Forty years ago Billy Joe Shaver put his mark on country music with two seminal discs that would define the “outlaw” genre, his own Old Five and Dimers Like Me and Waylon Jennings’ Honky Tonk Heroes, to which he contributed 11 of the 12 songs. His longtime chum Willie Nelson calls him America’s finest living songwriter, and he may also be one of its most singular characters.
An irascible hellraiser, Shaver may have only achieved an eighth-grade education, as he explains on his humorously boastful “I Been to Georgia on a Fast Train,” but he’s a plainspoken poet of the heart. Are there many more poignant expressions than “I’m Just an Old Lump of Coal (but I’m Gonna Be a Diamond One Day)”?
Shaver jokes he wrote half his songs to get back into the house -- back in the days when he would go carousing with Jennings, Kris Kristofferson, Willie Nelson, Townes Van Zandt and David Allan Coe, among others. (He’s been thrice married, to two different women, explaining recently, “The divorce didn’t take.”)
Shaver endured a rough stretch around the millennium where in the course of about two years he lost his mother and his first wife to cancer and his 38-year-old son Eddy Shaver to an OD. But he bounced back.
A few years ago, he got in a bar confrontation back home in Waco, TX, and wound up putting a bullet in a guy’s jaw in what the judge decided was self-defense. He paid tribute to the incident with “Wacko from Waco,” cowritten with Willie Nelson and released on last year’s Live at Billy Bob’s Texas. He’s currently preparing an album he feels can rival the one he wrote four decades ago.
We spoke to Shaver before a show in Kent, Ohio, where he explained he couldn’t share in a doobie before hitting the stage because “I’d start playing a song and singing the words from the one three songs ahead,” he said with a shake of his head. “Maybe after.”
HIGH TIMES: Tell me a little about Old Five and Dimers Like Me. You worked with Kris Kristofferson on that, right?
BILLY JOE SHAVER: That was the first time in the studio, my first album. Kris went and borrowed the money to do that. He had just done a 1971 album, Silver-Tongued Devil, and he did one of my tunes on it, “Onward Christian Soldier.” The thing is, his father and mother disowned him because he was supposed to go to West Point and teach literature. Instead, he went ahead to Nashville and became a janitor [at CBS Records] and a bartender. I always liked him for that.
The thing is, he heard “Christian Soldier” and then he heard some of my other songs and he said, “I feel like I got a hatchet over my head and it’s going to drop if I don’t do something with it.” So he took me out to Johnny Cash’s studio House of Cash and brought a bunch of guys in from Memphis [drummer Kenny Malone, guitarist Jerry Shook, guitarist Stephen Bruton (R.I.P.), bassist Tommy Cogbill] that are still there. Warhorses. First time they’d played in Nashville. They’re all well-known now. They’re just it.
…About six deep into the thing, Fred Foster come in and heard it and bought it off Kris, so he made a little money off it. I hope. Fred didn’t think I was worth a shit; then he heard the songs and changed his mind. They canned mine, though, because we were both on the same label. I think he bought it so I wouldn’t be competing with Kris. But there was no way to compete with Kris. He was too good. Mine didn’t come out until actually a year later. . . . By then, Waylon did a whole bunch of my songs.
HT: We’re talking about Honky Tonk Heroes.
BJS: Right. Waylon had heard “Willy the Wandering Gypsy & Me” at the Fourth of July picnic. . . . He said he’d do a whole album of my songs. He’s from Texas, I’m from Texas. He’s supposed to do what he says. . . . I finally caught up to him at a recording studio one night. . . . The walls were lined with groupies, hangers-on. And motorcycle guys all over the place. And [he sent someone] down there with a hundred-dollar [bill] folded up. Waylon got wind I was there and said, “Give this to Billy Joe and tell him to take a hike.” And I of course told him to give it back to him and tell him to stick it up his ass and twist it. He got wind of that and he comes out of the studio because he’s pissed now. He had two bikers, one on each arm, big old guys. He says, “What do you want, Hoss.” I said, “You told me you was going to do these songs. I don’t care if you do them or not, but you’re going to listen to them or I’m going to whip your ass right here in front of God and everybody.”
. . . He grabs me at the elbow, and he took me in this other room. And he said, “Hoss, you could’ve got killed doing that.” And I said, “It’s either do or die for me. I’m sick of this shit. You’re running from me.” . . . He said, “You play me one song. If I like it, we’ll go onto another.” So I did “Ain’t No God in Mexico.” And he says, “Okay, next one.” I did “Low Down Freedom.” I did a bunch of good songs and then I finally got to “Honky Tonk Heroes.” I was about five deep and he says, “Dammit. I know what I gotta do now.” And he went out there, ran everybody off, brought his band in and got going on it.
HT: It changed everything.
BJS: Willie told me [he] wouldn’t have ever done Red Headed Stranger [in ’75] if he hadn’t heard Honky Tonk Heroes. He became an instant friend but I’d known him since ’53. He lived right down the road. They used to call him Abbot Willie. . . . That’s what got me on the map, by Waylon and Kris, and then Willie started to blab about me. I was hanging out with Willie a lot. We had some great times. Him and Waylon would get together and they’d be taking something -- some pill and they’d say, “What is that?” “I don’t know, give it to Billy Joe, and see what happens.” That was just about it.
HT: You said you were the one “willing to go for it.”
BJS: Oh yeah, I had to be the gofer. I had to rocket test everything, but I didn’t mind.
HT: Tell me about the new album, and what kind of mood or spirit’s behind it.
BJS: It’s a lot about Nashville. . . . They got a deal going where they didn’t want any old guys playing. But that’s going to change. I’m fixing to change it. This next album I got is going to change it. It’s Hard to Be an Outlaw if You Ain’t Wanted No More. It’s got some great songs -- they’re all different, and you ain’t heard anything like them. I hope [producer] Ray Kennedy does it with me. Now it’s time to get real serious. My voice is where I want it. There’s some political things -- it’s going to stir things up and [have] a lot of really great songs. I’m proud of it. I think it’s going to be good as Old Five and Dimers.
HT: You’ve been over countless highways, met all kinds of people, endured trials and hardships. What have you taken from your time on the road?
BJS: I’ve always loved to travel, and if I weren’t doing music I couldn’t travel. I couldn’t afford to go to these places. I couldn’t afford to have this much fun either. If I had a whole bunch of money, I’d pay it so I could do this. I’d give it all up. Just don’t tell the promoter
For more on Billy Joe Shaver, visit his website.