Eight fingers, four chords, a pair of boots and the truth - that's what you get with Billy Joe Shaver. Since his debut in 1973, Shaver has been one of the leading voices in the outlaw country scene. Last week, we spoke with him in advance of his show at Sam's Burger Joint on March 26th.
Your latest record Long In the Tooth came out in 2014 after a seven-year hiatus. What was it that made you want to get back into recording?
Well, I had been wanting to for a while. I’d just been waiting on [Producer] Ray Kennedy to come loose. He’d been so busy and all. He finally got loose to record me. I’d always thought the world of him, him and Gary Nicholson both. They found some free time, and we did it when we could. It was a low budget thing, all of mine were. I was anxious to record because I was out with a band and I had a bunch of new songs, and I figured [I] might as well get them down.
Long in the Tooth has quite a few different sounds on it. There’s everything from blues to mariachi on this record. Was it a conscious effort to get a little more variety, or was it one of those things where it was just how the songs happened to go?
With all of my albums, if I can persuade the producer, I try to give each song a different feel. Mainly just so people get their money’s worth, and something different, and not the same old grind. You know, I did the new record because I figured no one else was going to record [the new songs] so I might as well get them out there and see if anyone liked them.
On the lead single “Hard To Be An Outlaw,” a duet between you and Willie Nelson, you take a couple digs at the current country music scene. Anyone in particular catch your ire?
Well you know … just a little bit. I know some of these guys write really good songs, and some of them have slumped a little bit. But for the most part, the guys who write good always write good. It just seems like people haven’t been picking their songs. And a lot of these guys who get real popular, they’re good looking and all. And they get real popular. When they come to town, they get with some tough dog, used to be folks like Hank Cochran, and they write a song together. And they’ll be half writer on it. But of course they don’t say that. They get to thinking they can write like that too. And they have such a fan base that they sell a bunch of records. And they get to thinking that they can write good songs, but [the songs] just really aren’t. I guess the best way to put it is: if the boot fits, wear it. If somebody gets offended by that, then they’re the ones I was aiming at.
On the title track you talk about getting older, or maybe more specifically about being old. You’ve never really stopped touring, and I was wondering, how has the road changed since you were young? Or are you still just raising hell like you always have?
Oh no, I don’t raise hell much. I sing the same songs, and you know songs are like capsules of time. I don’t ever get tired of singing my songs, ‘cause I love and live with them all. When I sing them, I try and sing them like I did when I first wrote them. It’s a wonderful thing to get to do that. It’s quite a comfort sometimes. When I’m stuck in some motel room or I have the blues, I can pick up my guitar and sing a few of my songs and I feel better.
“American Me” is the aforementioned mariachi song. When I saw that there was a Billy Joe Shaver song called “American Me,” I figured it would be a hard honky tonk tune … and then the accordion came in. Could you tell me a little about that song?
I was a young man when I went over to Mexico. I lived with a couple other Mexican guys in Harlingen, and we’d go down to Matamoros. I was real young, man, 15 or 16, and I met this girl I liked a lot. And that song just came out. I’ve been saving that one for forever. When I find one I really like, I want to live with it for a long time, just so I can enjoy it.
Waylon Jennings’s Honky Tonk Heroes is one of the defining records of country music. That record is every bit as much yours as it his. Would you mind talking a little bit about that record for the people who may not know it?
You mentioned it’s as much mine as it is his. Well he got mad at me, ‘cause Rolling Stone wrote an article that said the real hero of Honky Tonk Heroes is Billy Joe Shaver. And it made him so mad. He came to me and told me, “I’ll never do another one of your songs.” And he never did another one. It’s a shame ‘cause I had some other good songs he could have done. I always thought he was the greatest singer I ever heard. Still is. But he got really mad at me, and stayed mad at me.
You have your own defining country record in Old Five and Dimers Like Me, which might be the great cult classic of country music. What do you think it is about that record that so many people latch on to?
I have no idea. I’m always deadly honest and they were fresh songs. I had my family with me then. My son, my wife. I was real strong. I had all my faculties about me. I was stronger than I’d ever been and I was able to get in there and do the songs like they should’ve been done. There are a couple I’d like to sing over, but it was a labor of love. Kris Kristofferson produced the record and he had to borrow money to do it, because he had an album about to come out. The Silver Tongued Devil and I. I had one song on there and he recorded mine. So we went down to the bank and borrowed money, ‘cause folks wouldn’t have anything to do with us. He worked in a honky tonk and he didn’t have money. I’d given up six songs into it. Then Fred Foster came around and bought it off of him, so Kris made a bit of money. So everyone was happy. But they ended up holding my album back for a year, then they sold the company before it ever got out. So it never really had much of a chance.
I’ve never really heard you talk specifics about musical influences. Was there anyone in particular that made you say, “Damn, I want to do that with my life”?The guy who really turned me on was Jimmie Rodgers. I think he’d be writing the kind of songs I’m writing today if he lived that long. If he lived during this era, he’d be writing songs like I do. It’s not that my life is exactly like his, it’s just that he influenced me a whole bunch. Of course, Hank Williams did too. But it’s mostly Jimmie Rodgers.
Your sound has a little more blues to it than other country singers. Does that come from Jimmie Rodgers?
Yea, I think so. I liked him so well. He was the real deal.
So what makes a good songwriter in your mind?
Oh, I don’t know. Just being honest. We all got one thing in common: we’re all different. If you’re honest with yourself, then what you’re saying is going to be different than what anyone else says. And people will like it for the uniqueness of it. Everybody loves honesty.
Has your songwriting process changed much over the years?
Nope. Hasn’t changed much. It’s still a hobby with me. I still love to do it and I’ve kept it that way. I was never one to chase money. I’m just happy with the way things are going now, and I’m my worst critic. So if I’m happy with it, then that’s fine.
Are you a lyrics first kind of guy?
No, it comes out in all different kinds of ways. The other night I was dreaming a song. There was a fella’ in the dream singing a song and I was killing myself for not writing that song. Then I woke up and realized it was my song, except I couldn’t remember it.
So what’s next for Billy Joe Shaver?
I got all new things coming out, soon as they get.