m not too much like that. I like to have fun, you know, but I’m coming from a whole different place. I want my songs to last forever. You gotta have humor in life, too, don’t get me wrong; otherwise life would be a pretty dull place. But I call it ‘whistling by the graveyard.’ It’s a whole different kind of fun.
Like the title track, “Long in the Tooth”? Where did that one come from?
My friend Paul Gleason, who was a movie star — he was in The Breakfast Club as the principal and a bunch more — he was good people, and before his death, we used to hang out. We were writing on this one before he passed, and I went on and finished it. He was a good songwriter; had this book with poems in it, and that’s where I saw “Long In the Tooth.” It even sounded like me!
At the other end of the spectrum, there are the love songs. For a rugged guy, you’re pretty tender. Look at “I’ll Love You as Much as i Can.”
Yeah, there’s not a whole lot more you can do. I’d already had a wonderful love, and I knew that. So I told her [Shaver’s latest girl] this from the git go. But we got married three times and divorced three times, and now she’s back over at the house, so it seems like that divorce thing isn’t working out.
Well, that makes it sound like you’ve actually given up on “real” love. Have you?
I’m just about done with the romantic part. But who knows? You don’t jump on love, it jumps on you. You can’t go find it, it’ll find you. That’s how it did me before, and I have a feeling that’s how it’ll happen again.
Well, if you’re done with romance, what’s left?
Right now? I’m married to Jesus Christ. I wear a ring. Literally. So, I try my best to walk the line and do like Jesus. I know it sounds funny, but you get stronger and stronger every day if you’re trying to live like Jesus Christ.
Faith has always been important to you.
I wouldn’t make it without it. It’s almost an obligation, but also a labor of love. I’m a sinner; I know I’ll fall short. I always do. But if you have forgiveness for a sin — you can ask seven times 70, and I’ve pushed it! — you gotta have some salt, too. That’s about salt of the earth. If you don’t have a little of that, God doesn’t want you. He doesn’t make sour pusses. He didn’t create us for that. Because when God forgives you, then he forgets. It’s over. He wipes the slate clean! Some of us hold onto things, though, and that’s the pain of it.
So on the new record, is “I’m in Love” actually a song about your faith?
It sounds like a love song, but it’s a spiritual. It’s about being born again! [Laughs] I feel like somebody will record it as a love song, but it’s not that. It’s about the moment when the umbilical chord is finally severed.
When were you born again?
It’s so far back — years and years. It was ’80-something. So long ago, I almost don’t remember. I don’t wanna preach to nobody, but it’s true. It’s the truth, the way and the light, and singing songs like this, it lets people know where I’m going. Laying it all out there for them so they can know, too. When I wrote “Old Chunk of Coal,” that’s when it started. When I wrote this one, it was completed. And when I’m playing, I always do a spiritual song about the Lord. Because I wrote it, people can hear it; they know I mean it.
Your song “Live Forever” is like that, and one of your most covered later songs.
Yeah, and I’ve sung it too much lately. Poodie Locke, a good friend of mine from Waco who worked for Willie, I sang it as his funeral, and a few more. I decided I was gonna stop, just stop doing it. But I know (death) is as perennial as the grass. It’s gonna happen; whether you want it to or not, it is.
You first recorded the song on Tramp On Your Street, with Eddy. You must think of him every time you sing it. [Released in 1993 on the Los Angeles-based rock/ alternative label Zoo Entertainment, Tramp was the first of a handful of albums Billy Joe and his son recorded under the band name Shaver, giving equal billing to Billy Joe’s singing and songwriting and Eddy’s blistering guitar work.]
Me and Eddy wrote “Live Forever” back in 1989. And today’s his birthday. He’s not with us anymore, but that is the beginning of forever: when they pass.
Some people think that when life leaves the body, the soul stays with the people they love.
[Laughs] I can’t get rid of him! He stays with me all the time. We were more like brothers than father and son, the way we knew each other and understood each other. I never had to guess where he was going when he was playing: I just knew. We were everywhere together, and now that he’s gone … I’m doing a few things I used to get on to him about. When he’d take his pajamas off, he’d just stomp ’em down into the floor, kinda mash ’em down. Now I’m doing it. [Laughs]
But the people we love, I truly believe we absorb them when they pass.
The good things and the lightness of them will melt into you … Absolutely.
Losing loved ones is something we all have to come to terms with. But the fact that Eddy, your wife and his mother, and your own mother all died so soon one after the other must have been …
I got left by everybody! The dog died even. I can’t imagine why I’m the one left. Cause I’m so hardheaded? I’m pretty strong. I don’t know. But I’m here.
Have you always thought of yourself as hardheaded?
I think (people in the business) thought I was a joke. Or maybe I was a joke…Idon’t know. I was my own worst enemy; I stepped on everybody’s toes. So maybe that’s part of it. Tramp On Your Street was kind of a stepchild ’cause it was so different … But it’s catching on now, finally.
You may be hardheaded, but not hard-hearted. Did it get to you much back before things started to catch on for you?
When you’re really good, it bothers you — you get your heart broke! But it seems like I’m getting everything I didn’t get back then. I feel good about everything now. I’ve actually settled in a spot I really, really like. My writing’s always been good, and I know that. And I know some of the songs on this album are going to be recorded, some of the others will be discovered. But I also enjoy getting up there and singing them myself. I sometimes listen to the old records and I think I sing a little better than I used to. But (listening to them) makes it a little easier to remember, to know where I was going when I wrote those songs. In some ways, it’s like a time capsule. You put it on, and the record takes you back.
You’ve led a life.
Well, you live. You do that, that’s what you do.
And you’ve made some pretty amazing friends along the way. A lot of them are on this record, too. Willie recorded his own version of “Hard to Be an Outlaw” on his new album, but he’s also singing it with you on yours.
When we were making this record, everybody was coming around. We love and respect each other so much, and we had so much fun together! I’m thinking about moving back there to Nashville ’cause so many of my friends are there. All the folks on my record: Shawn (Camp), Jedd (Hughes), Gary, Ray … And it seems like most of my friends here in Texas are goin’ on.
But you’re still here. And you still sound pretty strong.
Ahhh, hon, I’m 75, you know. I still have a young man’s brain and lots of young man’s ideas, but I don’t always know if the old locomotive can keep up. I’m gonna keep goin’, though. I’m gonna keep goin’.