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“I’m listening to Billy Joe Shaver, and I’m reading James Joyce. Some people tell me, I got the blood of the land in my voice.”
–Bob Dylan, “I Feel a Change Comin’ On”
In modern music, the phrase “the real deal” is tossed around a lot to describe an individual whose authenticity is beyond question. These artists who are mired in the craft, and seemingly beyond the tainted reach of commercialism, seem to affect their audiences most deeply, though mass appeal doesn’t always come their way.
For every Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Beatles, or Stones who become massively successful, even legendary, there are countless others who provided plenty of groundwork, but whose names have since faded away into the recesses of history. A truly great song comes from a place the author knows firsthand, and the name at the top of the marquee isn’t always necessarily the source.
Fortunately, Texas singer-songwriter Billy Joe Shaver hasn’t had to contend with a lot of the struggle and anonymity of many artists from generations past. But, he has certainly embodied every word he’s written in his well-lived seven-and-a-half decades, even if other artists are often singing them for the adoring crowds.
Perhaps most well known for authoring many of Waylon Jennings’ biggest hits in the ’70s, Shaver’s life most perfectly reflects the ideal and outside-of-the-country-music-mainstream existence of the so-called outlaw country scene, a label he mostly eschews.
“The thing about it was, we were more like outcasts, instead of outlaws,” says Shaver in a deep Texas accent. “We wrote so good and hard and it was real raw, you know, and I remember when Honky Tonk Heroes came out [Nashville producer/guitarist] Chet Atkins just had a fit. He said, ‘That ain’t gonna work. It’s too raw!’”
But, in the early ’70s Shaver, Jennings and a handful of mostly Texas country artists were on the verge of a brand new sound—one that combined the twang and themes of old-school country music but did so with the abandon and rebelliousness of rock ‘n’ roll. And when the Jennings’ album, Honky Tonk Heroes, came out in 1973 it crystallized the sound that had been gestating in the Lone Star State and in some small, fiercely independent pockets around Nashville. Suddenly it was a movement and it had a name, outlaw country, with an official soundtrack.
The album achieved huge popularity in the Untied States. Shaver composed virtually the entire album and was rapidly propelled to the top of the American songwriter heap, his tunes in demand from all corners of the music world. The rest of the loosely affiliated crew—Johnny Cash, Kris Kristofferson and Shaver’s old friend from Abbott, Texas, Willie Nelson—formed one of the most potent musical forces of the last several decades, recording many classics and generally shaking up the highly polished and well-established Nashville musical machine.
Born in Corsicana, Texas, in 1939 Shaver’s father left the family before Billy Joe was born and he grew up primarily with his grandmother while his mother worked at a honkytonk bar in nearby Waco called Green Gables. Eventually, Shaver would have his initial exposure to country music within the rough-and-tumble walls of the establishment. Not long after he dropped out of school during his eighth-grade year to work the cotton fields with his uncles. Thus began a brief life of hard labor that would fuel many of his classic songs, peppering them with first-person narratives of the working class.
“They’re just so fascinating,” says Shaver about the real-world folks who appear in his songs. “And another thing is that if it’s anything about myself, or someone close, or some situation that happens where I’m from, it’s always honest because I’m honest with myself, and if it’s any other way it’s not very interesting—the truth is stranger than fiction. Always has been. I always say the truth and it’s easy; it’s pretty easy, really. I guess I was born to write songs, but that’s the way to do it, man.”
Shaver taught himself how to play guitar after losing two fingers on his right hand while working at a lumber mill. Soon after, he discovered a preternatural ability as a songwriter, which eventually drew him to Nashville in 1968 where he landed a job writing songs for country artist Bobby Bare. Shaver’s songs quickly found traction and were covered by Kristofferson, Tom T. Hall, and eventually Elvis Presley, along with huge number of other modern legends like Nelson, Cash, Patty Loveless, Jerry Lee Lewis, George Jones, Bob Dylan and the Allman Brothers Band. Shaver’s tunes like “Honky Tonk Heroes,” “I’m Just an old Chunk of Coal,” “You Asked Me To,” “Ride Me Down Easy,” “Willie the Wandering Gypsy and Me,” “Black Rose,” and “I Been to Georgia on a Fast Train” have become undisputed pieces of the classic American music canon.
As his success ramped up, Shaver’s life outside of music tended toward the turbulent: he battled alcohol issues, experienced multiple divorces, lost his first wife to cancer, and his son and longtime guitarist Eddy died from a heroin overdose in 2000. He also has endured myriad health problems including a 2001 heart attack onstage that nearly killed him. And, in a bizarre turn, Shaver was involved in a confrontation outside of a Texas bar in 2007 where he allegedly shot a man in the face in self defense. The man survived and Shaver was exonerated in court after turning himself in.
These days, the gregarious Shaver is still an active road dog, touring with his band at an impressive, if not slightly slowed pace—at his ’70s peak he often played more than 300 dates a year. And, according to the songwriter, he is currently putting the finishing touches on a new album (his first since 2007) that is set to come out in the fall. His excitement is palpable and, ever the swaggering outlaw, Shaver predicts big things.
“I’ll be 74 August 16 and I think it’s time for things to change around in Nashville, and I’ve got a feeling that this album’s going to do it because the songs are so profound and so different. They’re cutting edge and everybody’s going to want to write like that, ‘cause that’s what happened when I did Honky Tonk Heroes. And I believe it’s going to happen this way again, and they’re going to give us old fellers a chance,” he says.
For the Texan, songwriting was the only real path he could have taken, and ultimately it’s the music that has always been his salvation.
“I just was built for doing it. I’m just real lucky and blessed that I’m able to do this. I’ve busted myself up so bad and chopped fingers off and broke my back, broke my neck three times, had heart attacks, both my shoulders have screws in them, got a new knee though. I’m getting there. Like Johnny Cash would say, ‘I’m in pretty good shape for the shape I’m in.’”
See Billy Joe Shaver 9-28-13 Hill Country BBQ/New York - New York, NY / 9-29-13 Bridge Street Live Collinsville, CT.
For more info, see www.billyjoeshaver.com.
Billy Joe Shaver
The original outlaw
The wild life and brilliant songs of the great Billy Joe Shaver
By Ryan Heinsius - flaglive.com