Billy Joe Shaver: His Songs Are the Key to His Survival
Interview and story by Don Wilcock
Willie Nelson talked Billy Joe Shaver into performing on New Year’s Eve, 2000 at Poodie’s outside of Austin, the same day Shaver’s son Eddy died of a heroin overdose. Shaver was on stage the night his mother died, and he also performed the same day he was acquitted of murder in 2010 after shooting Billy Bryant Coker in the face at Papa Joe’s Texas Saloon in Loredo. On Tuesday night, country music’s first outlaw plays the Ale House in Troy.
Even if Shaver hadn’t written all but one of the songs on Waylon Jennings’ Honky Tonk Heroes album, you could say that he epitomizes the country outlaw image. But he did, and that album – released in 1973 – today is generally considered the cornerstone of that whole sub-genre of country music.
Billy Joe’s dad beat his wife so badly when she was pregnant with him that it’s a miracle he was born. Brought up by his grandmother, Billy Joe only made it through the eighth grade before he had to go to work to keep food on the table. He married the same woman three times, the last time to nurse her to her death by cancer. The only consistency in his life has been his songs. In fact, he says songwriting has saved his life. He’s 73.
“I knew what I had when I was young. I started talkin,’ I started writin,’ makin’ stuff up in songs, you know. Or listening to other people singing what they’re singing. It just came to me. I just assumed it was a gift from God, and I was damn lucky to get it, and that’s the way I treated it. I’ve done the best I could with it, and if it’s a gift from God, then I’m lucky to have it.”
He plays guitar in spite of losing parts of three fingers in a saw mill accident. His latest album, Live at Billy Bob’s Texas, includes originals made famous by everyone from Willie Nelson and Johnny Cash to Kris Kristofferson. “Georgia on a Fast Train” alone (on the new album) has been covered by Tennessee Ernie Ford, the Allman Brothers Band, Johnny Cash, Dickey Betts & Great Southern, Commander Cody & His Lost Planet Airmen, Twangbangers, Two Cow Garage and at least 17 others…
Q: Are there any of your songs that aren’t autobiographical?
A: Not very many, but I figured out a long time ago that I don’t know much about people and can’t tell by looking at ’em. I’d have to judge ’em to be able to write anything about them. To be honest, I had to write whatever was in me and whatever I was feeling, and it pretty much touches everybody ’cause pretty much everybody is like that.
Q: You mention that your songs are therapeutic, and they’re like a psychiatrist to you. How does that work?
A: Well, it is what it is. It’s like you write whatever bothers you, and most of my songs, to tell you the truth, were written trying to stay alive, and then the rest of ’em was written trying to get back in the house. There you go, and then I wrote a few funny ones just to be happy. It’s a wonderful thing to me. It’s still a hobby. I love to write.
Q: What do you mean trying to get back in the house? Do you mean your wife kicked you out?
A: I gotta get back in with my wife. I married her three times.
Q: Why did you do that?
A: Because if she said no, I wouldn’t.
Q: The last time you married her, you married her because she was dying, right?
A: Yeah, and I stayed with her three years. She lived a longer time than anybody thought she would. I loved her very much. She loved me, too. She was about as wild as I was.
Q: In what ways do you consider yourself wild?
A: Well, I do a lot of stuff before I think about it, and I say a lot of things before I think about it, and it gets ya in some situations.
Q: And yet you played a gig the night that your son Eddy died.
A: I had to. Willie (Nelson) encouraged me to do that. He had a similar incident happen to him, and he told me to get back on the horse and try to go on because that’s God’s will. And I did. I came down there, and he had a band put together, and he had a bunch of ’em. Then I’d play one or two. Then, every once in a while someone would start crying and leave the door. They didn’t know about Eddy at the time ’cause it was New Year’s Eve, and we had a gig that night, and he died right in the afternoon, and I made it up there to Poodie’s, played, and it was really something.
Q: And you played the night your mother died, too, right?
A: Yes, I did. Me and Eddy both. We bought into this thing, and we had an idea the best thing to do was if anybody was dying to go on with the show because we could play it out, and Eddy wanted to stick to that. He would go up there while he was crying. He was that kind of guy.
Q: Yeah, I went to a show the night my father died.
A: Yeah, it helps.
Q: Yeah, it does.
A: You gotta get back on the horse, you know?
Q: Yeah, you also played the night you were acquitted of murder.
A: Yes, I did.
Q: Did that change your head about society?
A: Yeah, it did because I was trying, man. Those people got fired. Those people got fired that tried to frame me. They was all tellin’ a bunch of lies. I don’t know why they picked me. I don’t know. These two prosecutors had never lost a case, and I finally wound up with a lawyer. I can’t think of his name now. Actually did it for nothing ’cause I’d fired five guys, five different lawyers because they was tryin’ to get me to plea bargain or some shit like that. I’m not gonna do that. I’m not guilty. That was it.
