Billy Joe Shaver:
The TVD Interview

Billy Joe Shaver is a diamond. A rough one, to be sure; no “Marquise cut” here. But a diamond, nevertheless. Playing music since the age of eight, the plainspoken Texan became a songwriter exemplar, receiving accolades (and cover versions) from peers like Bob Dylan, Willie Nelson, Kris Kristofferson, and legions more. He has also lived a life with more twists and turns than a Mexican telenovela.

While some may pad their resume with exaggerated tales of bravado, Mr. Shaver has no need to do so. The unvarnished truth of his life story comes through in his songs which are direct, emotional, and honest, brutally so at times. Touring in support of his excellent new album, Long in the Tooth, we spoke with Shaver about his career, his Texas heritage, and what lies ahead.

So, you are currently a resident of Waco, Texas?

Yes, I’m the “Wacko from Waco.”

I was born just south of there in Killeen…

(Immediately) Well, I wouldn’t brag about it too much (laughter). Nah, I’m just kidding. It’s a nice spot. A lot of crazy things happen down here.

Well, speaking of crazy, how did Todd Snider convince you to come to Nashville and make a record?

(More laughter) He has the ability to light a fire under me. What he does is pick on me until he gets me mad and then I’ll do it.

He must have made you really mad because this is a great record.

Yeah, it’s a great record, it really is. I like it. I had been planning on making another one but I was waiting for Ray Kennedy to come loose. Finally, he did and I went over to Ray’s studio with Todd and did some demo-type things. It worked out pretty good but not as good as the final version with Ray and Gary Nicholson.

All Todd was interested in was getting me back into recording again. I was doing alright just playing (live). We had built up a big fan base because I play a lot, I always have. It didn’t show up until this record came out and then people started writing me up everywhere I went. As opposed to a young songwriter, it’s easy for them to talk to me because I’ve been around so long and there’s so much to talk about. The new guys, all they’ve got to talk about is their new record and that’s about it. A lot them are so young they don’t have much to say yet.

Well. you’ve got to live some life before you have stories to tell.

Yep, you’re right and mine are all true! I don’t think you could think up anything that crazy, it would be too hard.

My dad was a fan of yours and one album he played incessantly was Honky Tonk Heroes by Waylon Jennings. [Editor’s note: Shaver wrote or co-wrote every song on HTH except one.]

Yeahhhhhh, everybody says that. That was a good one, man, that was good one! Waylon did a great job. I couldn’t do those songs as well. They were bigger than I was. I was so happy that I got in with Waylon because he was about the best.

As you got swept in with the “Outlaw Movement,” do you think that outlaw business did get out of hand?

It seemed like a curse at first. When we were making that music, we didn’t know we were starting a trend of any kind. A lot of other people were involved: Kristofferson, Waylon, David Allan Coe, just a whole lot of us that were writing different from the rest of them. We all came in around the same time and it kind of floored everybody. There wasn’t much they could do about it because it was really good. Really, we were more outcasts than we were outlaws.

Chet Atkins hated my guts for a long time because he thought I was gonna ruin everything. Waylon had such a thing going, he was hot stuff, man. Except for Elvis Presley, Waylon was the hottest thing going. He came on with those songs and really kicked ass. He really stuck his neck out and helped move those “sequined people” out.

We had our blue jeans on. It really changed things in Nashville because a lot of the club scene was rock and roll. For us to come in with that Texas stuff…well, you know how Texas is, we have to kick a little harder to be heard over everybody talking. It just made it better. It worked out real good (laughter).

That reminds me of a time I saw Hal Ketchum play a dance hall in Rockwall, TX. He played some of his ballads that night, but increased the tempos to shuffles. When I asked him why afterward, he said, “If they stop dancing, we’re in trouble.”

(Much laughter) That’s right! Good ol’ Hal, I haven’t seen him in a coon’s age.

There’s something about the “Republic of Texas” that definitely affects your attitude.

