The Outlaw Life:
Pill Poppin’ at 75 with Billy Joe Shaver
Billy Joe Shaver is at a drug store somewhere in Ohio trying to get a prescription filled for his memory pills.
“They got an ingredient in them that helps you remember,” Shaver allows. “They work on me, but it’s been like a month since I’ve been able to get a refill. Well, maybe it hasn’t been that long, but it’s been long enough that I can’t remember.”
It’s another moment of kismet in the long and fitful history of the “phoner,” when the long distance call and the vagaries of the road suddenly merge into something that easily illustrates the subject under discussion.
In this case, Shaver – who his Texas running buddy, Kinky Friedman, thinks should be enshrined alongside Hank Williams, Irving Berlin and Stephen Foster as one of the greatest songwriters who ever lived – is getting ready to release his first studio album in six years and will soon celebrate his 75th birthday.
Certainly, the album’s title, Long In The Tooth, is a tell. And so is the lead track, “Hard To Be An Outlaw” – a punchy, pissed-off duet with Willie Nelson that takes down country super stars “singing ’bout the backroads they never have been down,” while lamenting that “it’s hard to be an outlaw who ain’t wanted anymore.”
The Billy Joe bio goes back to a hardscrabble barefoot boyhood in Corsicana, where early on he felt the call to become a singer-songwriter. Years later, he was the full-on-crazy epitome of the long-haired Nashville outlaw, reveling in drink, drugs, women and fights all through the seventies and eighties, while hanging out with Nelson, Waylon Jennings and Kris Kristofferson.
In the heyday, Jennings’ 1973 landmark outlaw album, Honky Tonk Heroes, featured ten Shaver songs, including the title track, and the likes of “Old Five and Dimers Like Me,” “Willy the Wandering Gypsy and Me,” “You Asked Me To,” and “Ride Me Down Easy.”
Billy Joe rocked on into the ‘90s, with his guitar slinger son, Eddy, helping to revive his career for new era and audience. But, sadly, his wife, Brenda, who he married on three different occasions, died of cancer in 1999. And a year later, Eddy died of a heroin overdose.
Grief-stricken, Shaver nearly died of a heart attack in 2001. And after surviving all that, the born-again outlaw cleaved even tighter to his savior, still performing his catalog of honky tonk hits, but always reminding audiences, “You Just Can’t Beat Jesus Christ.”
One of the strangest chapters of Shaver’s life, shooting a man in the face outside Papa Joe’s Texas Saloon in 2007, is recounted in the song, “Wacko from Waco.” He was indicted for aggravated assault with a deadly weapon but found not guilty. Throughout the trial, Nelson was there to lend support, along with Robert Duvall, who made Billy Joe his Pentecostal preacher sidekick in the 1997 film, The Apostle.
Currently, Billy Joe is on tour, traveling around the country with his band. On the day we talked, he was thrilled to report that he’d just played The Village Idiot in Maumee, Ohio. “It was a good show and good people,” he said, laughing.
Here’s more of what Shaver had to say.
The New Album: “I think it’s going to really hit. I’m still listening to it myself, trying to find something wrong with it, and I can’t seem to find anything. It’s really there. I think it’s going to turn everything over again like Honky Tonk Heroes did. About every 20 years or so everything gets turned over anyway so it might as well be this album.”
Why It Took Six Years: “I couldn’t get with the right person. Everybody is so busy. If they’re real good, they’re real busy. [Producer] Ray [Kennedy] was busy all the time. It took us a long time to do it. But we kind of just snuck it in there a little at a time. Of course, we made sure it was quality stuff. We got some help from Tony Joe [White] and Leon [Russell] and a few others and it worked out all right.”
“Hard To Be An Outlaw”: “That’s a real good one. Willie heard that song and he liked it so well that he went and recorded it before I did. But it doesn’t make me mad at all because now they’re starting to play the one from my album, and that’s much better with me and him singing. Everything is gonna work out right. Me and Willie are real good friends so we keep up with each other. If he’s hittin’ it with his left he’s expecting me to hit it with my right. We go way back. And we stay in touch all the time. We pretty much text every day. We figured out that we’re the only ones over 70 years old that text.”
