Maybe I’m a little jaded, but there aren’t too many people I’d get excited about meeting. Billy Joe Shaver is an exception. He’s a writer that proves less is more which meant a lot when my dad showed me “Tramp on Your Street” while I was in college. Surrounded by people trying to use big words to prove how smart they were, Shaver was a reminder that, while words can paint a picture, too many can get in the way. With all his songs that echo in my head, his legend looms large. He may have sensed some nerves when we met because immediately after shaking my hand, he told me a dirty joke. I think it was to break the ice. Either that or he just likes dirty jokes. I’m not completely sure.
I was interested in whom Shaver saw as influences. I had heard a few mentioned like Hank Williams, Jimmie Rodgers, and Muddy Waters. Shaver agreed with them all. He was also quick to add Willie Dixon and to say that the blues had been extremely important.
“I had an uncle that had a collection of those (blues) records. I don’t know how he got ’em, but I’d listen to them. Mostly from black people is where I got my influence. Now across the railroad track from where my grandmother lived was a big cotton field out there. I’d go across them railroad tracks every day — I guess from the time I was about 6 or 7 years old. There was a settlement of cotton pickers over there. One house had a stand-up piano, and I would always wind up there singing. None of them minded. They were singing Jimmie Rodgers songs. They thought Jimmie Rodgers was black, and I did, too. I guess when they found out he wasn’t black, they quit singing him (laughs). But there was a lot of Jimmy Rodgers and lot of them old blues songs that I just really loved. And still — you know, country music is really close to being the blues, and rock ‘n’ roll ain’t nothing but the blues with a beat. That’s about it.”
Shaver’s grandmother gave him a Gene Autry guitar when he was 11 (“That’s how come it is I’m always hittin’ that B7.”). When she died, Shaver, 12 at the time, had to go live with his mother and stepfather. Within a year or two, his stepfather gave away the guitar to a kid for doing some yard work.
“I was only about 14, 13 something like that, and I took off — went to Arizona. I didn’t get along with him in other words. And I understand. He was a pretty hateful guy, but he wasn’t at the end, though. He died of emphysema, and he apologized for the abuse. It’s hard to raise another man’s son — I’m sure it is. So, I forgave him all the way. He had hit on me a little bit. But I finally bowed up, and he quit doing that. I went into the navy when I was 16, and they had to sign for me and all that stuff. They were glad to see me go, and I was glad to leave. I remember in the navy, at night those guys would be homesick and crying. I wasn’t homesick at all — 3 squares a day and a place to sleep. Every once in a while, I’d act like I was crying just to fit in (laughs).”
I’ve always appreciated Shaver’s wit. When I asked him about comics he liked, he mentioned admiring the late Bill Hicks as well as his friendship with Norm McDonald. “We call each other a lot. Out on this road, a lot of times not getting what you deserve. You gotta have a sense of humor man.” I brought up Roger Miller, who Shaver’s mentioned before, and he immediately responded with, “Yeah, I’d give my right arm to be ambidextrous.”
Strangely, Shaver didn’t pick up the guitar again until after a sawmill accident that claimed 2 of his fingers (and part of a third) on his right hand. He was 28 at the time.
“It was hard to play again. I went ahead and got me a guitar. I knew that was what I was going to do. I was supposed to have done it a long time before then — I knew I was. I just didn’t do it. I kept writing songs and poems all the way through. In about a week’s time, I got back in the groove of playing, and I couldn’t ever play all that great anyway. I just went up there with a bunch of songs; I knew damn well they was good, too.”
Hearing stories from the man himself was a lot of fun, so I had to ask him about one of my favorites; it involves Shaver, Waylon Jennings, a non-paying club owner, an empty building and some dynamite (You can find a video on youtube.).
“I can’t repeat that one anymore. Jessie’s mad as hell at me about that. (I laughingly quoted Waylon, ‘I didn’t see nothing.’) (Billy still laughing) He took me back there and showed me this dynamite. It was just like in the movies man. He took his hand across there, and there was some sweat on it you know. And it popped just like in the movies. Scared the shit outta me man. ‘Waylon, God dang man. Do you have to be that crazy?’ He really was. He was for real. I can’t say much more about him. Jessi’d whoop my ass.”
Shaver prefers moving a bit slower these days. When I asked what young singers and songwriters he likes, he mentioned Todd Snider and Jackson Taylor. He spoke at a little more length about Jamey Johnson, who obviously reminds him of some younger days.
