Billy Joe Shaver, headlining the American Music Festival this week, on dealing with tragedy through songwriting
BY MARK GUARINO | CHICAGO SUN-TIMES MUSIC WRITER
Billy Joe Shaver defined “outlaw country” with his 1973 album, “Old Five and Dimers Like Me,” which established the Texas native as one of the genre’s most prolific and influential songwriters.
Revered by songwriters — Bob Dylan, Kris Kristofferson, Willie Nelson, Johnny Cash, Joe Ely, and Waylon Jennings — who have put their own material aside to cover his songs, Shaver has remained an underground hero over decades.
He appears Friday at the 33rd annual American Music Festival at FitzGerald’s in Berwyn with a new album, “Long in the Tooth” (Lightning Rod) which covers his typical range: country gospel (“I’m in Love”), understated ballads (I’ll Love You As Much As I Can”), a barroom rocker (“Last Call for Alcohol”), Tex-Mex ballad (“American Me”) and two songs, “Music City USA” and “Hard To Be An Outlaw,” that both celebrate and bemoan the rise, and current state, of country music.
Shaver’s blunt songwriting style often overshadows the sophistication in his music and lyrical depth. On his 2009 album, “Together Through Life,” Dylan puts Shaver in the same sentence as Irish novelist James Joyce.
Like most music played in bars, there’s a feeling that Shaver has lived every beat of these songs. Married and divorced many times, he has undergone personal turmoil involving drugs and alcohol, professional entanglements, heart surgery, and, most profoundly, the loss of his son and musical collaborator Eddy Shaver, who died of a heroin overdose in 2000. He was 38.
The elder Shaver says he has never gotten over his son’s death. We talked on what would have been Eddy’s 52nd birthday. What follows is an edited transcript of that conversation.
You’re 74 — Do you still like touring?
We’re still traveling around in a van. But it’s easier that way because there’s four of us … And I’m not playing any big shows now, a festival every now and then will pay good, but mostly I’m playing to keep on going down the road because I really love to travel. I always did. There’s four of us and we’re real close. We don’t have any trouble running together. Matter of fact, we can’t wait to get out there. It’s just what the doctor ordered for me.
Country music outlaws never fail to attract newer fans unlike veteran artists in other genres.
I tell ya, a lot of it is, these kids who come up to see me, their grandfathers or their fathers tell them they’ll kill them if they don’t come see me. They come see me and they’re all turned on. They expect an old guy and but we kick, man. It’s rock and roll people [in the audience] too. We don’t have any end of people who like us and respect us, so just we go on and have a great time.
On “Hard To Be an Outlaw,” a new song you sing with Willie Nelson, actually talks about an unexpected downside of the outlaw life: not being wanted anymore. Who are you talking about?
They cut us off at the pass there. If you get to a certain age, they don’t want to play you on the radio anymore. That’s got a little something to do with the attitude I had [with that song]. Then there’s a couple of [country music] superstars, I don’t know how in the world they got there. I didn’t call out any names but they know who they are. Everybody is trying to make a living, I can’t get on anybody about trying to make a living, doing the best they can. But maybe they should have kept driving a truck or something. But again that may be my judgment. I may be full of crap, I don’t know.
How do you fit into the country music landscape of today, where much of it doesn’t sound much like actual country music?
I think that, when this album comes out, there’s lot of other albums come behind it that will be just like it or close to it. And it’s going to turn. Just about every 20 years it turns over. And it’s good that it does. Because [country music] needs to get back to the foundation. And I think the best foundation was the one that Kris [Kristofferson] and Willie [Nelson] and myself and Tom T. Hall all laid down. It’s a real firm foundation. A lot of [new artists] are going back to that and starting again. But a lot of them were turned off on that kind of thing and went off into a wild direction. I guess trying to find something new and I applaud them. But I’m doing the best I can. I’m trying to stay the way I always was. Simplicity doesn’t need to be greased. I’m simple, man. I got that cornered.
One new song title I love is “I’ll Love You As Much As I Can” — It seems to be the most honest declaration of love I can think of in a love song.
I wrote it about my triple-ex wife, Wanda Lynn [Canady]. What happened is, we got married and divorced three times. The same girl. Divorces don’t seem to work out. [laughs] We are real good friends now. It seems to be better than the other thing. But I told her from the get-go, I’d gone through marriage with a first wife and had a son and he’s passed. Everybody’s passed, even the dog passed. I told her, “I’ll love you the best that I can” when first met her. I don’t imagine you can love anybody more than you could. A guy reminded me of it, he said, “well, heck, how much better can you do?”
Too many love songs are unrealistic about love.
Yeah, they sure are. A little bit too mushy.
Do you have a writing routine?
It hasn’t changed much. If it’s changed at all, I write when it comes to me. I started writing when I got married to my first wife. I was young. I was writing to stay alive. And the rest of it was writing to get back in the house. I was just writing to her. [laughs] And it worked out all right. It seemed everybody had same kind of problems I had. I just wrote about myself, what was happening with me because I knew it would be honest. And if I didn’t, and wrote something about somebody else, I would have to be judging on them, speculating. I don’t know about anybody else, but I can dig into writing about myself. And gratefully, it turns out a lot of people can identify with it.
