Billy Joe Shaver bounced around Nashville in the late '60s and early '70s as a songwriter before helping to invent the style and sound that came to be called "outlaw country." Shaver, who describes himself as "pretty much a secret," for most of his career, saw his work gain widespread popularity when he collaborated with Waylon Jennings on the seminal outlaw record Honky Tonk Heroes. Shaver's songwriting credits on that single disc might've sealed his place as a legend of the genre, but he went on to pen a catalog of classics that have been covered by dozens of other artists including Johnny Cash and Bob Dylan. Shaver will play Radio Radio on July 2 as part of a tour supporting his new release Long in the Tooth.
NUVO: Of all of the folks who have covered your work, is there one particular version of a song that stands out?
Billy Joe Shaver: Yeah, John Anderson did "I'm Just an Old Chunk of Coal" — that was real good.
NUVO: Right – back in 1981?
Shaver: I don't know what year. I don't keep up with dates anymore. Just gotta let 'er go, y'know?
NUVO: What made that one so special?
Shaver: He outdid me. It was supposed to be my single [on my label]. John was on some other label. What would happen, they'd take turns — if somebody was a bigger star than you, they'd bump you out. With your own song, even. They told me, "This ain't your single anymore." Boy, I started cussin' ... I had a fit. [A record exec] said, "Wait a minute Billy, lemme play it for ya," and immediately I said, "Man! Don't tell John I throwed a fit!" It was so good, it just blew me away. I got over it right quick when I heard that record. John just tore it up good.
NUVO: When you were making those first few albums, collaborating with Waylon and all of that, did you have any sense that you were creating something of a turning point in country music?
Shaver: To tell you the truth, I expected something like that to happen. I came into [Nashville] in '66, so I'd been there a while. I was so invisible to other songwriters and stuff; every one of 'em was hollerin', "He ain't paid his dues!" I don't know what in the world they meant. I'm there tryin' to find who it is I gotta pay these dues to. It eventually worked out great for both Walyon and me ... but it was a double-edged sword. Waylon recorded all of them songs and then there was a big write-up in Rolling Stone and they said I was the hero of the whole thing. That made Waylon so mad. He got mad at me, and he said, "I'll never do another one of your songs," and he didn't. You couldn't hardly get any better than Waylon, though, geez — I think he's the greatest country singer that ever lived.
NUVO: It's great stuff. For my money, "Honky Tonk Heroes" is one of the best outlaw country songs anyone's ever recorded.
Shaver: I started writin' that when I was about eight years old. My mother was a honky-tonk girl, sure enough, at a place called Green Gables. I got to hang out there in the summer sometimes. My grandmother raised me, but I'd get to come out there with [my mom] sometimes during the summer and I got started writin' on it. I'd see fights and I'd see bootleggin' — y'know, when you're a kid you're down there at the bottom of it all. You see a lotta things people don't want you to see, I guess. Spittoons all over the place. Jukebox over in the corner. Dollar a swaller. I had my eyes wide open and my ears, too. That's the impression it made on me.
NUVO: There's a verse on the new record in the song you do with Willie, "Hard to Be an Outlaw," and it seems like everything old is new again — you seem to be railing against the same stuff that the whole outlaw country movement was railing against initially.
Shaver: Yep, you know there's these talent shows they're havin' — you see some kid sittin' at home, 15 years old, and sayin', "Dang it, I waited long enough! I'm gonna go up there and get me a record! I've had 14 HARD years puttin' up with Mom and Dad!" They learn one song real good and go up there and win a record deal and I don't know what happens to 'em after that. Good luck.
NUVO: My favorite part of your bio, Billy: You held the position of "spiritual advisor" to former Texas gubernatorial candidate Kinky Friedman [who's also a writer, comedian, and author of the novelty tune "Get Your Biscuits in the Oven and Your Buns in the Bed"].
Shaver: He's got an office in Las Vegas, now, Kinky does, where he continues to lose all the money he's got. He's funny as hell. I toured with him over in Australia. We did a record over there and I hated it 'cause it was on a label of his called "Sphincter Records." I didn't know if I wanted to be a part of that or not. Found out later they sold that label for a whole bunch of money. I got about a dollar and 82 cents out of it.
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