I'm reading James Joyce
Some people tell me I've got
The blood of the land in my voice
"I Feel A Change Comin' On" from Together Through Life
With Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson leading the way, Outlaw Country took hold in the '70s. And while Billy Joe Shaver was not a familiar name or face to many country music fans, singers and songwriters alike have deep respect for him. Some of his best songs, like "I Been to Georgia On a Fast Train" and "Live Forever," have been recorded by many country stars, and chances are good that trend will continue throughout Shaver's lifetime.
Life hasn't always been easy for Shaver. He lost a few fingers when he was a young man, and was acquitted of aggravated assault in the 2007 shooting of a man in a bar parking lot, which he alludes to in this interview.
Shaver has lived the outlaw life, complete with near-death experiences and a brutal honesty that shows in his songs. And like a typical Texan, he makes no excuses, even when it comes to football.
Billy Joe Shaver: Real happy. I'm wore out, but I'm happy.
Songfacts: What's got you worn out?
Shaver: Well, just doing a lot of traveling, a lot of stress. I had a heart thing happen. I had it checked out. I had chest pains, I had a four-way bypass about, oh, 2001 or something. They went in to check me for that, and they found out that one of my valves of one of my arteries had collapsed, and then the other one was stopped up, and they put a stent in it, in the one that was stopped up, and it opened up. And then they found that there was an artery going to my kidney that pinched, and that had to come out, but I had to wait a month so I could get over this operation. But I went right to work. Shoot, I went in the 10th and got out the 11th and played that Friday, flew to Ohio and played another weekend way out in west Texas, so it was kind of rough, but I always do that. I don't like to stay in the hospitals, so I get up and go.
Songfacts: I think you're like most people, better to be on a stage than on a gurney.
Shaver: (laughing) It's better to be seen than viewed.
Songfacts: (laughing) Yes. Good point. I've loved your music for years, and I was amazed that Waylon Jennings' Honky Tonk Heroes album, you pretty much wrote all the songs.
Shaver: I did. Actually, I had all of them, but Chet Atkins didn't want me to have the whole album, so he pulled a song that had already been out and put it on there. I don't know why.
Songfacts: How gratifying was it to have Waylon Jennings record your songs?
Shaver: Oh, it was great, because the songs were bigger than me. And I couldn't possibly sing as good as Waylon. And at the time, Waylon was just great, so great, and I knew something was gonna happen good for him, and sure enough it helped me and it helped him, too, and that's a pretty good trade.
It's kind of a double-edged sword, though, because no one else ever recorded the songs, because they're afraid that Waylon would cut 'em. Those songs - that was the end of them. But then again, I think it was his first country album that went main seller.
Songfacts: And it's one of those albums that helped jump-start what we've come to know as the outlaw movement. How do you feel about that label?
Shaver: It's more like outcast than outlaws. We were a different bunch of people in from Texas, and we didn't dress up in white ties and things like that - just jeans - and it was different. But when we hit, everybody went our direction and the foundation got laid that was kind of outcast, but became a cornerstone of the whole mess. I say "mess," but the whole institution of Nashville, they were thankful after a while. They realized that it really helped more than it hurt. And a lot of things have been done on top of that now, and it's still rolling. I think it's a great thing.
Songfacts: I was reading an interview with Merle Haggard, and Merle was saying that with the death of Waylon and then Johnny Cash, he's starting to feel a little lonely. Like he's sort of carrying on that tradition. Do you feel any of that?
Shaver: Well, not really, no, because I'm nowhere near the same league as Merle Haggard. I just write. I'm a great writer, but Merle, he's a great writer and a great singer. And I was just lucky that Waylon did those tunes, and then of course Kris did one, and Johnny Cash and Willie and oh, Bob Dylan and Elvis Presley, and everybody just started doing my songs. So I was pretty lucky, really.
Songfacts: It's interesting you mention Bob Dylan, because not only did Bob Dylan do one of your songs, but he mentions listening to your music in one of his songs. Do you know Bob at all?
Shaver: Never have met him.