What were you writing to keep away from?
Some of it was drugs. And just growing up. But now, things have turned out that I write because it’s a great therapist. The cheapest psychiatrist there is. I write when anything comes to me. I guess I was born to write because I been writing since I was eight years old. I can pretty much write a song about a gnat. I don’t want to, but if something moves me though, I will. A little ole phrase like “the git go.” I heard somebody on television say, “he’s been on that way since the git go.” He didn’t say, “it’s been that way.” People say [the “git go”] all the time. So I figured maybe I’ll write a song about it. And sure enough, [the new song “The Git Go”] worked.
Do you throw out songs in order to find the ones worth keeping?
I don’t throw stuff away now. I used to. I threw away whole songs, then a week or two later, I’d hear on the radio something really similar. I still would have thrown it away because it wasn’t up to my standards. I’m my own worst critic … If I write something, I write it good. I intend to write it. But when it hits me, it’s a wonderful thing to have. Sometimes I write every day. Sometimes I don’t write for a whole month. It’s almost like having a baby. Sometimes sayings and things are rolling around in my head for years and years because they are real dear to me and I don’t want to let them go. And finally I have to go and finish them so I can get on to something else.
It’s like if they stay in your head for so long without forgetting them, they stood the test of time and have to be good.
Absolutely that’s true. Almost like how these computers work. Computers, of course, they’re just too perfect. They’ll probably be running us one day like the Terminator. [laughs]
You’ve had many hardships in your life. Is songwriting a way to deal with tragedy?
Yes sir. It’s like whistling by the graveyard. Every day I think about my son. He passed away in 2000 and today’s his birthday. Of course I can’t quit thinking about him. But I don’t think you’re supposed to. I don’t think you’re supposed to quit thinking about the people you love. I believe when people pass, the goodness in them — you remember that. Because that’s what makes you sorry they’re gone. And the goodness in them melts into you and you become a better person for it.
You’re a born again Christian. When I first heard “Live Forever,” it was Joe Ely’s version. But when I heard your own version, I realized it was about everlasting life past death.
My son and I wrote that together. He gave me the melody and I carried it around for almost six years, before I could figure out what to put with it. The melody was so great. Real simple, but so great. But not quite as simple as you’d think. Everybody told me, “you got to use a capo on it,” and I said no you don’t. Eddie didn’t like capos, he felt they choked guitars. I was able to get that together and it’s a thing I sing at funerals. I decided I’m not going to sing it anymore at funerals.
That new song on the album, “I’m in Love” — That’s about being born again. It’s not really a love song; it’s about being in love with Jesus Christ. “And the cord is finally severed/I am free to begin/the beginning of forever.” A lot of people miss that. They think it’s a love song. It’s a good love song, I guess, if you look at it that way, but it’s meant to be a spiritual song.
Do you mind if the songs get secular readings from your fans?
Anyway they get it is fine. I figure if I wrote it good enough, they’ll get it eventually.
So many people have covered your songs over several decades. Do you have a particular favorite?
I love the way Bob Dylan did “Old Five and Dimers Like Me” … I always worshipped him and people like that. And, of course, Jimmie Rodgers and Hank Williams. I been inspired by him … I don’t know you can listen to a Bob Dylan song without getting influenced. He influenced me to always have a little something in there that’s leaning toward world peace and the end of hunger. You stop the bleeding first and then you feed people. I swear they forgot what they were fighting about.
Country music and blind patriotism are now inseparable.
I have songs like “Good Christian Soldier” that Kris Kristofferson recorded on his “The Silver Tongued Devil and I” album. I wrote that. But if I write about [war], I write about the human part of it and not much else. I have another one, “Freedom’s Child” about the futility of war.
Yet lot of modern country stars go beyond the human element and seem to get into war mongering with their lyrics. Do you ever upset when you hear that?
I never thought about that, but now that you mention it, sometimes I do. Sometimes I think they stir up things. And when you get to talk about fighting this and that, I don’t know. But that’s their business, that the way they feel about it, they’re big stars. That’s just life. Some people get fighting mad about what’s going on, like all of us do, but some of them have a voice and they can say something about it.
In 2007 you were charged with shooting a man outside a roadhouse near Waco, Texas. You were later acquitted because the jury agreed it was self-defense. Does that incident haunt you?
What they didn’t say in the trial is that the guy shot at me. He had a gun … He sure done shot at me. I finally had to return fire. It’s just sad that it happened that way, but when I hit him, I put the mother in the [expletive], I’ll tell you that. I didn’t mean to, I meant to fire above his head to let him know not to return fire. And he run the mouth. It couldn’t have been worse. If I killed him, I don’t know if I could have lived with it. But he was bully. It happens.
How do you keep the world you live in and the world of your songs from overlapping?
I just concentrate on the song. And if a song is giving me trouble … I just hone in on the song itself and for the sake of the song, I write as good as I possibly can. And how I do that is: if I’m worried about what I’m saying, I’ll go through it like it’s a letter written to someone I care about or written to the whole world. When you do that, you find yourself making sense on every line. You almost have to or you’ll lose your loved one or whoever it is you’re writing to.