Billy Joe Shaver
Country music’s original outlaw singer talks about dogs, Jesus, and what it’s like to have a heart attack on stage.
“Oh, it’s you again,” says Billy Joe Shaver, laughing into the phone when I had to call him back to resume our interview after being disconnected. Shaver was right in the middle of an anecdote about riding around for a week with Waylon Jennings and songwriter, poet, and artist Shel Silverstein. Before we got cut off, he had begun the story: “Me and Waylon and Shel Silverstein were out [on the road] for about a week just ridin’ around. We got to tellin’ jokes, and we told so many of ‘em we started numberin’ our jokes!” When I got him back on the phone, I tried unsuccessfully to get him to finish the yarn but he just laughed and said, “Man, I got in trouble last time I told that one.” Regardless, a brief chat with the man hailed as the king of the honky-tonk singers as he drives from Texas to the Flora-Bama Lounge is warm and hilarious.
Billy Joe Shaver’s life has been one of trial, tribulation, and heartache. His father tried to kill his mother while she was still pregnant with Shaver. Later, she left him to be raised by his grandmother. He lost two fingers in a sawmill accident at age 28 and had a reputation as a drinker and brawler. He arrived in Nashville in 1966 to break into the music business. The singer eventually sobered up and changed his wild ways, but troubles continued to haunt his life. In 1999, Shaver buried his mother, then his wife Brenda (He divorced her twice and married her three times.), who died of cancer a month later. On New Year’s Eve 2000, his son (and guitarist/collaborator) Eddy died of a heroin overdose. The next year he had a heart attack on stage at a July 4 show in New Braunfels, Texas. Then in 2007, at Papa Joe’s Saloon in Lorena, Texas, near Shaver’s Waco home, he shot a man who had been harassing him while wielding a knife (Shaver said he thought the man was carrying a pistol as well.) The man was not severely injured, but Shaver was arraigned for aggravated assault. The jury concluded that the singer had acted in self-defense despite prosecutors’ shamelessly ridiculous attempts to portray him as a “honky-tonk bully” for going outside to confront the victim and not simply leaving the bar, according to reports from the court transcripts. His pals Robert Duvall, with whom he co-starred in The Apostle in 1997, and Willie Nelson appeared in court on his behalf. Earlier this year, Shaver penned a song with Nelson about the shooting incident called “Wacko from Waco.”
The tunes Shaver writes are brilliant, melodic gems that tell stories about how tough but beautiful life can be. He’s been covered by numerous artists, such as Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, and Jerry Lee Lewis. In 1973, Waylon Jennings recorded an entire album of Shaver’s songs called Honky Tonk Heroes. That album launched the “outlaw” genre, which heavily influenced country music for the next couple of decades. Although Shaver never became as big a star as his musical buddies, he embraces life with a grateful, enthusiastic fervor and never hesitates to share with audiences how happy and blessed he is to still be alive at age 71; especially after the rough and tumble “outlaw singer” existence that so long defined him. One of the best songs ever written is “Live Forever,” which he wrote with his son Eddy. With a smile as warm as Texas sunshine, Shaver often introduces the song by telling audiences, “Live forever, y’all, whether you want to or not.” Billy Joe Shaver and his band will perform at The Nick on Friday, December 9, with local heroes Caddle opening. Call 252-3831 or go to www.thenickrocks.com for details.
Black & White: Have you still got your dogs? I heard a story about you and your buddy Kinky Friedman (singer, songwriter, and novelist who ran for governor of Texas in 2006 with Shaver as his “spiritual advisor”) rescuing a three-legged dog named Momma.
Billy Joe Shaver: Well, one of my dogs died but I’ve still got a pit bull—black one that’s six years old. When I was young we were too poor to have a dog. When I started gettin’ dogs I started out with pit bulls. They’re just as sweet as they can be. It just depends on how you raise em, you know? Her name is Honeybee . . . But yeah, Momma (the dog) had one leg torn off ’cause she had been in a fight. Kinky picked her up and brought her on in to his place (Friedman has a no-kill animal shelter on his Texas ranch) and kind of worked on her a little bit and she got real healthy. So I paid money to put up a pen for her and she didn’t have but three legs. We called it Billy Joe Shaver’s “underdog pen.” (Laughs) Finally, a Vietnam veteran who’d had his leg blow’d off came out there and fell in love with her and now she’s got her a nice home. Kinky’s got a big heart. We’ve been friends a long time, since about ’66.
How did you meet Kinky?