Shaver: Uh-huh. We've played on the same shows, but somehow or another our paths haven't crossed. And of course I think the world of him, and I remember when I first heard him way back – I've been writing songs since I was a kid, and when I heard his first tape, it upset me a little bit because I was real envious of that. I took the tapes and threw them in the river. I thought, God, what else is there to write about? (laughing) But I realized that if I'd just be honest and be myself, that I would be different.
Dylan impressed me so much. He inspired me more than influenced me. I think he's probably the greatest writer that ever lived. And he's real cool, I like him. I even like his singing real well. He has a spiritualism or something to him.
Songfacts: I imagine when you heard Dylan's songs you thought, "This guy's doing things none of us have tried."
Shaver: Yeah, but I was real good at what I did. I knew I was. So it didn't take me long. After throwing those tapes in the river, I actually went down there and tried to find them, but that was stupid. (laughs) I did that for about a week, and then I found myself.
Shaver: I've always been real blunt. Most people from Texas are that way. And it seems like all the great writers, they're not afraid to say anything. I've always been pretty blunt, and sometimes it seems, brutally honest, but it's real close to the bone.
Songfacts: You talked about spirituality when referring to Bob Dylan. Talk about the spiritual element in your music.
Shaver: I'm a born-again Christian. I actually got born again. But, when you get born again, you get to do the same things you did before. It's like you get to start all over again, and the old man in you dies and gives up his life for the new one. It's almost like a caterpillar becoming a butterfly. It's a transformation, and you have to grow up again, because you're just like a little kid. That's the way it was with me. And I'm sure everybody's different - that's what we all got in common, we're all different. And I assume that everybody grasps it in a different way, and I would think so, because of Jesus Christ being your personal savior, well, he is. Each one has a different Jesus. Same, but different. Because we're all different. And that's the way God meant for us to be. I applaud people who try to be themselves instead of being like somebody else. I think that's great. And Bob Dylan actually would scare you into being yourself, because you couldn't possibly be him.
Songfacts: Yeah, there can't be two, that's for sure.
Shaver: No, there's no way. (laughing) Throw away the mould.
Shaver: Well, that's when I got born again, when I wrote that song. It's just so long, it would take me forever to tell you, but I wound up on top of this mountain-like thing in Kingston Springs outside of Nashville. And I was about to die because I'd been doing so much dope and just everything in the world you could think of, and drinking, and I was just about to drive everybody crazy. And there was this place outside of Nashville that's called the Narrows of the Harpeth River. And there's a peak-like thing out there, and it's a real sheer drop-off cliff, and you had to go up a real treacherous path to get to it. Not many people knew about it, but my son had showed it to me. He was with a bunch of these guys called spelunkers that go into caves.
And this river, you could see the chisel marks, one of the slaves had actually cut a hole in this big ol' thing so that the water would run over this mammoth plantation. And it was at the top of this thing that I arrived one night when I was about to die. There was an altar up there, it looked like the wind, rain or something had hewn that altar out, and it looked like a giant mushroom. It was just a small place there between the altar and the sheer drop-off on the cliff. I could have swore I jumped off that cliff, because I was just so ashamed of myself for what I had done. And I asked God to help me. But I thought for sure I had jumped off, because I thought, I'm just a worthless old good-for-nothing dragging everybody down, but I found myself on my knees turned the other way on that altar on my knees and with my hands and arms and elbows on top of the altar, and I was asking God to help me. And that's when He gave me that song.
