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Last Outlaw Standing: A Talk With Billy Joe Shaver

05/25/2011 12:15 pm ET

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"Why steal from anybody?" songwriting legend Billy Joe Shaver told me recently. "People in Texas don't repeat anything anybody else says as their own," he insisted, "because they all think they're the greatest."

"Folks around here figure, what have you got that I want?"

Once there were a group of country singers and songwriters they called the "outlaws." The name was partly industry hype and partly truth. These guys - Waylon, Willie, and the rest of the gang - were a lot more leathery and tough than the crowd that rules the charts nowadays. They're mostly gone now: Waylon's dead. Kris is an actor, not a hellraiser. Tompall Glaser and Lee Clayton haven't been seen in years. David Allan Coe's in a class by himself. And Willie has become something altogether different, something iconic and universal yet still somehow stubbornly Aquarian.

The "outlaw" esthetic shimmered with honky-tonks, drugs, alcohol, angels, down-and-outers, lust, poetry, and violence. And underlying all of it was the lurking Christianity of the backwoods - of talking in tongues, shape-note singing, brokenhearted confessions, and hallucinatory visions of hell. The bard of the movement was Billy Joe Shaver, whose unadorned melodies, Faulknerian lyrics, and gravelly singing gave voice to the times. Shaver's reputation is close to legendary. Waylon Jennings did an entire album of his songs, and they've been covered by everyone from Bob Dylan to Willie Nelson to Elvis Presley.

Love and fury mix in Billy Joe Shaver, just as they do in the Good Book. As a former "spiritual advisor" to Kinky Friedman, he says he loves people of all beliefs. But the best song on his new album is called "If You Don't Love Jesus Go to Hell." He's been close to death, has sinned and been saved so many times that he probably has a commuter pass to Heaven. As he approaches 65, neither his devils nor his angels look like they're ready to retire.

Billy Joe's new album Everybody's Brother is out today, and all of that history is there for the listening. The album's not for country music tourists, those weekenders who like their music Nashville-lite. It's hard-core country, stripped down and driven, with guest appearances from Marty Stuart, Tanya Tucker, John Anderson, and a gospel demo featuring Johnny Cash - who, he says, helped him write a song from beyond the grave.

We spoke with Billy Joe recently - about God, the new album, his recent arrest, and a few dozen other things. It's hard to stay on topic with Billy Joe, but then it's probably not as much fun.
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If you would know Billy Joe Shaver, study the Bible. He comes from that part of the country where the Bible isn't just the foundation of Western literature -- it's the foundation of Western perception.

Be ye angry, and sin not: let not the sun go down upon your wrath. (Ephesians)

When I asked about his health, I got this reply: "I'm feelin' great. I got Jesus in my heart and He ain't gonna let me down." But when I referred to Everybody's Brother as a Christian album, he pointed out that half the songs are secular. He also let me know that the first song he ever got recorded was a gospel tune ("Jesus Christ, What a Man" won a Grammy nomination when it was released by the Oak Ridge Boys).

"Waylon used to call me a Bible thumper," he added, "even when we were raising hell. I guess he was right. I've always been a big sinner. Still am .... I've wavered," he adds, "gone back and forth a few times. How would you say that? How would you put it if you get saved more than once?"

Born again, again?

"That's it. That's me. Born again, again. I'm not a full-blown crazy fanatic Christian - not really. I know I'm talking like one, but that's just because I want to share it with everybody."

He hesitates, as if reaching for the right analogy, but when he finds it you suspect he's used it before:"Tell you the truth - it's like when I was back dopin', when I run across some real good stuff I'd call all my friends and say you got to get into this, it's amazing, come on over. It's the same with Jesus."

"The devil made me do it the first time," he sang in "Black Rose." "The second time I done it on my own."

Man is born to trouble, as the sparks fly upward. (Job)

If Shaver sounds like what they used to call a 'churchical" kind of guy, a report in the Associated Press last April offered a slightly different perspective:

"Police issued arrest warrants for country singer Billy Joe Shaver after he shot and wounded a man outside a Texas bar, his attorney said. After Shaver left a bar in Lorena on Saturday night, a drunk, aggressive stranger with a knife followed him into the parking lot, said Shaver's attorney, Joseph A. Turner of Austin. Shaver shot him in self-defense, Turner said."

Billy Joe emphatically denies other, more ambiguous reports of his behavior ("Nobody tells me to shut up," one witness quoted him as saying), and Kinky Friedman says violence of that kind is not in his nature. (Billy Joe tells his side of the story here.) Still, the case seems freighted with the darkness and violence of the old outlaw days.

Despite the cloud over his head, Billy Joe was serene when the incident was brought up. "God's taking care of it," he said. "I'll take whatever He says I'm supposed to take. I'll accept it. God's in charge. It's taken care of. It's covered."

The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning ... for in much wisdom is much grief: and he that increaseth knowledge increaseth sorrow. (Ecclesiastes)

Death and illness have marked Billy Joe's recent years, and they seemed to have deepened him spiritually. He survived a serious heart attack. His longtime wife, to whom he stayed close after divorce, died recently. Most tragically, his son (and lead guitarist) Eddy died of a heroin overdose in 2000.

When condolences were offered he said simply "thank you," then added: "But I know they're in a better spot. I know where they are. I could feel bad about that, but I'd just be feeling bad for myself. That happens sometimes, but it's just self-pity."

We asked Billy Joe whether he got much flak for recording "If You Don't Love Jesus Go to Hell." "Some Christian friends didn't think the words 'Jesus' and 'hell' should be in the same sentence," he said, and "record company executives were concerned that its hard-core Christian lyric would keep it off Americana stations."

But we had another question in mind: Isn't it a little harsh?

"If it is," he answered, "then God's harsh."

