Billy Joe Shaver just dropped a brand new studio album, Long in the Tooth, and that’s a big deal. But just who is this Billy Joe Shaver, anyway? Well, friend, he’s just about the baddest son of a gun in country music, dead or alive. And, against all odds, Billy Joe Shaver is very much alive and kicking.
A living legend, Billy Joe Shaver wrote classic country songs for the likes of Tom T Hall, Jerry Jeff Walker, the Allman Brothers, the original amphetamine amigos Johnny Cash and Waylon Jennings, and even the King himself, Elvis Presley. Bob Dylan is a big fan, as is comedian and huge country music buff Norm Macdonald. Waylon Jennings’ breakthrough “Outlaw country” album Honky Tonk Heroes, arguably one of the best country albums ever recorded, is almost entirely written by Shaver. And when it comes to being a stone cold pro, turning up for gigs come hell or high-water, Billy Joe is solid as they come.
The Outlaw movement revolutionized country music in the 1970s the way gangsta rap shook up West Coast hip hop in the early 1990s. In some ways, you could say that Shaver was to country music what Ice Cube was to early gangsta rap: he wrote the lines that changed the game. Though both later starred in hokey feature films of questionable quality, their contributions to the emergence of their respective genres is unquestionable. And while both Cube and Billy Joe have used their art as a means of expressing the rough lives they found themselves in, Billy Joe seems to be less successful at leaving those hard-knocks behind.
Abandoned by his parents, Billy Joe grew up with grandmother, never finishing high school. In one of his biggest hits, “Georgia on a Fast Train,” Shaver sings of how his “good Christian raising and an eighth grade education” got him through life just fine. And this despite the fact he lost parts of four fingers in a sawmill accident as a teenager; has battled the drug and alcohol addictions; and worst of all, lost his mother, his wife, and his son, best friend and guitar-player (Eddy Shaver) within 12 months in 1999. Eddy, who shared the stage with his father for over a decade, died of a heroin overdose before a gig on New Years Eve, 2000.
“I couldn't believe it,” Shaver told Rolling Stone in his 2012 profile. “My band just scattered out then. They all just went and cried somewhere. But I had a show booked at Poodie's [outside of Austin, Texas]. Willie Nelson called me up and said, ‘The best thing to do when the horse throws you is to get back up on it.’ Willie had a good band together, and he was up there singing and once in a while I'd sing one or two. [But] every once in a while you'd see somebody who heard what happened and go crying out the door and leave, but I was stuck in there.”
“Every experience you've had, Willie's probably had two or three times.” Indeed, the ever-blazing Willie Nelson, 81, has long been a believer in Shaver’s music. He’s recorded plenty of Billy Joe’s tunes over the years, and has stuck by his buddy through thick and thin. On Long in the Tooth, they share a duet about how country music radio would rather spin cookie cutter tracks about “back roads” that the new crop of Luke Bryants and Blake Sheltons have “never been down before”; songs about cold ones and painted on blue jeans that keep the suburban cowboy fired up through the work week, rather than true country songs, with three chords and the truths common to lives lived the hard way.
“They go and call it country, but that ain’t how it sounds,” Willie sings on the duet, a version of which also appears on his latest LP, Band of Brothers. “It’s hard to be an outlaw that ain’t wanted anymore.”
And just what, exactly, does it take to make a country singer an honest to God outlaw? Try shooting a man in the face in a bar fight, for one; then going and playing a gig before turning yourself in to the law. And then heading off to write a song about it. Which, of course, is exactly what Billy Joe Shaver done.
Back in 2007, outside of Papa Joe’s Texas Saloon in Lorena, Texas, Billy Joe Shaver shot Billy Bryant Coker in the face during an argument. Coker survived, and a new a legend was born. Word spread far and fast, and before he could even turn himself in, Texas songwriter Dale Watson had already written a hit song about it (“Where Do You Want It?”).
Along with Watson’s tune, the old outlaws Willie and Shaver put together their own tune, “Wacko from Waco.” “I’m a wacko from Waco, ain’t no doubt about it,” Shaver sings. “Shot a man there in the head but I can’t talk much about it … 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.”
“What really happened was the guy shot at me a couple times,” Billy Joe’s said recently. “I returned fire and hit him between the mother and the fucker right in the mouth. He dropped both the gun and the knife and said, ‘I’m sorry.’” Since then, a jury acquitted Shaver of the crime, finding he had indeed acted in self-defence.
Today, Shaver is still an imposing presence on stage. He commands a crowd with the best of them, imploring the men to grab their ladies for the “buckle shining” numbers, stomping around the stage to the rowdier tunes, and getting down on one knee for the spiritual numbers, like when he’s dedicating “Live Forever” to his dead son Eddy. He looks the part of the Texas cowboy James McMurtry immortalized in his novels, or John Wayne portrayed in his westerns. Basically, he’s the bad ass every country star with a pair of balls wants to be, but can’t come close to ever being.
On this new album, his first in six years, whether he’s singing about getting old (“Long in the Tooth”), boozing (“Last Call for Alcohol”), or being a perennial outsider (“Checkers and Chess”), Billy Joe Shaver is in fine form. For the up and comers of country music, from Whitey Morgan to Jonny Fritz, who are following in the footsteps his worn out boots have left behind; for the real country music fans who feel as out of place at Country USA as they would at Coachella; for anyone who just wants an honest country song on the jukebox while they drown the workday with a cold beer and a tall glass of whiskey, this is some good news indeed.