Culture
7:37 pm
Tue August 5, 2014

Billy Joe Shaver Writes Country Songs — And Lives Them, Too

Originally published on Tue August 5, 2014 10:55 am

We have a resident country music expert here at NPR: our national political correspondent Don Gonyea. He was telling me recently about a musician named Billy Joe Shaver, whom he'd discovered about 20 years ago in Austin, Texas.

"I didn't know who he was," Gonyea says. "And he started to sing, and I like country music. I like real-deal country music. And these songs go places. They are about his life and, in some ways, a lot of people's lives."

Shaver, 75, isn't a household name himself, but he's among the most respected living writers of country music. His good friend Willie Nelson texts Shaver all the time.

"Yeah, we're the only ones over 70 that text," Shaver says. "The rest don't want to."

Shaver sent me a text while he was here in Washington, D.C., for a concert. He said to meet him the next morning at a Quality Inn — where, in the parking lot outside, there was a pancake house and the songwriter's beat-up white van.

Dressed all in denim, Shaver brought us into his room and sat down on his unmade bed. The cowboy hat that usually covers his flowing white hair was sitting on a suitcase on his luggage cart. He was telling us about his new album, Long in the Tooth, which features a duet ("Hard to Be an Outlaw") with his texting buddy, Willie Nelson.

If you look back a few years, it doesn't seem unlikely for Shaver to be an outlaw. In 2007, the songwriter was involved in an incident, a bar argument with another man, that led to a parking-lot shootout.

"Yeah, well, that happened because he was such a bully," he says. "He just kept on and on and on."

So they took it outside and shots were fired.

"I hit him right between a mother and a f- - - - -," Shaver says. "That was the end of that. He dropped his weapons and said, 'I'm sorry.' And I said, 'Well, if you had said that inside, there would have been no problem.' "

In fact, much of Billy Joe Shaver's life feels like he's living a country song, which he says he was born to write. He's done so since he was 8.

Shaver grew up a poor country boy in Corsicana, Texas, filling the moments in between songwriting with picking cotton and baling hay. His mom, who worked in honky-tonks, abandoned him for a time; as the song "Georgia on a Fast Train" says, he was raised by his grandmother.

Shaver worked in a sawmill as a boy. It was a job that would start him on the path to becoming a musician, but not after taking something first: He lost the better part of two fingers on his right hand — his guitar-picking hand — at the mill.

"I had to put my feet against it and pull my fingers off to get out of it," he says. "It didn't hurt, partly 'cause I shot a quick prayer up to God and said, 'If you let me out, I'll do what I'm supposed to do: play music and sing.'"

Shaver got a break in his early 30s, when country star Waylon Jennings heard him strumming at a gathering of musicians in Texas.

"Waylon said, 'Whose song's that?' and I said, 'Well, that's mine.' And he said, 'You got any more of them songs? Meet me up in Nashville and I'll record a whole album of them things,' " Shaver says.

He took Jennings seriously. You might even say he stalked him, all around Nashville, for six months. While Jennings did his best to avoid the upstart songwriter, Shaver did finally track down the star at a recording studio.

"He got wind that I was down there, 'cause he come out of the booth and he had two bikers on each side of him," Shaver says. "He says, 'What do you want, hoss?' and I said, 'I tell you what I want. I just want you to at least listen to these songs. And if you don't, I'm gonna kick your ass right here in front of God and everybody.'"

Jennings gave Shaver a chance, and liked what he heard. He went on to make an album almost exclusively using Shaver's music, Honky Tonk Heroes, still considered one of the first and best so-called "outlaw" country albums, bringing the roughness back to country music.

"It actually put Nashville on the map real good, because sequin suits and things wasn't working out. The cheatin' songs and stuff," Shaver says. "These songs were fresh, and they were different from what was going on."

The songwriter also learned something about his role in country music: He would never be as big as the stars who sang his songs.

"The songs were so big, they were too big for me," he says. "I couldn't possibly get them across the way [Jennings] could."

Other stars sang Shaver songs, as well, like Johnny Cash, Kris Kristofferson, even Elvis Presley. The writer also performs his songs, and has churned out a number of albums over the years, all while still living the life of a country song. He got married three times and divorced twice — all with the same woman.

"The divorces just didn't seem to work out," he says, laughing.

Shaver has lost one aspect of the country-song life: drinking. He's gotten extremely religious, and you can tell he spends a lot of time thinking about his son, Eddy, who was his guitarist and best friend when he died of a heroin overdose before a New Year's Eve concert in 2000.