His father introduced me to him. His father was a big fan of mine, Tom Friedman. He was a World War II pilot and also head of psychiatry there at the University of Texas. Tom used to come to my shows. Tom and Kinky’s whole family would come to my shows when I was playin’ in Austin, and Kinky would be playin’ across town. Kinky came over to my show one time kind of mad and said (to his family), “Why don’t y’all come to see me?” And Tom would say, “Well, Kinky we can see you any time. Besides that, you need to get some new jokes. (Laughs) I’ve got Tom’s old jacket—it says “God Bless John Wayne” on it and everything. I’d pretty much do anything for Kinky. Kinky was the first one of us that hung out at (unintelligible) Bar that got to go on the Grand Ole Opry. He sang “Sold American.” Then he went on tour with Bob Dylan. Now he writes books and stuff.
When you played the Opry, how’d you get along with the establishment there in Nashville?
I never had any problems. I’ve been on it many times. I got along with ol’ whats-his-name—that tall, skinny guy— uh, uh, Porter Wagoner. He didn’t get along with very many people but he got along with me pretty good. One night he was tellin’ (the audience), “Billy Joe Shaver has songs recorded by Elvis Presley, Waylon Jennings, Bobby Bare, and Bob Dylan (Wagoner pronounced it “Die-lan”). And I said, “Naw, it ain’t ‘Die-lan’, his name’s Dylan!” And Porter said, “I said his name was ‘Die-lan!’ And I said, “Naw, it’s not either, it’s Dylan!” And people were laughin’ like hell, and Porter got a kick out of it, too. So we became pretty good friends.
I saw a picture of you at George Jones’ 80th birthday party this past September. How has George stayed alive so many years with all the drinking and hard living that he did all his life?
(Laughs) I don’t know, I think they ran a (George Jones) substitute in on us (from time to time). I love George. I’ve known him about 30 years.
You gave up that lifestyle years ago, didn’t you?
Yeah . . . I got in a shootin’ incident down there (in Texas) and I had to shoot an ‘ol boy—well, he was tryin’ to shoot me. But I was innocent; I was just tryin’ to defend myself. He’s the one who started the fight. I finally got off. I wrote a song about it called “Wacko from Waco.”
I read that when the prosecuting attorney asked why you didn’t just leave the bar after the man you shot had earlier appeared threatening, you replied, “Ma’am, I’m from Texas. If I were chicken shit, I would have left, but I’m not.” Is there anything that you’re scared of?
Naw. (Pauses for a few seconds) Naw, I’m not, but that’s kind of stupid of me. But I’m not ’cause I’ve got Jesus in my heart. I don’t care one way or the other. If it’s my turn to go, I’ll go.
How long ago did you find Jesus?
Oh, way back yonder. When I wrote “An ‘Ol Chunk of Coal” I got born again. I still make mistakes and stuff like that but that’s part of it. You get to start all over again with a clean slate.
You used to be a rodeo cowboy, didn’t you?
Yeah, I used to do that enough to know that I wasn’t cut out for it. (Laughs)
Tell me about having a heart attack on stage in 2001.
Yeah, I had a heart attack in Gruene Hall on stage. That was after my son Eddy had passed away. Jesse Taylor, an old friend of mine, was playin’ guitar for me. When Jesse was a child, they had a car wreck and one of his ears was kind of messed up and he couldn’t hear very good out of it. It would just be my luck: that ear was toward me and every time I’d put my finger up and say, “This is the last one,” he’d think I wanted to do one more. And this elephant is sittin’ on my chest and I’m tryin’ to get him to quit startin’ them durn things [songs]. I finally got off stage and I thought, “Well, God, you’re gonna let me die in the oldest honky tonk in Texas. Thank you very much.” Sure enough, I didn’t die. Then my T-shirt (merchandise) girl, she come and got me and took me down to Waco. They checked me out and I only had one artery workin’ and it was only 10 percent. So I was almost dead.
I didn’t realize until recently that “Live Forever” was originally your son Eddy’s idea.
Yeah, it was Eddy’s melody. I carried it around for durn near a year before I could figure out what to put with it. Then I put with it what I thought was right and I went to Eddy and we finished it together.
Did you ever see Hank Williams, Sr. play?
I saw him that one time when I was a kid. I walked down the railroad tracks about 10 miles to see him. I didn’t know he was goin’ to be on the show, he was a surprise guest. I crawled up a pole to keep people from sittin’ on my feet. They introduced Hank and said (to the crowd), “You ought to listen to this ‘ol boy. He’s gonna be alright.” This was before he was a star. He didn’t play but one song. People was doin’ their bootleggin’ and stuff during that time and wasn’t payin’ no attention to him ’cause they never heard of him. And that’s the way people are. But he saw I was listening and he looked up at me straight in the eye and just sung to me.
I guess you’ve been on Willie Nelson’s bus a few times. I don’t think anybody was surprised when Willie got arrested for pot during a bus search a few years ago but they might have been surprised about the funny mushrooms the cops found.
Yeah. (Laughs) I don’t imagine they [the police] went too deep into the bus before they kinda about half passed out. &