A Conversation With Billy Joe Shaver
Mike Ragogna: Hey there, Billy Joe, how are you?
Billy Joe Shaver: I'm doing real well.
MR: Hey, "Old Five And Dimers" is one of the great songs that you've written, but you're also known for many other classics, many of which appear on your new album, Live At Billy Bob's Texas. Did you feel like it was time to put a project together that revisited them?
BJS: No, I got approached by Frank Jackson. He's a Christian friend of mine, a good ol' boy. He runs that. He approached me about doing it and said Willie had done it. I said, "Well, it's about time. I do it because I have a real cracker-jack band anyways, they're really good. They're young but they're good." So it was time to do it. I love Billy Bob's. It's kind of a favorite place for me.
MR: It's one of those legendary places artists love to play.
BJS: Well, yeah, and it's fun to play there because of the people who work there, all the staff. I guess they require that you have to be nice, because they really are nice.
MR: That's what you hear about Billy Bob's, that the place is a really cool.
BJS: From the top to the bottom they are just good people.
MR: And they get good artists.
BJS: Yeah, great artists. That's what draws them in, it's just good.
MR: You have a couple of new songs on this album, one being "Wacko From Waco" co-written with Willie Nelson.
BJS: Yeah, I've known Willie since 1953, and we've been pretty tight through the years. I just asked him to get on this thing. Man, he wrote that last verse in "Wacko From Waco," and you could tell who's singing; he's a great singer. This song straightens everything out from the trial of the part they left out to make sure everybody knows exactly what happens. Other accounts of what happened are not true, you don't get the real deal until you listen to the song, like Compty [ph] Hall said before, "You better be good to an alright song about you." That's what this is. This is the real, true account of what happened. (Note: In 2010, Billy Joe Shaver was acquitted in an aggravated assault case involving a 2007 bar shooting.)
MR: Overall, how do you feel about it all now?
BJS: I feel really great about it because I had a chance to tell everybody what really happened. They overlooked a lot of things and besides that, they actually didn't try him for having a gun. He had a gun and shot it a couple times and that's the only reason I had to throw down on him. I sat him right between a mother and a f**ker, you know, excuse my language. He still had a bullet in his mouth. Willie wrote a song about it called "I Just Want My Bullet Back" and I guess I wanted to record it. If the poor guy keeps that bullet in his mouth, I have no idea. It's up to chance, but they didn't bind up the gun he had. My lawyer had a certain way of doing it because they couldn't find the gun, but we were lucky to find that. There was a lot of covering up going on, a lot of railroading and stuff like that.
MR: Did it affect you creatively?
BJS: It really did stop my writing. I didn't want to write anything because I was afraid that I'd put a lot of bitterness in there and maybe hurt somebody. I don't intend to hurt anybody, I never have.
MR: During the trial, you had Robert Duvall come in as a character witness.
BJS: Yeah, Robert came in and Willie came in, of course.
MR: Alright, while we're going back in time, how do you feel about that Presley cover of your song "You Asked Me To" after all these years?
BJS: I feel good about it. Bob Dylan recorded one too and I feel great about that. When I get a recording by somebody who's a great songwriter, that's my award. I've never received any awards for anything and I don't care because I'd trade them all for that.
MR: And Bob did "Old Five And Dimers."
MR: And by the way, apparently, it was John Steinbeck's favorite song.
BJS: Really? I didn't know that! I'll be darned.
MR: Getting back to your new album, you kick it off with "Heart Of Texas," which is like a dancehall two-step that sets the mood for the album. Then you move on to some of your great classics. When you look back at your body of work, what are your thoughts about it?
BJS: I can't hardly believe it. I had my head down and my sleeves rolled up and I was writing so much as my well was full, as Woody would put it. I just had to write that much or drown from all the water coming from that well of information that I'd stored up all these years. It just came so easily, but then again, the living part was hard. I had to go through a lot but I didn't know why I was going through it. I was blessed to be able to write. God gave me this gift and I've done the best I can with it.
MR: You have, and by the way, "Restless Wind" is also one of my favorites by you.
BJS: That's a great song, I love it.
MR: I just wanted to put out there that years ago, I worked on a collection of your recordings. I think it was 1995...
BJS: Oh yeah, I remember that.
MR: Yup. I did that collection for you.
BJS: Oh you did that for me? I'm bad on names, I can't remember them. I can only remember occasions and things like that, and I can remember a face. But I'm meeting so many people, there's nothing wrong with it. It's just that me and names don't get along too well.
MR: (laughs) Yeah, and I have a face made for radio.
BJS: (laughs) That's kind of funny.
MR: So you have another new song on Live At Billy Bob's Texas, "The Git Go."