At Shaver's performances, it's like Eddy's there. Shaver will walk over to his new guitarist on stage and, during a song, spread both his arms out and look up. Sometimes, he finishes a song by saying, simply, "I love you, Eddy." The most powerful moment at a concert is when Shaver sings "Live Forever," which he wrote with his son before his death.

"He actually gave me that melody, and I carried it around for nearly a year. It was such a great melody," he says. "His spirit's still with me. I do believe that when people pass away, the goodness, the good things they did, it seems like they melt into your likeness. They melt into your likeness, and you become a better person for it."

Then Shaver loaded his beat-up van and hit the road for his next gig.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

We have a resident country music expert here. He's our national political correspondent Don Gonyea. And he was telling me recently about a musician named Billy Joe Shaver.

DON GONYEA, BYLINE: I discovered him quite by accident in Austin, Texas about 20 years ago. And I didn't know who he was. And he started to sing. And I like country music. I like real-deal country music.

GREENE: I know you do.

GONYEA: And these songs go places. They are about his life and in some ways, a lot of people's lives.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I'M JUST AN OLD CHUNK OF COAL")

BILLY JOE SHAVER: (Singing) I'm just an old chunk of coal, but I'm going to be a diamond someday.

GREENE: The 75-year-old is not a household name himself, but he is among the most respected living writers of country music. His good friend Willie Nelson texts Shaver all the time.

WILLIE NELSON: We go way back.

GREENE: You've sent text messages to each other these days?

NELSON: Oh, yeah. We're the only ones over 70 that text. The rest of them don't want to.

GREENE: Shaver sent me a text while he was here in Washington, D.C. for a concert recently. He said to meet him the next morning at a Quality Inn. Out in the parking lot of the motel, there was an IHOP pancake house and Shaver's beat up white van.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HARD TO BE AN OUTLAW")

SHAVER: (Singing) She was cuter than a speckled pup, just turned 21.

GREENE: Shaver was dressed in all denim. He brought us into his room, and he sat down on his unmade bed. The cowboy hat that usually covers his flowing white hair was sitting on a suitcase on his luggage cart. He was telling us about his new album. There's a duet on there with his texting buddy, Willie. It's called "Hard To Be An Outlaw."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HARD TO BE AN OUTLAW")

NELSON: (Singing) And it's hard to be an outlaw who ain't wanted anymore. And the only friends that's left is them behind those swinging doors.

GREENE: If we look at a few years ago, it doesn't seem like it was all that hard for you to be an outlaw.

SHAVER: Trouble seemed like it was always looking for me.

GREENE: We're talking about when you shot a man in a parking lot - shot him in the face in 2007.

SHAVER: Yeah, well, that happened because he was such a bully.

GREENE: And so they took it outside the bar and shots were fired.

SHAVER: I hit him right between the mother and the [bleep]. That was the end of that. He dropped his weapons, and said I'm sorry. And I said, well, you know, if you'd have said that inside, it wouldn't have been no problem.

GREENE: There's something about your life that really feels like you're living out a country song.

SHAVER: (Laughing) Yeah, you're right. You know what? I believe that I was born to write songs.

GREENE: There's a song - "George On A Fast Train." I can't think of another song that sort of tells a man's story.

SHAVER: You know what? I believe that's probably the best country song ever written.

GREENE: What makes it that?

SHAVER: (Laughing) Well, it's got a train in it.

GREENE: That's key.

SHAVER: And it's got just about everything in it you'd want in a country song. And I wrote it.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GEORGE ON A FAST TRAIN")

GREENE: Billy Joe Shaver started writing songs when he was 8. He grew up poor in Corsicana, Texas. His mom, who worked in honky-tonks, abandoned him for a time. And as the song says, he was raised by his grandmom.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GEORGE ON A FAST TRAIN")

SHAVER: (Singing) And I just thought I'd mention, my grandma's old-age pension is the reason why I'm standing here today. I got all my country learned building and a-churning, picking cotton, raising hell and bailing hay.

GREENE: And working in a sawmill - that's where Shaver lost the better part of two right fingers - his guitar picking hand.

SHAVER: I had to put my feet against it and pull my fingers off to get out of it.

GREENE: Oh, took off a few of your fingers there.

SHAVER: It didn't hurt for some reason 'cause I shot a real quick prayer up to God. I said, you know, if you get me out of this, I'll do what I'm supposed to do - and that was play music.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GEORGE ON A FAST TRAIN")

SHAVER: (Singing) I've been to Georgia on a fast train, honey. I wasn't born, no, yesterday.