Shaver: I came down the path singing the first part of it, and I got to the foot, and I had the first half of it. This voice inside me was telling me to get my family and get out of town. I was in Nashville, I was about to become the next big deal or something, but I was just so crazy it was ridiculous. I was having a hard time even talking, much less putting a song together. But all of the sudden everything brightened up for me and this inaudible voice told me to go to get out of Nashville. I couldn't drive in the shape I was in, so we got a bunch of U-Haul trucks and moved down to Houston. Left Nashville and I went cold turkey on everything. I quit smoking, drinking, doping, doing the whole smear. And it took me about 7, 8 months and I dropped down to about 150 pounds and couldn't keep food down. I would eat Melba Toast and drink a diet root beer. There was this little store down the road; my wife was still living, my son was still living, and I'd walk down to that store. I was making money on my songs, but I couldn't afford to drive, because I thought I'd run over somebody or get run over. But I'd walk down to that store every day, get some Melba Toast and a diet root beer. And finally one day I just finished that song, the other half of it, and I told my wife, "Honey, why don't you cook me some eggs?" and she said, "Well, you won't be able to keep 'em down." I said, "Yeah, I will, too." And she fixed 'em, and I ate 'em, and sure enough they didn't come up. And from then on I've been all right. And then I was even timid about walking into a bar. I was raised in honky tonks, but I was afraid, because I was so young in my new life. But I grew up quickly and I knew a lot of things. You hear people say, 'I wish I knew then what I know now.' But that's what happens when you get born again. You are as young as you were then, and you know what you know now. And you understand that you could get hurt, and stuff like that. You start preaching, too. I started telling everybody about it, driving everybody darn near crazy and it took me about a week or two to figure out that I wasn't supposed to do that. I had to learn everything on my own, which I'm glad I did, because it's real personal. I kept writing great songs, though, so I'm in good shape. I've done some crazy things lately, but they're not crazy. They're just things that happened. It's unfortunate incidents, and I'm sorry about it, but I came out all right. God saw me through, and I got exonerated, and I'm not guilty of anything.
Songfacts: I said a few prayers for you when I heard that on the radio.
Shaver: I do appreciate that, man. Because I could feel those prayers coming in, and I knew my Savior wasn't gonna let me down, but boy there was a time or two there that worried me. I thought maybe I'd done something I didn't know about. Are you writing on this?
Songfacts: I'm not going to try to interpret what you say, I'm just going to put down what you say. (we record these interviews and transcribe them)
Shaver: Okay, head it up, call it "My Past Is Through Kicking My Ass." (laughing)
Songfacts: (laughing) I like that.
Shaver: It was the song that I wrote and this book that I wrote that everybody's so inflamed about there in Waco (Honky Tonk Hero), and they used it like a bible, they went through it and just beat me half to death with my past. But that was another person.
Songfacts: Right. Exactly.
Shaver: And they just didn't understand how I could sit up there so innocent. And even after I'd done all those other things. But I wasn't on trial for those other things. God had forgiven me for all that. And you know when you go back to God and you get word about something that you asked him forgiveness for, and he's forgiven you? And you go back to Him and go and whine about it again, He ain't got a clue what you're talking about, or you're thinking about. Because He's already forgiven you.
Songfacts: He forgives and forgets.
Shaver: He don't know, he forgets. That's what strikes me about God, God forgets. We can't forget. We hang onto the memories and things instead. I forgive real quickly, because I don't like to hold any grudges against anybody. We were talking about Bob Dylan, I actually have gotten mad about him because I said, "Man, how in the hell are you supposed to write something that anybody's gonna pay any attention to when this guy's out there?" And then I realized that I had my own life to live and I love it, and I think the world of him and I think the world of everybody that writes, and it's cheaper than psychiatry, so yes, I think everybody ought to write.
Songfacts: Well, you know, Billy Joe, just the fact that Bob Dylan has written about listening to your music, he'd probably say the same thing about you.
Shaver: More than likely. I suspect he's a lot like me in that sense.
Songfacts: I was noticing on the credits that the stuff Bobby Bare has recorded of yours he co-wrote. Did you write with Bobby Bare?
Shaver: Well, not exactly. When something good would come along, Bobby would put his name on it. That's the way it worked back then. When you'd first come to town the publisher would usually get half the song. But there was a lot of them that I'd bowed to about, and there were some I'd just let go. And he slid a few by me. I went out of town and Kris Kristofferson recorded "Christian Soldier," and I come back in town, and he had changed it to "Good Christian Soldier," and took half of it. So I thought, Well, that's all right. I don't care. I can always write another song. I ain't worried about that kind of stuff.
Shaver: My past was kicking my ass. (laughs) Kicking it good, too.
Songfacts: Well, Kris is a good songwriter, don't you think?