Shaver has a knack for aphorisms, and Kinky Friedman borrowed one when he ran for Governor: "May the God of your choice bless you." We thought that contradicted the "go to hell" sentiment and asked Billy Joe what the Jewish ex-Gubernatorial hopeful thought of this new song.

"Aw, you can't tell Kinky nothin' anyway. And the song's just another way to put things: It says 'take your rotten rags of righteousness and stuff 'em up yourself,' because the Bible says 'your rags of righteousness are as nothing to me.'"

Rags of righteousness, we answered: That's Old Testament, isn't it? That should make Kinky happy. Shaver laughs.

Woe is me, my mother, that thou hast borne me a man of strife and a man of contention to the whole earth! (Jeremiah)

But what about this line? "If you think that you can kick my ass/better move that foot mighty fast."

"Well, God and fighting ..." His voice trails off in a laugh. "Evander Holyfield, he's a good Christian, says 'If a fellow hits me on the cheek I turn the other cheek - then I knock him out.'"

Yet no sooner is Billy Joe done expounding the hard gospel of a fighting Jesus than he once again becomes a lover of all humanity, Christian or not: "If everybody prayed for everybody else, if everybody loved everybody else, then no matter what religion they were there would be peace. Look, what I do is ask Jesus to let everybody into Heaven. I believe He will, not that I'm any expert. I hope so, though. He's everybody's brother."

"Why shouldn't everybody go to heaven?"

Your voice will come ghostlike from the earth; out of the dust your speech will whisper. (Isaiah)

Shaver gives much of the credit for the album's title song to a dead man. "Everybody's Brother" is a droning chant featuring Native American singer and instrumentalist Bill Miller.

"You know," says Shaver, "the night before I wrote it I coulda sworn that Johnny Cash came to me in my room. I felt him there, so I got up and started writing. What I wound up with was nothing liked what I'd started with. He helped me ... it's like he wrote it with me."

Whatsoever thy hand findeth to do, do it with thy might. (Ecclesiastes)

Billy Joe seems to have no expectations for this album beyond getting some airplay, bolstering his current tour, and engaging in the satisfying work of songwriting. "I'm into for the art," he says. "I love it, and it's a hobby for me. A hobby, and a living. I never worried about awards or getting a hit record."

"Waylon did an album of my songs. Willie did an album. Kris Kristofferson. Bob Dylan cut one of my songs. Elvis Presley."

Billy Joe Shaver pauses. "Those are my awards."

Iron sharpens iron; so a man sharpeneth the countenance of his friend. (Proverbs)

"Waylon Jennings said he'd shoot me right between the eyes if he ever caught me writin' for an award."

Hell from beneath is moved for thee to meet thee at thy coming: it stirreth up the dead for thee. (Isaiah)

Shaver's duet with John Anderson, "Get Thee Behind Me Satan," is an itinerant preacher's nightmare vision: The singer is unable to speak, invisible, trapped in a shroud as dark clouds hide the stars, watching his loved ones weep as he's buried alive. That is, until salvation begins to stir ...

The fierce delivery and dark imagery reflects that other side of Christian imagery - apocalyptic, hell-bent, shot through with thunder and lightning and terror. It's not exactly megachurch material, not something Joel Osteen would preach.

"Well," drawls Billy Joe, "It's just another side of reality, isn't it?"

(Watch the video of "Get Thee Behind Me, Satan" here.)

Make a loud noise, and sing praise. (Psalms)

Johnny Cash and the other singers and players of instruments on "You Can't Beat Jesus Christ" instinctively fall into the ecstatic cadence of Southern church singing. A lifetime of revival-style celebrations reveals itself in their off-handed, almost autonomic declamations.

"Aw, praise the Lord, git-tar," one will say to introduce a solo. "Amen," another will answer. Billy Joe's late son Eddy, only fifteen at the time of the recording, delivers a blistering solo. So does the harp player.

"Amen," say the singers.

And it was just a demo. They're only releasing it now, 30 years later.

Days should speak, and multitude of years should teach wisdom. (Job)

Billy Joe Shaver doesn't talk like a peacenik, but "Freedom's Child" (from another recent album) sounds a lot like a protest song. He says he wrote it back in the sixties but finally decided to record it after 9/11 "because it's about the sacrifices that people make. They lay their lives down for you." Then, in one of those aphorisms that pepper his conversation, he adds: "Human beings are such wonderful people."

We suggested that the song reflects on the endless cycle of war and violence and asked, why 9/11? "I knew that cycle was beginning again. All the soldiers that I run into - rangers and paratroopers - that's their favorite song. They know what I'm talking about. I love these heroes and I honor them every chance we get."

"It's kind of an antiwar song, but it's also based on the acceptance that this is going to go on as long as we're human. Soldiers understand this. They accept the nature of the sacrifice they're making, and they do it anyway. That's real heroism."

I will light in your heart the lamp of understanding, which shall not be put out until what you are about to write is finished. (Esdras - apocryphal)

I've always been a fan, but after an hour's conversation I like Billy Joe Shaver too. But I may have become comfortable too quickly. He has a finely tuned bullshit detector, as when I asked him whether there's any special message he would like to convey: "If you don't love Jesus, go to hell."

Nothing else, we ask? We tell him our piece should carry his message, not ours. He laughs.

"Oh, you're getting all humble on me now, are you? You're just the vehicle, is that it?"

Some of us deserve to be humble, we tell him, and he laughs again.

"That's a good one," he says. "Think I might steal it."

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You can buy Everybody's Brother here, and you can read the complete interview here, without the inevitable alterations to reality that come with editing and interpreting. There's more talk - about the new album, the art of songwriting, God, biker bars, Dylan, the state of country music today, and diminished chords.