GREENE: Shaver got a break in his early 30's when country star Waylon Jennings heard him strumming at a gathering of musicians in Texas.

SHAVER: Waylon said whose song is that? I said that's mine. And he says you got any more of them songs? Meet me up in Nashville. And he said I'll record a whole album of them things.

GREENE: Shaver took old Waylon seriously. You might even say he stalked him all around Nashville for six months.

SHAVER: I'd call over to his place, and he'd have the girl say he's on the other line. And I knew they didn't have but one line. And if he saw me coming, he'd take off.

GREENE: Shaver did finally track the star down at a recording studio.

SHAVER: He got wind that I was down there 'cause he come out of the booth, and he had two bikers on each side of him. And he says what you want, hoss? I said I'll tell you what I want. I just want you to at least listen to these songs. And if you don't, I'm going to kick your ass right here in front of God and everybody.

GREENE: You said that to him?

SHAVER: I said that. And I don't know if it tickled him or what, but he grabbed me by the arm. And he took me into a room. And there wasn't nobody in there, and he says sit down there now. He said you play one song. If I like it, we'll move on, and you can do another one. But if I don't like it, I'm going to stop you right in the big middle of it, and you're going to leave. And I'm never going to see you again.

I said, well, that's fair enough. And I did "Ain't No God In Mexico." He didn't stop me. Then he went on, and he said, yeah, do another one. And I did three or four. Got it down to "Honky Tonk Heroes," and he stopped me. And I thought, oh, it's over. He said I know what I've got to do.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HONKY TONK HEROES")

WAYLON JENNINGS: (Singing) Where does it go? The good Lord only knows. Seems like it was just the other day.

GREENE: What he did was create an album almost exclusively using Shaver's music. "Honky Tonk Heroes" is considered one of the first and best so-called outlaw country albums which brought the roughness back to country.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HONKY TONK HEROES")

JENNINGS: (Singing) For loveable losers and no account boozers and honky-tonk heroes like me.

SHAVER: It actually put Nashville on the map real good because sequin suits and things wasn't working out I think - cheating songs and stuff. These songs were fresh, and they were different from what was going on.

GREENE: And Shaver learned something about his role in country. He would never be as big as the stars who sang his songs, like Waylon Jennings.

SHAVER: Because the songs were so big, they were too big for me. I couldn't possibly get them across the way he could.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HONKY TONK HEROES")

JENNINGS: (Singing) Where do we go? The good Lord only knows. It seems like it was just the other day.

GREENE: Other stars sang Shaver's songs - Johnny Cash, Kris Kristofferson, even Elvis. Shaver also performs his songs, and he's churned out a bunch of albums over the years - meanwhile still living the life of a country song. He got married three times and divorced twice - all to the same woman.

SHAVER: The divorces just don't seem to work out.

GREENE: Shaver doesn't drink anymore. He's gotten very religious. And you can tell he spends a lot of time thinking about his son, Eddie - his guitarist and best friend who died of a heroin overdose before a New Year's Eve concert in 2000. At Shaver's performances, it's like Eddie is there. Shaver will walk over to his new guitarist onstage. And during a song, he'll spread both his arms out, and he'll look up. Sometimes he finishes a song by saying simply I love you, Eddie. The powerful moment at a concert is when Shaver sings "Live Forever" which he actually wrote with his son before his death.

SHAVER: "Live Forever," yeah, he gave me that melody. And I carried it around for nearly a year. It was such a great melody.

GREENE: And there's actually a line about mothers and fathers in that song.

SHAVER: Yeah - you mothers and you fathers, be good to one another. Please try to raise your children right. Don't let the darkness take them. Don't make them feel forsaken. Just lead them safely to the light.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LIVE FOREVER")

SHAVER: (Singing) When this old world is blown asunder and all the stars fall from the sky, remember someone really loves you. We'll live forever, you and I.

SHAVER: His spirit is still with me. I do believe that when people pass away, the goodness and the good things they did - it seems like they melt into your likeness. They melt into your likeness, and you become a better person for it.

GREENE: Well, Mr. Shaver, thank you for the time. It was a real honor meeting you.

SHAVER: Thank you, brother. God bless you.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LIVE FOREVER")

SHAVER: (Singing) I'm going to live forever. I'm going to cross that river. I'm going to catch tomorrow now.

GREENE: With that, Billy Joe Shaver loaded up that beat up van, and hit the road for his next gig. His new album is called "Long In The Tooth." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.