I’ll admit to a bout of nervous anxiety when faced with the prospect of interviewing Billy Joe Shaver. After all, Bob Dylan, Willie Nelson, and Johnny Cash have all called him the greatest songwriter alive. He wrote almost every song on Waylon Jennings’ classic Honky Tonk Heroes album. Dylan famously mentioned Shaver in “I Feel A Change Comin’ On.” Willie Nelson’s Hero is about him. He’s recorded over twenty albums (his first produced by none other than Kris Kristofferson). His songs have been recorded by countless artists, including Elvis Presley. He’s even the subject of a documentary, The Portrait Of Billy Joe . His importance to music cannot be overstated. Thus…my anxiety.
I gathered my composure, began a prayer to the Good Lord Above, and dialed the number. I was still silently in prayer when Shaver himself answered the phone–no handlers, no assistants, and perfectly within character. Before I knew it, I felt like I was catching up on old times with a family friend. In mere seconds, my anxiety had scattered to the four winds. Shaver is a comforting presence and…well, just a really nice guy. It was an honor and a pleasure to speak with him.
Lesson learned: God answers prayers. Pretty quick, as it turns out.
Michael: How are you doing?
Shaver: I’m doing fine. We just finished playing at Willie’s picnic, you know…and it was hot.
Michael: What’s the weather like in Waco?
Shaver: Oh boy, it’s hot. It’s probably up over 100 now, at least.
Michael: Last week in Kentucky, it was 110.
Shaver: I know. That’s scary, isn’t it? I don’t remember it ever being this hot before. See, I look at the weather every day just about, and…my God, I just can’t believe this…
I’ve got a friend there in Glasgow, a real good friend, I’ve been knowin’ him for years…and they’re fixin’ to make me a Kentucky Colonel. They’ve already given me the plaque and everything. My great great great grandfather was one of the three men that went from Glasgow down to Texas. And I guess that’s what got me in there. It’s hard to get to be a Kentucky Colonel.
Michael: Do they have a big ceremony for that kind of thing?
Shaver: Yeah, but I haven’t had my ceremony yet. They gave me the plaque already, signed and all that.
Michael: You’ll be in about every Hall Of Fame you can possibly imagine now.
Shaver: Yeah, I’ll be in a bunch of ‘em.
Michael: Well, you’ve got this Live At Billy Bob’s Texas CD coming up. Is that a double CD?
Shaver: Yeah, it is. It’s audio and video. There’s 3 new songs on there.
Michael: The press release intrigued me with a song called “The Git Go.” What’s that about?
Shaver: I’ve never written very many things like that, politically oriented things. It’s just about what’s happening…it’s almost like predicting rain while you’re standing in it. It’s some truths that I just wanted to remind everybody of. It’s about money and gettin’ in deep with that, and how money breeds war as long as there’s a man alive. You know, rich kids go to college and poor kids fight. “High rollers crapped out every time; rolling soldier’s bones like loaded dice. War is the beast that makes every mother cry.” And it gets down to Jesus Christ hanging on the cross… ”A woman shined the apple and man took a bite; anything that good, God knows it just had to be right; he wound up naked with a big headache, been done in by a slippery snake…” I don’t know if people want to hear it, but you know how it is with the truth—a lot of people don’t like to hear it.
Michael: That’s even more reason to say it.
Shaver: Yeah, well, I had to say it. It was brought on me and I had to say it. I made a single out of it and it’ll be out the 17th of this month [July].
Michael: That’s a couple of days before you’re here in Bowling Green. Speaking of which, the last time you were here…about ’96 or ’97, you were at a place called The Sawmill. And I just want to thank you for something. I came into that show feeling absolutely awful. Girl problems, you know. There’s nothing worse. And you really lifted me up that night. I just want to say thank you for that. You and Eddy both were really, really nice to me and you both signed my copy of Highway Of Life and I want to thank you for it.
Shaver: Well, thank you, man. Thank you for coming.
Michael: I’m looking forward to the gig July 19. [The Warehouse At Mt. Victor]
Shaver: Yeah, it’s going to be fun.
Michael: Have you heard Willie Nelson’s song “Hero” yet?
Shaver: Yes, I have. I’ve heard it. He texted it to me right after he’d written it and I got a big kick out of it. The thing is, though, the night it got put out, I was listening to it on the radio, I was in Austin driving around, and I’d waited real late to get a room. And for some reason, Austin was full of this and that, big tournaments and stuff. I had trouble finding a room. Everywhere I’d go, it was just wearing me out looking for a room. And I finally pulled into this churchyard and laid down in my truck and went to sleep. And then I called Willie up and said “Willie, does every song you write come true?”
Michael: (laughing) Because of that line in the song about sleeping in your car…
Shaver.: Yesterday I spoke with him, I told him to write one about me being a billionaire.
Michael: I just watched Crazy Heart the other night and I know that movie is not necessarily about you, but do you see a lot of yourself in it?
