by Patrick Doyle
On his 2009 track “I Feel a Change Coming On,” Bob Dylan sang, “I’m listening to Billy Joe Shaver and I’m reading James Joyce.” Dylan is one of Shaver’s many famous fans; Willie Nelson calls him “the greatest songwriter alive today” and Kris Kristofferson, Johnny Cash and Elvis Presley have all recorded his songs. Shaver grew up in the Waco, Texas area, moving to Nashville in the mid-Sixties. He wrote 10 out of the 11 songs on Waylon Jennings’ 1973 outlaw country breakthrough, Honky Tonk Heroes, and has remained an underground hero since then – but violence, drugs and alcohol often got in the way of his own career. In 2007, he was charged with shooting a man in the face at a bar near his home in Waco, Texas (he was acquitted by a jury, pleading self-defense). “I am very sorry about the incident,” Shaver said outside the courtroom. “Hopefully things will work out where we become friends enough so that he gives me back my bullet.”
This week, Shaver releases Live at Billy Bob‘s Texas, his first album since the trial.
You’ve had an interesting career. While you may not have become as huge as some of your fans like Dylan, Willie Nelson, the Allman Brothers and Johnny Cash, you‘ve always had a rabid group of hardcore fans.
I have a good following of people. I have kind of cornered that simplicity thing. It’s easy for me to be simple because I haven’t gone to college or even finished high school, so you’re not going to get any of them big 10-dollar words from me. And consequentially it’s easier for dumbasses like myself to understand it, and of course the real smart people understand it and they appreciate it because it’s real simple. And it says so much in so few words. That’s what I got when I didn’t finish school and I picked up my language from the street and from farms.
Waylon Jennings recorded a whole album of your songs, 1973‘s Honky Tonk Heroes, which turned out to be a major breakthrough for him – I think it‘s his best album. What was that period like?
[Backstage at a gig] he let me play a song. He said, “If I stop you now, you’re going to get that guitar out and get out of here and I’m never going to see you again.” So I went ahead and sang, “Ain’t No God in Mexico.” Then I sang “Honky Tonk Heroes” and “You Asked Me To.” Then he slapped his knee and said, “You know what I gotta do?” and he went in there and ran the [studio] musicians off and brought his own band in and recorded those songs right away. The label fought about it, trying to stop it. Chet Atkins was afraid it would hurt the business the way we were coming out, you know, saying “God” and “damn” and things like that in the songs. But it just couldn’t be stopped. It was too good. I’m pretty sure it’s the first country album that sold a million.
Your son [guitarist Eddy Shaver] toured with you throughout the Eighties and Nineties. He died of a drug overdose on New Years Eve 2000, but you still played a show that night.
Yeah. I couldn’t believe it. My band just scattered out then. It just killed them. They all just went and cried somewhere. But I had a show booked at Poodie’s [outside of Austin, Texas]. Willie Nelson called me up and said, “The best thing to do when the horse throws you is to get back up on it.” Willie had a good band together, and he was up there singing and once in a while I’d sing one or two but to people there. Every once in a while you’d see somebody who heard what happened and go crying out the door and leave, but I stuck in there. Then I went and spent the night over at Willie’s and we talked and talked. Every experience you’ve had, Willie’s probably had two or three times. He knew what to say and how to treat me. He’s really been a best friend.
After all of that, you still work in a lot of spirituality in your live shows.
I have to. It’s getting close to my end so I’m sure it’s getting close to everybody else’s. Not my end, but I figure that when we do pass, we actually start the beginning of forever then. It’s easy to figure out because you can’t destroy anything. You can’t destroy people, either, because they go to a different form. If you’re burning something, it turns into smoke. If you step on something, it squishes. Everything makes sense for a person to go on to me. And of course I do believe in God, and I’m a born-again Christian, and Jesus Christ is the one who made us all number two. And I believe that because my grandmother told me, and she wouldn’t lie to me.
When did you become born-again?
