The honky-tonk hero still chases his dreams
By James Kelly
December 4, 2014
In the early 1970s country music experienced some severe growing pains. The watered-down cosmo-country unleashed by Chet Atkins had all but wiped out the real honky-tonkers, but a few brave souls refused to buckle to the man. Willie Nelson just up and left. He went back to Austin to create the outlaw country scene. Waylon Jennings demanded and got full creative control of his recordings, and from that, the work of Billy Joe Shaver emerged.
In 1973, Jennings recorded Honky Tonk Heroes, a collection of Shaver tunes (except for one cut) which, along with Nelson's Shotgun Willie and iconic Phases and Stages, marked the beginning of the outlaw era in modern country music. Shaver was right there in the midst of it all.
While taking his new tour van to the shop in Texas, Shaver recalls, "Waylon was a renegade. He was a friend, but he would get upset if you upped him. I had to threaten to fight him to get him to pay attention to the songs that ended up on Honky Tonk Heroes, and I got every cut except one. That one they added still disappoints me.
"Waylon was mad that Rolling Stone magazine said 'the hero of Honky Tonk Heroes is Billy Joe Shaver,'" Shaver says. "He never did another one of my songs after that."
Fast-forward 40 years, Waylon is dead, Willie is a global superstar, and Shaver is still plugging along with unbridled enthusiasm, reaching for the golden ring. He's had plenty of success along the way, but hasn't quite made the upper echelon of stardom that he so rightly deserves. In August he released Long in the Tooth, his first album of new material since 2007, and was recently doing gigs with longtime pal Nelson. Even with such good friends, for Shaver, finding a label wasn't easy. "We had a hard time finding a record deal for this one, I was waiting on some friends to come through and it just took too long. So we recorded it when we had a chance, and wrote most of the songs in the studio."
As usual, Shaver's lyrics are golden, deceptive in their simplicity, but full of incredible wisdom and truth. Joining in on the studio fun this time are a few well-known friends. "Leon Russell is an old friend, we did some shows together but never recorded until now," Shaver says. "And Tony Joe White, well, I like him, and he likes me."
Adding a guest vocal is the man himself, Nelson, who also recorded a couple of the new tunes for his last album. "Willie Nelson is the best there is — he's dangerous, and he keeps me honest," Shaver says. "He recorded my songs as the first two cuts on his record before I did, then he came over and sang on 'Hard to Be an Outlaw' with me for my record. I might have mentioned the title to him, and he said I better write it fast or he would."
The album is a mixed bag, a few rockers, some tongue-in-cheek odes to aging, and a couple of heartfelt ballads. It's fairly typical of Shaver's past work, including the period when he worked with his son, hotshot guitarist Eddy Shaver, who died from an overdose on New Year's Eve 2000.
"Eddy was such a good guitarist," Shaver recalls. "When we started playing together, he unplugged me. We had a hard time getting any labels in Nashville to sign us back in the late '80s and early '90s. They said we were too rock 'n' roll then."
In spite of his many trials, Shaver soldiers on with a mission. His profound faith has been his motivator, and he wears it proudly. "I've been through a lot, had some health issues that are now taken care of — knee replacements, pins in my shoulder, I need some more but it can wait," he says. "Jesus Christ keeps me going, he made us all No. 2. I have had to lean on him a lot, and he pulled me through a lot of stuff. It's in a lot of my songs. I don't do it on purpose, it just happens. I was born to be a songwriter, started writing when I was 8. God gave me a gift and I will keep doing it as long as I can."
For grizzled road warriors like Shaver and Nelson, age ain't nothing but a number. Shaver found his calling early on, and even at 75 he still works it like a teenager.