Shaver: Oh, God, yeah. Man, the best. I tell you, Willie and Merle and Bob, and just, gosh, Paul Simon, everybody, just so good. Good Lord. Kenny Loggins, oh my God, all these people are so outstandingly great. I don't know how in the world anybody could walk around and say they're the greatest songwriter in the world, because at the time the person's singing a great song, I believe that's when they are the greatest songwriter in the world. You're listening to it, and they're singing it, that's probably true. For a moment. And it's not over till it's over. But these people don't compete.They don't compete with anybody. They're their own worst critics. They're mean as hell to themselves about their stuff. But so am I. I'm real critical of myself.
Songfacts: You were talking about Texas songwriters and how honest, how blunt, and how personal they are. Why are there so many great songwriters in Texas?
Shaver: With our history, we grow up that way, but just about everybody down there is real blunt. It started out that way, and then, "Remember the Alamo"? We're raised up knowing that we came from people that want to play the same thing, weren't afraid to do anything, and you get to thinking that you do that, too. You get raised up that way. My great, great, great, great grandfather, his name was Evan Thomas Watson, on my mother's side. He and two other guys formed the Republic of Texas. So I feel like I've got a right to say what I want to. But you know how Texans are.
Songfacts: Yes, I do.
Shaver: You know what, everybody else is, too. These California people are just as proud of California as you are Texas. And they kick ass in football too. I mean, there ain't much you can say when you get your butt kicked, you know? Well, I'm from Texas, but we just got whipped.
Songfacts: Where do you call home now?
Shaver: I live in Waco, Texas. I'm a whacko from Waco.
Songfacts: What kinds of things are you working on these days?
Shaver: I'm just waiting for the right thing to happen. I turn everything over to God, and just see if it finally works out. I've got some great songs going, and they're really good, too. I mean, they'll curl your toenails. I've got a song named "Live Forever." I write songs when it comes to me and I know that that song's gonna be around, and I feel like it might be here forever.
Songfacts: Do you ever have writer's block?
Shaver: Not really. No. I've stopped on my own account. I think I was born to write songs, and they're hard to write – harder to write than books. I wrote a book, and it was just easy as pie. You've got a lot of room there. But when you write a song, you pretty much need to compress it down into a time where people won't get bored before they get through listening to it.
Songfacts: Right, that's hard.
Shaver: And you have to have a beautiful melody to go with it. It's a pretty hard thing to do. But I love it.
Songfacts: How old were you when you wrote your first song?
Shaver: I was about 8.
Songfacts: Do you remember anything about it?
Shaver: Yeah. I play it every night, just about. A little song. But I didn't get it published until way late. But I actually didn't want to publish it because it was so silly, and I kind of straightened it up a little bit. But it's called "Honey Bee." It's about this little girl – well, I liked her a lot, and I ran by her and grabbed her kisses, and she told her mother on me. And her daddy looked me up, beat me up. And my grandma looked him up and beat him up. And I wrote this song called "Honey Bee," and I sing it just about every night.
Songfacts: Wow. Eight years old.
Shaver: I used to sell papers and sing on corners there in Corsicana, I'd sell papers and just tap my foot and sing. I didn't even have a guitar. My grandmother finally bought me a guitar, it was about eleven bucks, Sears and Roebuck, when I was about 12. And then she died, and I had to move to Waco. Went in the Navy when I was 16, so I didn't have a lot of time – my grandmother really raised me. And I lived to about 12 with her.
Songfacts: Can you remember a point where you realized you were pretty good at songwriting?
Shaver: Oh, yeah. I knew I was good at it. I was always good at it. And the thing is, it's a gift God gave me. And I do the best I can with it. I pushed it away for a long time, and kind of fell back on it when I lost some fingers in a sawmill accident when I was 21. And I fell back on the music, because I knew I could do that. Had much fun with it; I love writing and I love the feeling it gives you when you get through writing a great song. I'm happy with what I do, I really am. I'm blessed, I know that. Because when you're blessed you don't have to really work hard, it's more like a labor of love, really.
June 18, 2010
Billy Joe Shaver passed away on October 28, 2020
More Songwriter Interviews