BJS: I had this idea for a long time and stretched it out. Then Gary Nicholson, who used to play guitar for me way back, when he first started and my son Eddy played. They had twin guitars and we had a saxophone and all kinds of stuff. I've had all kinds of bands. Gary is a great guitar player and he came to the house to visit and I've been knowing him for all his life. He's a great songwriter now. He wasn't writing then, but he is now, and he's always been really good. He kicked me in the butt because I had laid down a lot and said I'm not going to write anything until all this mess is over with and then he told me I should be writing now. I said I have these ideas, including that one, "The Git Go," all laid out. I'll tell you how he really helped me more than anything was he told me to change that E to an E minor to start the thing off. It was much easier for me to do it in E minor, it gave me a good feeling about it. I sat down and really bored-down on that song and really got it right, every word in that song, and I hope to God it is.
MR: What is the story behind "The Git Go?"
BJS: It helped me out, him telling me the minor. I sat down at the table and sweated blood writing that damn thing. The good thing about it is that it's all true, I made sure it's all true. It's something that everybody needs to hear, I think. It's also the single and the guy that produced the album, unbeknownst to me, put an organ or something on it to make it more eerie and overdubbed on top of it. We didn't have that on stage and it was added on. I didn't feel really good about it because I said, "That ain't real, you're supposed to just..." but he said in this case, it's a single, so it's alright. I said okay. I'm pretty easy to convince when it sounds good.
MR: What about the group Shaver? You were making music with your son Eddy for a while there.
BJS: Yeah. As a matter of fact we did several album and we're quite proud of them. Most all of the arrangements that we do now with these songs on this album are arrangements that Eddy came up with. He's just a genius in that area and a great guitar player. He played with The Allman Brothers, he toured on stage with The Eagles..
MR: So you are still a proud poppa.
BJS: Yeah. Unfortunately he passed away New Year's Eve, 2000, a heroin overdose in a motel in Waco.
MR: Right, and I'm sorry for your loss, Billy Joe.
BJS: I am too, but you know, life goes on. I can't believe that I'm the one left. My wife, my son, my mother, and mother-in-law all died in a four-month period.
MR: Again, all respect to you. Okay, so you helped a certain Waylon Jennings early on by penning virtually every song on his breakthrough album, Honky Tonk Heroes.
BJS: There's one that I didn't write. It had already been out and it was a #2 or something like it. Chet Atkins put it on the album because he didn't want me to have the whole album. He was mad at me for a long time but then he got over it after he saw it. I think "Honky Tonk Heroes" was the first country album to sell a million copies, and he thought it would be bad for business, for Nashville, and it really wasn't. It actually kicked it into gear, that outlaw movement thing. That's how it started, Waylon sticking his neck out. Waylon was a hardhead and if he wanted something, he'd go for it.
MR: Good for you and good for Waylon.
BJS: Good for Waylon. He's the real hero as far as I'm concerned.
MR: Do you have a quick story about you and Waylon?
BJS: There's a bunch of them, but I guess the main one was that he told me he was going to do a whole album of my songs because I met him down at a 4th of July thing. Waylon had something to do with it but I think it was something he kept on the quiet about organizing. I don't know exactly who organized it, but everybody was on it. I was in a little trailer down there and they were passing a guitar around and I started singing "Willie, The Wandering Gypsy And Me." Waylon and Billy Ray Reynolds came out of the back of the trailer and they'd been back there doing God knows what. Waylon says, "Who's song is that?" I say, "It's mine." He says, "I want to record it." I say, "You sure can." He says, "Do you have any more of those cowboy songs?" I say, "Yeah, I've got a whole set," which I did because I worked three ranches at one time and so I was a real cowboy, sure enough, not a rodeo cowboy. He said to meet him up in Nashville, which I did, and I chased him around for six months and couldn't catch him. He'd run from me, actually, and finally one night around midnight, there was a disc jockey who had a good reputation, and he got me in a recording studio over there where Waylon was recording. It was kind of hard to get in there--there were all these groupies and motorcycle people lining up along the wall, and hangers. I got in and I was down there at the end of the hall. Waylon got wind of me being there and he sent Midnight down there with a hundred-dollar bill all folded up. Old Shooter reminded me of that story. He came back with that hundred-dollar bill and he said, "Waylon said take this and get lost." Of course, I told him where to stick it, where the sun don't shine, and twist it. He went back to Waylon and Waylon comes out of the door in the control room. All these people are lined up and he says, "What do you want?" He has a couple backers on either side of him. I say, "I'm going to tell you what I want. At least listen to these songs or I'm going to have to kick your ass in front of everybody." The backers started towards me and then Waylon stopped them. He got a hold of me, took me in the room, and said, "I'll record "Willie..." but you play a song for me. If I don't like it, I'm going to say I don't like it and you're going to leave, and that's going to be the end of our relationship." I said, "That's fair enough." So I played "Ain't No God In Mexico" for him. Then he asked me to play another and I played "Old Five And Dimers" or something. When I finally got to "Honky-Tonk Heroes," he started changing things. He ran those people off that were playing and got his own band in there, which was unheard of. Chet got wind of it and he got all upset about it. It turned out that Waylon just hung in there, hung in there, and hung in there, and doggone it, he got a heck of an album and it worked out great for all of us. I'm very lucky to have run into him.
MR: And you guys became pals for over all those years.