“He’s a hot dog, I like him. He seems like old school, but he’s young, strong as an ox and ready to roll. He’s got a great band. I just really love them. I met him a couple of times. He tried to get me to go on the bus. I told him I better not. I don’t think I can run with them guys. I’m getting on up there. You know, I’ll be 72 tomorrow. But I got a band that works real good.”
Having a band that works is not a simple feat after losing his virtuoso guitarist son, Eddy, in 2000 to an overdose (less than a year after his mom/Billy Joe’s wife died). A lot’s been written about Eddy, so I’ll try not to retread too much ground. I mention it because I didn’t fully understand Eddy’s involvement with the music. I knew he played some with Billy Joe from the time he was 12, but I didn’t think he took on a major role until “Salt of the Earth” in 1987. I figured the 6 years between “Salt” and “Tramp on Your Street” was at least partly due to Eddy growing into arranging the songs.
“No, we just didn’t have a label. But, we walked in off the street and did “Salt of the Earth.” We produced it ourselves. Somebody got the masters and sold them, but they belong to me and Eddy. We never did get no money off of it. And then Sony came out with it. I don’t know. I don’t fight with those people up there. They just take what they want.
“Eddy was so far ahead of everybody. We had to go to L.A. out to Zoo records to get that album (‘Tramp’) on because nobody in Nashville wanted to touch it. They thought it was too rocky. But it wasn’t really rocky — just country stuff. But they’re doing it now. They’re doing exactly what we were doing back then.
“Better to be ahead than behind. I guess. You don’t make no money that way, but at least you get to plow your own doggone field.”
From what Billy Joe told me, Eddy may have been arranging the songs as early as “When I Get My Wings” (Billy Joe’s second album, released in 1976).
“He did all the arranging on almost everything we did, and they finally let him in to record. They were taking his licks and stuff off of demos and using them, but they wouldn’t let him in there, he was so young. But finally, he broke in on ‘Salt of the Earth.’ But we had been playin’ together since he was 12 years old.”
There’s a special track on Shaver’s last album, “Everybody’s Brother,” when Eddy was 15 and Johnny Cash had joined them on “You Can’t Beat Jesus Christ.”
“Yeah (Laughs). We had a band called Slim Chance and the Can’t Hardly Playboys, and that’s the band that was playin’ on ‘You Can’t Beat Jesus Christ.’ Johnny Cash was coming to see us all the time. He’d sit in and stuff. He really did like us, so that encouraged us a lot. But we played all over the place.”
“Everybody’s Brother” was produced by Johnny’s son, John Carter Cash. On that album, Shaver covers a Johnny Cash song — though it’s a little more complicated than that.
“He told me to write that song. I told him about it, and he said, “Write it.” You know, I thought I had it written, and I didn’t. Then, when I came to the recording session, I said, ‘Oh, there’s one I’m working on called “No Earthly Good.”‘ He (John Carter Cash) said, ‘Dad already wrote it, so you’re supposed to do it.’ So me and Kris did it. I worked for him (Cash) 2 years as a songwriter.”
Although religion has always been a major theme in Shaver’s songs, “Everybody’s Brother” was the first intentionally gospel album he’s released. I asked if he had any plans for another.
“No. Seems like every time I do one of those, something crazy happens. They dropped me off the label on account of that shooting and the album went dead. It hadn’t really got out yet. It’s a good album, too. But everybody got a bad taste in their mouth. You know you’re supposed to be innocent until proven guilty, but it don’t work that way. Never does I don’t think. Once the bell gets rung, you can’t unring it.”
Shaver was acquitted of all charges in 2010. Obviously the trial had been hard on him. Besides any speculation, he hadn’t been able to tour outside of Texas. I had read press about it, but I was curious how his fans had reacted to it.
“Nobody ever gave me any trouble about it at all. That old boy was pretty much a bully. Everybody in town knew he was. He tried to shoot me. Really that didn’t even come up in the trial. He shot at me twice. They just couldn’t find the gun, so they decided, ‘We’ll just get him on the knife.’ We pretty much had him anyway because his reputation was so bad — terrible. So, yeah everything’s cool with that. Nobody’s giving me any trouble about it. I wrote a song about it called ‘Wacko from Waco.’ We’ve got a whole album; we just haven’t gotten to where we want it.”
There’s no release date for the album, but Shaver is on tour right now. Go see him to hear some of those new songs (“Get Go” is my favorite of what I’ve heard.). You’ll also hear some great old songs, and you’ll probably get a few stories.