Shaver: Oh yeah. The first thing that tipped me off was when he [Jeff Bridges] drove up to the bowling alley in his pickup truck and he got out and he had my standard pee jar…and he poured it out. And I thought, ‘man, he must have been following me’. (laughing)
Michael: He must have been reading your mail. (laughing)
Shaver: That’s the way I’d do it. I’d play them little joints…
Michael: Well, it’s a time-saver.
Shaver: Well, they all know me. T-Bone Burnett and also Stephen Bruton, he passed away, but he had a hand in that, he had some songs in there. And Stephen was my first guitar player. And he was T-Bone Burnett’s first guitar player.
Michael: Now is that before he went off with Kris [Kristofferson]?
Shaver: Oh God, yeah, ‘cause he was just a baby. I couldn’t get him in some of the places, but he played his ass off, so…
Michael: He was young when he passed away, wasn’t he?
Shaver: Yeah, he played with me before Eddy [Shaver] did.
Michael: Speaking of Eddy, I just have to say “Tramp On Your Street” gives me tingles from head to toe every time I hear it.
Shaver: That’s a good one, yeah. That’s still a good one.
Michael: That’s my personal favorite. Do you have a favorite of your own?
Shaver; No, I can’t really pick ‘em ‘cause it’s just like kids, you love ‘em just as much as you do the others.
Michael: What do you listen to for pure enjoyment?
Shaver: Oh, if I listen to anything at all…I gotta be honest with you, I don’t hardly ever listen to anything. I’m always writing. I’m always writing a little bit on this piece of paper or that, some kind of idea. I’m always constantly writing. I’ve got lots of songs nobody’s heard.
Michael: It’s been five or six years since the last studio album.
Shaver: Yeah, it’s been a while. I’ve got a whole bunch.
Michael: See, you’re teasing us now.
Shaver: Yeah, well, I need to get the right record deal or I need to go on and just do it myself, one or the other.
Michael: Just listening to your songs, they’re right to the point, they’re straightforward, they’re blunt. They seem to flow effortlessly. I’m going to assume it’s harder than it seems.
Shaver: I do believe that…simplicity don’t need to be greased. It just slides right on in there. It’s easy to understand, not too many words, and if the dumbasses like me can understand it, then the smart ones will get it real easy.
Michael: You ever suffer writer’s block?
Shaver: No, I’ve never had that. I’m always writing, all the time.
Michael: Numerous people have called you the greatest songwriter alive. How does that feel?
Shaver: Oh it feels all right, but I think probably the best one is the one that’s singing the song at the time because there’s so many good ones out there [songwriters], I don’t know how in the world anybody’d know. But I’ll take it. It’s the best psychiatrist there is, writing songs.
Michael: You’re even mentioned in a Dylan song.
Shaver: Yeah, that was good of him. I never have met him. I probably will eventually, though. I hope so. I admire his writing. It knocked me out.
Michael: Well, you set the bar with “Live Forever.”
Shaver: Well, thank you. You know, Layla Tucker, Tanya Tucker’s little girl, she just recorded that and did a video on it. They called me to come and see it and I couldn’t make it, I was playing in Raleigh. I’m looking forward to hearing that. She’s great. She really has got a lot of talent. And she is a beautiful girl. The thing is, coming from a child like that, “Live Forever” is going to come across real good.
Michael: What would you say your influences are?
Shaver: Jimmie Rodgers…My grandmother raised me and I had to go across the railroad track from the time I was about six or seven years old over to a settlement of cotton pickers, black people. And they had a standup piano on one of the porches there—little bitty houses—and every evening they’d gather over there and sing and play and I’d gather with them. And that’s where I picked up most of my influence. Blues, actually… and doing Jimmie Rodgers songs and stuff. Everybody thought Jimmie Rodgers was black. And I did, too.
Michael: You know, if you listen to Tony Joe White, you’d never know what color he is.
Shaver: I know. That’s true. Tony Joe writes as good as Willie Dixon, I tell you what. I love Tony Joe. He’s something, he’s really great.
Michael: Any plans on an autobiography?
Shaver: I’ve already written a book. I’ll get you one. It’s called Honky Tonk Heroes, University Of Texas Press. You can order one…I sell ‘em for more than what they’re worth. (laughs)
Michael: How’s your health nowadays?
Shaver: Oh, I’m all right. Pretty good shape for the shape I’m in. One knee went out and the other knee I had put in. I should have had ‘em both put in at the same time. But I almost lost my leg on that one. But’s it okay now…and now the other knee’s gone out. And my shoulders have got screws in ‘em. And of course, I’ve had a heart attack and all kinds of stuff. I had four discs taken out of my back. But pretty good shape for the shape I’m in, that’s what Johnny Cash used to say.
Michael: When was the last time you saw Cash, anyway?
Shaver: At June’s funeral…I went to his cabin, though, and sang with him out there. And that’s where I recorded my last studio album, ‘Everybody’s Brother, with John Carter [Cash].
Michael: He’s really coming into his own as a producer, isn’t he?
Shaver: Oh, God, yeah. He’s great. Good guy, too.
Michael: Is that cabin still there? I know the house burned down.
Shaver: Yeah, the cabin’s there. They made a recording studio out of the old log cabin and that’s where I recorded Everybody’s Brother. If you ever get the chance to get the album, that’s really a good one.
