By Geoffrey Himes
July 3, 2014
Willie Nelson and Billy Joe Shaver perform in Maryland Heights, Missouri. Ebet Roberts/Redferns.
Billy Joe Shaver was a metaphorical outlaw. Then he was an actual outlaw.
Shaver helped launch country music's "outlaw" faction in 1973, writing 11 of the 12 tracks on Waylon Jennings's "Honky Tonk Heroes," the album often cited as the movement's first record.
Outlaw country was "a bag everyone wanted to get stuck in," recalls Shaver, 74. "When Waylon recorded 'Honky Tonk Heroes,' they started calling us outlaws. They might as well have called us outcasts, because that's what we were. . . . Everyone else was wearing sequins, and we were wearing old jeans. Their music was sweet and polished, and ours were rough and rowdy. They didn't want anything to do with us, and then, when we started having hits, they did."
That same year, Kris Kristofferson produced Shaver's debut album, "Old Five and Dimers Like Me," and his songs were soon being recorded by Kristofferson, Johnny Cash, Elvis Presley, Tom T. Hall, Jerry Jeff Walker and the Allman Brothers.
On March 31, 2007, however, Shaver became an outlaw in the most literal sense, shooting a man in the face behind Papa Joe's Texas Saloon in Lorena. A warrant was issued for his arrest, and he became the outlaw other people were writing songs about.
"Dale Watson and I are good friends," Shaver says by phone from Texas, "and the day after the shooting, before I turned myself in, he called me and said, 'I want to write a song about it.' I said, 'Don't do that.' He said, 'Well, actually, I already wrote it. . . . I'll tell you the title. . . . "Where Do You Want It?" ' I said, 'I didn't say that.'
"Then when I turned myself in a few days later, the bailiff said to me, 'Where do you want it?' The song was already out, and people were quoting it to me. It was like that through the whole trial. It felt funny to be a character in someone else's song. He described me in ways I never even thought about. I didn't hold it against him, though. He's a friend."
Shaver never denied shooting Billy Bryant Coker, but said it was self-defense. A jury in Waco agreed, acquitting Shaver on April 9, 2010. (Coker survived and testified at the trial.)
Having set his legal situation straight, Shaver decided he also needed to set his musical record straight. With help from longtime pal Willie Nelson, Shaver wrote a song about the shooting, "Wacko From Waco," and released both a studio duet with Nelson and a live version for the 2011 album "Live at Billy Bob's Texas."
"When a story becomes a song, it becomes something different, something funny," Shaver says. " 'Wacko From Waco' is a humorous title, and it takes the sting out of what happened. They still play it on the radio down here, and they don't play the other one, so we're straightening things out."
This year at the South by Southwest music festival in Austin, Shaver opened his show at the Dogwood with "Wacko From Waco." The singer stood on the downtown bar's back patio, his long gray hair spilling out of a high-crowned brown cowboy hat and onto the shoulders of his faded blue work shirt.
"He was trying to shoot me," Shaver sang, "but he took too long to aim. Anybody in my place would have done the same. I don't start fights. I finish fights. That's the way I'll always be. I'm a wacko from Waco. You best not mess with me."
On that last line, Shaver turned his hat sideways and put on his best crazy face. Poking fun at himself, he provided the perfect antidote to the song's macho bluster. It is that mixture of irreverent wit and ornery attitude that has made Shaver's songs so easy to like since that legendary Jennings album.
In Austin, Shaver also sang one of his most famous songs, "Georgia on a Fast Train" (which Nelson sang at Merriweather Post Pavilion last month). "Got a good Christian raisin' and an eighth grade education," Shaver crowed. "Ain't no need in y'all a-treating me this way."
Shaver did drop out of ninth grade in his home town of Corsicana, Tex., but he grew up to be one of the best wordsmiths in country music. His native intelligence and dogged work ethic overcame his lack of schooling, and his autobiographical songs are still sung by everyone from Emmylou Harris to Bob Dylan.
"It's easier to write the truth about yourself than to make up the truth about somebody else," he says. "I'm a real good writer, so I can make that work. I don't like to speculate or make stuff up too much. I'd rather go ahead and write about what happened. It's easier — like predicting rain when you're standing in a thunderstorm. I've been writing since I was 8 years old. I've been in and out of a lot of things. I've always had my eyes wide open and my ears wide open."
Shaver has harvested a robust crop of new songs for his first studio album in six years, "Long in the Tooth," which is due out in August. Produced by longtime Steve Earle collaborator Ray Kennedy, the disc includes the comic title song about getting old, a bouncy two-step about his 1962 move to Nashville, and a snappy string-band number about the trains of his childhood. As good as the new album is, though, Shaver knows he'll never shake the shadow of that gunfight.
"What really happened was the guy shot at me a couple times," he says, "and I returned fire and hit him between the mother and the f----- right in the mouth. He dropped both the gun and the knife and said, 'I'm sorry.' "
He adds: "I'm not proud of it, and I'm sure he's not proud of it. He's still got that bullet in his mouth. Willie wrote a song called 'Give Me My Bullet Back' and asked me to sing it, and I said, 'No way am I going to touch that.'"
Instead, Shaver wrote "Hard to Be an Outlaw" and recorded it as a duet with the 81-year-old Nelson. After more than four decades as outlaws, battling with the law and the country-music establishment, the two old men warble, "It's hard to be an outlaw who ain't wanted anymore."
They may not be wanted on country radio these days, and they may not have any outstanding warrants. But the men remain two of the best songwriters and entertainers in American music.
Appearing with If Birds Could Fly on July 10 at the Hamilton, 600 14th St. NW. 202-787-1000. www.thehamiltondc.com. Show starts at 7:30 p.m. $20-$25.