It’s funny that you would say that. My great-great-great-great grandfather’s name was Evan Thomas Watson and he and two other fellows are the ones who formed the Republic of Texas. So there you go, I’m a true-blue Texan! I can’t get away from it.

Texas and Tennessee have always been linked, from the volunteers at the Alamo to Jimmie Rodgers “T for Texas (Blue Yodel No. 1).”

They’re akin to each other. If you took all the Texans out of Tennessee, I don’t think there’d be much left (laughter all around).

Back in the ‘90s, I had several opportunities to see your band Shaver and I thought it was a terrific group.

We were cool. My son Eddy played lead. Of course, he’s passed away now, on New Year’s Eve 2000. They said it was a heroin overdose but it ain’t been settled yet. That’s how Waco is, though. It’s an old hanging town, you know, an outlaw town. The Texas Rangers have their Hall of Fame down here. The reason for that is, way back yonder, they’d go out and hire the meanest damn outlaws they could find and stick a badge on ‘em. Then those (outlaws-turned-Rangers) decided to cut to the chase and they came into Waco and started hanging people. I think the last hanging in Texas happened in Waco.

I always noticed Shaver drew a young crowd.

We still got that goin’. These songs are so old that they’re new again. As a matter of fact, the songs are usually older than the people who are listening to them (laughter). Thank God the songs aren’t dated. They still work. When I wrote them I wasn’t aware of that, I was just writing away. I’m just as lucky as I can be.

You’ve had so many great versions of your songs recorded. Do you have a favorite cover?

Bob Dylan did “Old Fiver and Dimers Like Me” and I like that pretty well ‘cause he’s real loose. He’s such a great writer, I love everything he does. Instead of getting awards, I get guys like this singing my songs. Kris Kristofferson, Bob Dylan, Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, David Allan Coe and just about everybody has recorded my songs and that’s my reward. I get to feel that feeling when somebody really superior to you records one of your songs. It just amazes me.

It started out as a hobby, more than anything. I was eight years old when I started singing. I was peddling newspapers on a corner in Corsicana, TX, and I sold a lot of ‘em, just patting my foot and singing. There was a settlement of black people across the railroad tracks from my grandmother’s house where I was raised. I would go across those tracks every day. One lady had an upright piano on her front porch where people would gather and I would go sing with them every day and have a hoot of a time. They liked me ‘cause I could sing. Later on, I had a few bands and then I finally made it to Nashville.

When you really look at the southern music genres, they all have a common source.

Yes, you’re right. A lot of it came from the church and, of course, everyone was listening to Jimmie Rodgers. We all thought he was black! When I found out he wasn’t, I got mad and quit singing his songs. We were all upset (laughter). I love Jimmie Rodgers, though. He’s my hero, him, Willie Dixon and Hank Williams. That’s about it for me.

Rock and roll is just the blues with a beat really. I like rap, too, but you’ve really got to be great to do it and sustain. It takes a lot of talent. You can’t just go in there and start rapping, it’s not that easy. It looks like it is but it ain’t.

Tell me more about how you go to Nashville.

Behind every great man is a woman saying, “You can’t do that!” That’s how my wife was. I had to divorce her in order to get to Nashville. She didn’t believe I could do anything, but in the end, that’s probably what helped me do it. She realized it after a while. She was the coolest lady on Earth, really. I loved her very much. I married her three times! We fell back in love again and then she got cancer. I was with her the last three years of her life, taking care of her and trying to make up for all the stuff I put her through.

The first time I went to “Nashville,” I wound up in Nashville, Arkansas! I was hitchhiking, you know, and when I got there, I asked “Where’s everything happening at?” An old guy sitting in front of the courthouse, whittling, said, “You dumb shit! Nashville, Tennessee is on up the road.” I figured it out after a while (laughter).

Ed. note: Billy Joe Shaver has been advised by his doctor to receive a hip replacement sooner than previously recommended. Consequently, he has cancelled his scheduled performances through September 4th. We wish Mr. Shaver well and hope to see him back on stage soon.

Billy Joe Shaver’s Long in the Tooth is in stores now…on vinyl.

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