Michael: If you’re raised in the South, then you remember the Heavenly Highway Hymns songbook. You remember that?
Shaver: Yes, I do, as a matter of fact. I’ve got one somewhere.
Michael: If you’re raised in the South, those are the songs you’re raised on.
Shaver: Yeah, that’s what you sang.
Michael: When you were writing the songs for Everybody’s Brother, did those old gospel songs come into your head?
Shaver: Well, of course they do. I got influenced by that. Probably the first thing I ever was influenced by. You’re going to get influenced by that if you’re from the South, just about everyone. And there ain’t nothin’ wrong with that.
Michael: Oh no, absolutely not.
Shaver: It’s great, really.
Michael: I understand you saw Hank Williams Sr. perform when you were a kid?
Shaver: Yes, I did. I was just a kid, I can’t remember how old I was, but it was somewhere between the time I was 8 or 12. He was playing at this place called the Miracle Bread Company down there in Corsicana. And I snuck out that night. I didn’t know he was there. I actually went to see Homer and Jethro. Kids loved Homer and Jethro, ‘cause they sang a song like ‘How much is the hound dog in the window…’ Well, those guys were funny and kids loved ‘em and I was a big ol’ kid so I just went on down there. I walked all the way down there, 10 miles barefoot on the railroad tracks. I got in there and shimmied up a pole…and Jethro was just getting off the stage—well, it was a stage of sorts, because the people were down in the hole where the trucks backed down into and then the dock was up higher, where they load the trucks—and they was bootleggin’ and doin’ all that stuff…and I’m just a little kid and I decided I’ll shimmy up this pole so they wouldn’t step on my feet. And they said we want you to hear this guy here…they said ‘Hank Williams’. And he came out, he didn’t sing but one song. ‘Cause there wasn’t anybody listening. They all started doin’ their bootleggin’ and all that stuff. But they said he would go around and play with this one and that one before he got hot, travel with ‘em…it was called Luke The Drifter or something like that, I think it was. But they didn’t call him Luke The Drifter [that night], they said Hank Williams—and he noticed there wasn’t nobody listening to him, and he just looked me right straight in the eye and sang straight to me and just… lit me up. I come down that pole and ran all the way home. I think the reason I remember it so well is ‘cause when I crawled in the window, my grandma grabbed me and just beat the compound hell out of me. The worst whippin’ I ever got in my life.
Michael: (laughing) Was it worth it?
Shaver: Yeah, it was worth it. I remember all of it. Every bit of it.
Michael: Did it ever strike you that maybe Hank Williams was passing the torch to you?
Shaver: No…but it felt…well, I knew exactly what I was going to do. Eventually. Yes…maybe so. It lit me up, anyway. I won’t say it influenced me, it inspired me.
Michael: Let me throw you a name or two and then I’ll leave you alone, I promise. Just give me your impressions, if you would.
Michael: Waylon Jennings.
Shaver: Honest. Bluntly honest. Brutally honest. He loved to be honest with people and it hurt their feelings. I mean, he would never never never tell a lie.
Michael: That’s a beautiful thing, though, isn’t it?
Shaver: It is, because he didn’t really know how, I guess. But he would tell people what they didn’t want to hear. And they’d come to him for some reason or another asking these questions and he’d just tell ‘em bluntly what the deal was and most of them didn’t like him for it. That’s what I noticed about him that was so great, he was always brutally honest.
Michael: Kris Kristofferson.
Shaver: Brilliant. Just brilliant. And a good ol’ boy, too. Not a jealous bone in his body. He’s just really a giving person. He actually borrowed money to record my first album. He wasn’t greedy or jealous or anything. He just thought the world of me and I still think the world of him. We get along real well.
Michael: Willie Nelson.
Shaver: Willie? Oh, he’s my brother. He’s everybody’s brother, really… if I have a real tough something-or-other I need an answer to, I’ll call him up. He’ll tell me. He’s been through most all of it, anyway.
Michael: Who would you say is carrying the torch nowadays?
Shaver: You know what, there’s so many young ones out there…I think what’s great is that there’s so many great songwriters out there now and they’re young and kickin’ ass, too. I’ve always liked Todd Snider. He’s real loose and reminds me of myself, really.
Michael: It’s interesting you should mention him. He’s going to be here in Bowling Green in August. [The Warehouse At Mt. Victor, Aug. 15]
Shaver: Oh, really. Man, I still think the world of him and always will.
Michael: Well, it’s been a pleasure to hear your voice—that iconic voice—on my telephone. Thank you so much.
Shaver: Okay. God bless you, man.
Michael: God bless you, Billy. I really appreciate the conversation.
Shaver: All right, take care.
Michael: You take care of yourself out on the road.
Shaver: All right, adios.
Michael Franklin is the Media & Reserves Specialist at Western Kentucky University’s Visual & Performing Arts Library (VPAL). Michael is also a professional musician and sound engineer. He is currently recording his 6th CD with his best friends Screenlast 6.0 and Audacity Sourceforge. He thinks Iggy Pop is the greatest singer in the history of music. If you disagree, you’re wrong. You better ask somebody.
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