I’ve slipped back since then many times since, but it was when I wrote [1981's] “Old Chunk of Coal.” I went out on the Harpeth River in Nashville. I went way up a treacherous pathway up this cliff to jump off of it. It looked like the Devil’s tower or something. It was cloudy, no stars or moon or anything, dark as pitch. Way up on top that cliff was an altar – or something that looked liked one. I thought I jumped off a cliff, to tell you the truth.
I’d already seen Jesus actually, or a vision of him shaking his head saying, “How long you gonna do this?” It was pure white. I was really screwed up, man. I’d taken a bunch of stuff and done a bunch of stuff and come in my house about four in the morning and this vision was waiting on me, and then I got in my truck and drove out there to this place. At the top of that cliff was an altar, or something that looked like one, and I wound up with my back to the edge of the cliff and my elbows and everything on the altar, and my boots were off of my feet and they looked just like they were gold. It would take me forever to tell you what really happened, but I found myself asking God to forgive me for being such an idiot, and he helped me because he gave me that song. I came down that path after all that stuff, slipped my boots and came down that path singing that first half of that song.
After people like Elvis Presley, Dylan, Willie Nelson, Johnny Cash covered your songs, were you ever disappointed you never achieved their level of fame and success?
Maybe for a second, but not really. I thought about that one time, real hard. I was driving home one night and heard this song and it was so good I pulled over to the side of the road and thought, “I might as well shoot myself for not writing that song.” And after a while, I realized I had written it. It was someone strange singing it, but turned out to be a hit. If I hadn’t gone down this road I went down, I wouldn’t be able to write the kinds of songs I’m writing now even. I think I’m writing just as good as I ever did.
It’s been five years since your last record. Is there any update?
I’ve got it ready. I just haven’t had any offers from any record companies or anything like that, so I guess I might do it myself. Might as well. My guitar player, Jeremy Woodall is just as good as any of them and he can produce it. Now I’ll get on with it.
In 2010 you went on trial for shooting a man, Billy Bryant Coker, at a bar outside Waco. You sing about it on the new song “Wacko from Waco.“ What is it like looking back on the whole experience?
I feel like I’ve lost a lot of years that I could have been writing, but I didn’t really want to be writing, I didn’t want to get a whole bunch of bitterness into everything, I’m bitter enough as it is. [Laughs]
What kind of toll did that trial take on you?
A pretty big toll. I had to be careful what I said, and I’ve had to walk away from places where I should have punched somebody in the mouth and I didn’t and I just had to walk away from a lot of things. I couldn’t be John Wayne anymore. But now I’m kind of easing back into it [Laughs]
Can you shed some light about what happened outside the bar, Papa Joe‘s Saloon, in 2007?
Actually, that song “Wacko from Waco” pretty much tells it. He fired on me before I fired on him. That never even came up in the trial. But you can go back and listen in the script and tell it, because there’s people inside, every one of them thought it was firecrackers. You need more than one shot, and I only shot once, just a little old .22 and that was it. He had some other kind of gun. I don’t know what it was, but he shot at me three times, and I thought, “Well I better do something.”
At the trial, the state made the case that you were actually provoked because the man you shot was stirring his drink with a knife in a menacing way.
Well that’s all they had to work with. They couldn’t find the gun, so it was just as well doing that. He knew I was innocent.
The night you were acquitted, you drove three hours and played a show.
Well I don’t miss a show. There’s no business like show business. Eddy wouldn’t miss a show for nothing. We played the night my mother died.
A lot of your records are out of print. Do you think you‘ll ever find a way to reissue them?
Well, I don’t know, the Capricorn Records stuff I doubt will ever be released since [label co-founder] Phil Walden passed. I went ahead and rerecorded a bunch of songs that were on records. Sometimes you’ll see songs on records of mine that have been recorded three or four times on my records – that’s because every place I play, the record company goes out of business, and then I just go do the same songs again to make sure they got out. They’re kind of coming back a little bit now.