I don’t think anybody believed he shot at me, but he had a gun. He shot at me twice or three times. I can’t remember. I didn’t count ’em. I had already gone out to my car in the trunk and loaded my little pistol up – a little old Derringer – ’cause I knew. I saw him take a gun from the guy. It took him forever to come out. I thought he’d never come out. I was kinda hopin’ he wouldn’t, but I knew when he took that
gun, I knew I was gonna have trouble, so I went and got my little pistol and loaded it up.
Had all that time. Gone back over there, and I was a long way from him. Never will believe I hit him from that far, but God must have guided that bullet ’cause he went across there, and he shot at me a couple times. And in the trial they said he shook a knife at me, but that wasn’t it.
To this day the best way to find out was to look at the trial transcript. You’ll see that anybody that said anything about it said they were in there, and they thought they heard firecrackers popping. Well, I didn’t fire but one. So I mean it should have been obvious to my lawyer. I think he had some other ideas. I think he had an idea that if he didn’t make it, he could bring that out and post bail that way.
Q: You mentioned that you used to go over and listen to the African Americans after they’d gotten out of the fields.
Q: Do you see any difference between country music and blues?
A: You know, I don’t think so. I think it’s all – rock and roll, even – I think it’s all the blues with a beat.
Q: You’ve re-recorded a lot of songs because the companies that recorded them first went out of business.
Q: Have you changed the lyrics over the years on any of those songs?
A: On a few I have, yeah. Yeah, I’ve doctored ’em up. I’ve looked to see how it could be better with just one little word change. Sometimes that’s all it takes.
Q: You co-wrote “Wacko from Waco” on the new CD with Willie. How do you collaborate when you do a song like that? Who did what?
A: We did it on text. We texted each other, but the thing about it was he wrote that last part that he sang. I wrote the rest of it, but he kept telling me no, no. He wouldn’t put the last part in there until I’d polished that thing up and got it just perfect.
Q: What’s the story behind “Old Chunk of Coal”? Is that a very special song to you?
A: Yes, it is. I was born again during that song. The first half of it I got born again, and then the second half took me six, seven, eight months like that to write the second half ’cause I went cold turkey, didn’t do any drugs or smoke or anything or drank. I couldn’t keep anything down but Melba toast, diet root beer, and that was it.
Q: How did God help you through that?
A: Well, I just kept on praying every day, pray and pray and pray. Actually, what happened was I went up on that mountain up there, and I thought I’d jump off, but I wound up on my knees at this altar-type thing and wind or rain or something came out. It was the middle of the night. I was up at four in the morning. Wasn’t no stars out. It was Friday night, and it was hard to see, but everything was glowing to me, and I don’t know if it was in my head or not, but there it was, and when I got through up there, I can’t tell ya about all that because it takes so long, but I started singing “Old Chunk of Coal.”
By the time I got to the end of the path I had the first half written. The old man that I was died, and a young man took over, because the old man was good enough to die for me ’cause he knew that to die everything with him died, all that sin and everything.
Q: Did you see a vision up there?
A: I saw a vision in my house when I walked in, a vision of Jesus Christ on the end of my bed doing his head sideways with his hands on his chin and like, “How long are you gonna do this?” And I glanced toward him, and I couldn’t look him in the eye ’cause his eyes were like coals. This was the vision I had. If you wanna say I was lyin’, go right ahead. I don’t care. That’s why I went out to this place where my son had showed me, and that’s about it.
Q: Who’s covered that song?
A: Well, John Anderson had the hit on it, and Johnny Cash recorded it before him.
Q: What did Johnny Cash say about the song, or didn’t you talk to him about it?
A: Well, he loved it. He actually said he went into rehab, and he every morning got up singing that song. It helped him through it.
I’d just make up songs, but I went on through life and worked and lost my fingers and broke my back and did a whole bunch of stuff. I rodeoed a while. I (worked on ranches) and everything about a cow I know, and any kind of cattle, as a matter of fact, horses and stuff. I used to break ’em out, but never was no problem with me, but I ended up hurtin’ myself quite a bit ’cause I always throwed myself into a job
real hard. Whatever I was doing, I would go full bore through the hills… and I’m kind of paying for it now.
Q: In what ways do you pay for it now?
A: Oh, my knees and stuff are goin’ out. My back’s gone out, and both my shoulders have gone out, and both my shoulders have gone out, and I got screws in ’em, and I got one new knee, and I’m needin’ now to get another new knee and, oh, just things that gave up from (wearing) yourself out.
Q: What was it like growing up with your grandmother knowing that your father had so mistreated your mother? How did your grandmother help you though that?
A: My grandmother never had a discouraging word to say. I never heard her say a negative thing her whole life, and that’s the kind of person she was. She was an Irish lady. Her maiden name was Collins. She’s a good ’un, and I thank God she stood up for me ’cause they were gonna put me in a orphan’s home, and she stood up and said, “No, I’ll raise him,” and she had to leave her kids and everything to raise me…
And he was gone. Called me back a few minutes later. He wanted me to know that everything he’d told me was the truth.
I believe it.