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Billy Joe Shaver interview

| October 1, 2007

Billy Joe Shaver
Last Man Standing

It’s a double-edged sword when your producer calls you “the last of his breed,” which is how producer John Carter Cash referred to Billy Joe Shaver. Publicly. In the press release accompanying Shaver’s newest album, Everybody’s Brother.

On the one hand, Cash was telling the truth. Shaver began his songwriting career as a staff songwriter for Bobby Bare, living in Bare’s publishing office (and bathing in a washtub). Bare recorded 20 of Shaver’s songs.

But it was as part of the “outlaw” group of Nashville songwriters that Shaver moved into his own. In the early-to-mid ’70s these “outlaws” — Kris Kristofferson, Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, Jessi Colter, Shaver — pulled (or, if you prefer — and we do — “rescued”) country music from the jaws of mainstream Nashville industry pop. Recall, however painfully, that 1974 was the year Olivia Newton-John was named Country Music Association’s Female Artist Of The Year. She beat out Loretta Lynn, Dolly Parton, and Tanya Tucker.

Billy Joe

“It’s more like ‘outcast,’ tell you the truth, ’cause the establishment really didn’t want us comin’ in ’cause we were changin’ things,” Shaver says now, in an accent that is classic, poor-farmer country. It’s an accent so adopted by the current crop of impeccably styled, non-outlaw CMT artists that it can sound like a stereotype. (It’s not. It’s real — and almost impossible to capture in print.) “They already had a money-makin’ deal goin’ and I guess they thought it would hurt ’em, but it didn’t. It wound up helpin’ them. I think they’d of went under if we hadn’t come along.” Shaver would probably have made good on his decision to leave Nashville, too — and the world could have lost what are some of the finest country songs written.

Instead, Kristofferson produced Shaver’s debut album, 1973’s Old Five And Dimers Like Me. Recorded, like his newest one, at House Of Cash, Kristofferson borrowed money to produce it. The album didn’t do much on the charts, but it knocked out other musicians and led to Jennings recording Honky Tonk Heroes, which is considered the definitive album of outlaw country. All but one of the songs was written by Billy Joe Shaver.

“My songs were bigger’n I was. They were so huge, I couldn’t do ’em. I couldn’t sing that good. [Waylon] could. He recognized that and he got aholt of ’em. They sounded like he wrote ’em after he got a hold of ’em, he did such a fine job. He always was one, though, that liked to do it as close to the way the songwriter wrote it as he could.”

Thereafter followed a steady stream of people covering Shaver’s songs, from Johnny Cash and Elvis Presley to John Anderson (“Old Chunk Of Coal” — the most performed song in 1981) and Kristofferson (“Old Christian Soldier,” the first song Kristofferson recorded that wasn’t his), to The Allman Brothers and even Bob Dylan. It’s a stream that continued through his self-destructive years and even to this day.

John Carter Cash has a point. Shaver is the last of a dying breed. But there’s something so . . . melancholy about being the last. Sure, it’s de rigeur for action heroes, but in the real world who, really, wants to be the last man standing? That, too, is something Shaver has had to cope with. In 1999, Shaver lost his mother to cancer, his much loved — if also much divorced and much remarried — wife Brenda to cancer, and, on New Year’s Eve, his only child, Eddy, to a drug overdose. The following year, he suffered a near-fatal heart attack on stage. As Shaver enumerates: “Got fingers missin’. Had a heart attack. Four-way bypass. I got a plate in my neck. My throat’s been cut a couple times. I mean, shit, man. I’m so beat up, I can’t do much of nuthin’ else [but write songs].”

That he does, both ceaselessly and skillfully. Everybody’s Brother (Compadre) is a testament to that. All but one of its 15 songs were written by Shaver — the lone holdout is a cover of Johnny Cash’s “No Earthly Good” — and it features guest artists Marty Stuart, Anderson, Tucker, Kristofferson, and Johnny Cash. The last song on the album was actually recorded in the ’70s. “It was my band that was playin’,” Shaver says. “My son, Eddy Shaver, he’s ’bout 15 then. Anyway, Johnny’d come around to places where we played. We’d play there in Nashville, little old dives here and there and he liked to come around and play and just be one of the guys. It was more fun than you could shake a stick at. He came by the Cowboy [Jack] Clement’s place, Cowboy Arms Hotel & Recording Spa. It was a little old place. We were just doin’ demos really and John jumped in there and did two songs with me. He did one by himself, and then he did this duet with me and it worked out really great. John Carter tweaked it up and remixed it. I didn’t sing or do a thang ’cause you couldn’t ’cause it was leakin’. Cowboy Clement likes to let things leak. All the microphones were open and you couldn’t change much of nuthin’ really. But it was great then, and it still is.”

Everybody’s Brother is a spiritual album, the first Billy Joe Shaver has released. “It was time for it,” he says. “It’s my kind of a gospel. I’ve got a way of lookin’ at things that’s a little different, but then again you know everybody’s different. Some of it’s kind of strong medicine, I’d say, but people in honky tonks and stuff’ll be able to identify with it. I’ve never had anybody that didn’t like it. I never had anybody got offended by it. It’s a little hard, I know, for a regular Christian, but I’m in honky tonks, you know. It’s gonna work there.”

M.S. Dodds

For the taller tales of Billy Joe Shaver, grab the October issue of Illinois Entertainer, available free throughout Chicagoland.

Category: Features, Monthly

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  1. Tommy Shortt says:

    I have the CD Everybody Brother, I love every song on it. He is my favorite songwriter, and I would love to do a duet with him. I’m a singer myself – I know just about ever song on all of his CDs. I Have them all!
    God bless you Billy Joe Shaver!
    Your biggest fan,