Does He Hate Nashville?: “No. Not really. It’s just like the [‘Hard To Be An Outlaw’] song says, there’s a few of the superstars, they ain’t never been nowhere and done much of nothing, but they’re singing about stuff, and they don’t know what they’re talking about. They’re getting it wrong, in other words. If they got it right, it would be alright. Some of them sound a whole lot like bubble gum stuff. It’s kind of sad. But they’re getting back to it now. Getting back to the old way everybody did when Honky Tonk Heroes came out. Everybody started writing the way they should and it got to be really good.”
Rapping “Long In The Tooth”: “Paul Gleason was the one who wrote that song with me. Do you remember that movie The Breakfast Club? He was the professor in that. He was in a lot of movies. He and I were real good friends and we kicked around together for a real long time. We started writing this song and it was actually out of a book he’d written. I said, that’s a great title, you know, we ought to write that. It didn’t start out as a rap song or anything like that. It needs a c in front of it, I guess. For crap, you know. I’m not a rapper. I’m a crapper. Paul passed away and I started not to do the song. Then I got to thinking I should do it on account of him. I did it in his honor and it turned out great. It’s kind of a fun song.”
Celebrating His 75th Birthday: “On August 16th, I’ll be 75. Actually, I’m going to mourn Elvis on the 16th. That’s how I remember my birthday – the day Elvis died. I was trying to keep from having birthdays but the alternative is just not very good. And there’s always somebody there who wants to make sure I celebrate. One birthday, Merle Haggard and Toby Keith and David Allan Coe all brought me a big old cake made like a guitar with ‘Happy Birthday’ on it.”
Getting Wacko In Waco: “I still live there. But I’m thinking very seriously of moving back to Nashville. I’m thinking about thinking about it. If there’s a way to make it work with my band, I’ll do it. I’ve got a good band. They’re in the truck with me now and they’d beat the shit out of me if I said anything different. Jeremy Woodall is my guitar player and Matt Davis is my bass man. They’re both wackos from Waco. And Jason McKenzie is my drummer. He’s been with me about 15-20 years.”
The Call To Music: “It happened when I was a young boy and I saw Hank Williams. It actually lit me up and I realized what I really was gonna do in life. I knew it but it took me awhile. As a matter of fact, I’d almost given up on it when I whacked my fingers off at this sawmill. I shot a quick prayer up to God and I said if you just get me out of this mess I’ll go back to doing what I’m supposed to do. I kind of fell back on music because I knew I could do it. And I knew I was real good at it, too. When I came to town, I came with a bunch of good bullets.”
Getting The Blues: “I’d crawl across the railroad tracks every day when I was about six or eight years old. There was a black settlement of cotton pickers over there. This one lady had a standup piano on her porch and we’d all gather around that and somebody would have a bottleneck and they’d be playing and they let me sing. I got the blues. I got that in me. That’s basically where I came from. I loved Jimmie Rodgers. But I also loved Willie Dixon. He was one of the greatest writers ever and a tough guy, too.”
His First Song: “I was about eight years old. There’s a song I got called ‘Honeybee.’ I wrote it about this girl I liked. I run by and kissed her and she fell in a mud puddle. Her daddy beat me up. And my grandma went down and beat him up. Those things you can’t ever get out of your head.”
Songwriting As Psychiatry: “It’s the cheapest psychiatrist there is. Fellows like myself and Guy Clark, we write about ourselves and what happens to us. That’s more like psychiatry. If you dig down inside yourself far enough, you’ll find something that’s going to pertain to everybody.”
On Waylon Jennings: “I think he was the greatest singer that ever lived. That’s why I turned my songs over to him, because my songs were bigger than I was. I knew he could deliver them.”
On Kinky Friedman: “I’ve been knowing him since 1966. Kinky is like a comedy. He’s something else. I love Kinky. He’s just crazy as a damn bed bug.”
On Kris Kristofferson: “Kris is the greatest guy that ever lived. He gave me my very first chance, really. He produced my first album. And the first song he ever recorded by somebody else was ‘Good Christian Soldier’ on The Silver Tongued Devil and I album.”
On Robert Duvall: “He’s a good guy, and a really down to earth person. He’s as good as it gets.”
On Eddy Shaver: “You can’t replace him. There will never be another one like him. I’m going to get out some of his guitar recordings after a while. They are just so damn great. He was just so far ahead of everybody else.”
Photo by Jim McGuire.