BJS: That's why the songs fit him so well, because they're songs that he could have written. Sometimes when he'd sing them, it'd scare me to death because I'd think, "Man, that guy must have written that song." I couldn't believe how good he did them. I couldn't possibly sing that good, still can't. I couldn't deliver them like he could.
MR: We have to bring in your acting career, speaking of Robert Duvall a little earlier, because you were in The Apostle.
BJS: Yeah, it was a big part for a first time; I had never been in a movie before. Robert Duvall had become a friend. He was a big fan of "Honky Tonk Heroes" and he liked me because I was the one who wrote it. He got me in there and said, "Billy what I want you to do is be yourself. Don't change nothing." They didn't even put on makeup or nothing. He said, "Every chance you get, don't act." "Okay!"
MR: That's a great direction, "Every chance you get, don't act."
BJS: Yeah, I was stuck with being myself, so it worked out really good. He cast me perfectly for that deal. They put my hair up and made me look a little different than I usually do, but it worked out really good. He's such a great guy and I think he's as good a director as he is anything. He can take a person and get something out of that person that's real.
MR: Also, he shot a documentary on you in 2004.
BJS: His girlfriend at the time, Luciana Pedraza--he wound up marrying her later on--really stuck her neck out too. She decided that I needed more exposure. She was right, I did. I tell you, she was just wonderful at what she did. She had never done anything like that before, but she did it.
MR: How many times have you watched it since it was made?
BJS: Several times, but I had to move on.
MR: (laughs) And you were with the show Squidbillies.
BJS: Now, I didn't know it was going to be that name. I can't recall his name, I'm hard on names, but that boy who really wrote all that stuff, I added a little something here and there but not much. He's a genius and funny. I tell you what, it was all I could do to keep from laughing all the time. I still do stuff for him, I did something just a while back.
MR: Billy Joe, what advice do you have for new artists?
BJS: New artists? Are you saying artists or songwriters? It's going to be long before people are so in tune with where their money goes and how much they're getting for their money that I believe one day, it's going to be where people want to hear what the person's singing, they want to be sure that person wrote that. Soon, there'll be no in-between people and you'll get it straight like cabbage-to-cabbage. I think a lot of the guys that right now sing are writing their own songs and it kind of knocks me out. But you have to really have a great song before they'll take your song, because they can write just as good as you do.
MR: It's interesting to watch American Idol because that's a whole other kind of...
BJS: ...yeah, it's okay, but it just seems funny in a way that these guys work all their lives and they get to be about thirty-something and they still don't have a deal and they're still writing songs like that. Then these kids will be fourteen, fifteen, sixteen, and they'll say, "I've waited around long enough and doggone it, I'm going to have to make it." Then they go in with one song and hone it down really good and win this thing and get themselves a record deal. But you know what, life goes on and that's the way it is, that's the way the cards fell, so you just have to deal with it. I feel sorry for some of the guys out here who are old country dogs and maybe wanting it faster than any of the rest of them, but they just don't get the chance most of the time because somebody like real young gets to go in there. People are so involved about how old you are. To me, it don't mean nothing.
MR: Yeah, it shouldn't mean anything, and in country music, it didn't mean anything for the longest time. Then, one day, it did
BJS: Yeah, some radio station did that. But the funny thing about it is it would be like if Leonardo DaVinci painted the Mona Lisa and somebody saw it and said, "Aw, man, you're too old!" and just tore the damn thing in two, and thrown it in the trash. They're just missing so much by older writers. If they ex them out, I'm fine and happy, and I never dreamed that I'd get this far. But they do deny themselves a lot of good art by putting these restrictions up.
MR: I agree with you, and the culture is obsessed with youth and beauty.
BJS: But saying it makes you very unpopular with these people doing these shows, and it makes you unpopular with young people.
MR: Well you have to talk about it, it's the elephant in the room. Billy Joe, it's a kind of ageism, but it's also human nature to like pretty things. And it's not just this country. It's the way the world works.
BJS: It's a universal thing, but I noticed that European countries never were that way. They're okay, they're in-tune with everything. They're way ahead of us in terms of malls and everything else.
MR: (laughs) Yeah, that's right. Okay, Billy Joe, I hate to wrap this up, but it's that time. I would love to thank you very much for your time, and it was an honor talking with you about your history and your latest album, Live At Billy Bob's Texas.
BJS: Well, I've got another one waiting that's already done that's ready to be a studio album.
MR: You come right back here when you have it ready.
BJS: I sure will. Thank you so much.
MR: Thank you, my friend.
BJS: God Bless.
1. Heart Of Texas
2. Georgia On A Fast Train
3. Honky Tonk Heroes
4. That's What She Said Last Night
5. Black Rose
6. Wacko From Waco
7. Old Chunk Of Coal
8. Star In My Heart
9. Live Forever
10. Hottest Thing In Town
12. Good Ole USA
13. Ride Me Down Easy
14. Love Is So Sweet
15. I Couldn't Be Me Without You
16. The Git Go
17. Old Five And Dimers
18. You Asked Me To
19. Try And Try Again
20. You Can't Beat Jesus Christ
21. Wacko From Waco - with Willie Nelson
Transcribed by Narayana Windenberger