Billy Joe Shaver | Long in the Tooth and Speaking the Truth

prof billy-joe-75“All I do, and all I’ve ever done with my songs, is be honest.”




prof billy-joe

One of my most vivid memories from spending summers in Prestonsburg, Kentucky, is riding around the foothills of the Appalachians in my grandpa’s beat-up Chevy truck, listening to AM radio. Most of the time, it was either preachers shouting apocalyptic fire-and-brimstone sermons, or the beautiful bluegrass music indigenous to that part of the country. Sometimes, though, it was the same chart-topping country music my dad enjoyed listening to: artists like Johnny Cash, Tom T. Hall, and Waylon Jennings singing songs of living hard, loving passionately, and falling, just to get back up and do it again the next day.

As it turns out, many of those songs fighting for survival amid the AM static were written by Billy Joe Shaver. If you’re the type of music lover who appreciates the kind of classic country music that radio seems no longer to have any room for, you’ve most likely heard a little record from 1973 called Honky Tonk Heroes by the aforementioned Mr. Jennings. Even though he had just moved to Nashville six months prior, Shaver was so intent to work with Jennings that he challenged him to a fight if he didn’t listen to his songs. Jennings listened, ultimately loving the songs Shaver sang for him. The two decided to record the whole album together, and the rest is outlaw country history, sending Shaver on his way to a career that continues to blossom to this very day.

Calling from his home in Waco, Texas, before he hits the road to promote his first album in six years, the outstanding Long in the Tooth (Lightning Rod Records), we spoke about those early days and all the adventures he’s had in his 75 years so far.

“When I moved to Nashville in ’66, all the other songwriters were mad at me when Waylon chose my songs,” he says “because almost all the songs on that album were written by me. They said ‘You gotta pay your dues!’ and I would say ‘Hey, man, my dues are always paid!’” He chuckles at the memory. “Chickens will peck at you; it’s just the way it is.”

The same songs that caught the attention of country’s most legendary voices still flow from Shaver’s heart and pen, and when I ask what has kept him working so consistently for decades, he answers, “Honesty. All I do, and all I’ve ever done with my songs, is be honest. And that’s always been my savior. I lied to my wife one time, and I thought I was pretty good at it. When I finally told her the truth, she said, ‘Tell me somethin’ I don’t know.’ She had these clear blue eyes, and I couldn’t look into ’em and get away with anything.”

One listen to new tracks like “Sunbeam Special” and the Willie Nelson–assisted “Hard To Be an Outlaw,” and it’s clear that Shaver’s wit and relatability still serve as his most powerfully effective songwriting tools. “If I can keep it simple, people can understand it,” he says. “I try to avoid using ten-dollar words, where no one knows what I’m talking about. Hell, I try to not even learn those words, myself.”

As good as the new tracks are, Shaver is quick to acknowledge the album’s producers, Ray Kennedy and Gary Nicholson. “Ray and Gary are the best producers I’ve ever worked with,” he enthuses. “Their insight was so good, and I really leaned on them to get the songs sounding like they should.” Pausing thoughtfully before continuing, he adds, “I just write the things.”

Aficionados of outlaw country aren’t the only group who has bared witness to Shaver’s talents. Moviegoers may be familiar with him from Robert Duvall’s 1997 film The Apostle. “Robert Duvall’s a good guy,” he remembers. “He had this idea for this movie he wanted to do, and he put his own money into it. He couldn’t get anyone in Hollywood to back him on it, so he just did it himself. He asked me to be in it, and he pompadour’d my hair up,and made me look like an old gospel preacher.”

Noting the close similarities between acting and performing music, Shaver believes his life on the road has actually made working in film an enjoyably simple endeavor. “We had these microphones that weren’t worth a dime back in the old days. Worst there ever was,” he reminisces. “I was havin’ a hard time out there on the road, gettin’ things to sound right. A friend of mine said, ‘Billy, take my advice. You’ve having a terrible time. But you need to act like you’re having a good time.’ So that’s what I learned to do, ’cause every audience is new, and they deserve the same good show the folks in the last town got. So I’ve been through that enough in the bad clubs, and I’ve always remembered that advice. I don’t have to act like I’m havin’ a good time at shows now. The microphones are great! I use the Sony 58, and I can sing straight into it or on the sides of it.”

Because Shaver’s bringing his band to rock the rafters of Old Rock House in St. Louis at the end of the month, I ask him if he had any interesting stories of past visits. He did not disappoint. “Buddy Lee booked us into a big hotel in St. Louis for two weeks. We played late into the night, every night, and played to a lot of high-class people.” Before he continues, Shaver asks me if we’re doing the interview live on the radio. I assure him we are not, that this is a print interview, so he’s clear to say whatever the hell he wants. “Good; okay. So our harmonica player, he was wasted and jumped on the bar, dropped his pants, and started dipping his balls into people’s drinks.” Laughing at the memory, he continues. “Sometimes he’d find a way to steal the diamond rings of some of the high rollers, and he’d hock ’em the next day. The manager got wind of all this and ran our asses outta there. At another hotel, they had this big swimming pool, and it was empty for some reason. So we filled it with TVs, those little refrigerators, and all that stuff. It cost us a lot of money, and probably our careers, but you can’t take away those crazy memories.” | Jim Ousley

Come see flesh-and-blood proof that real country music is alive and well, as Billy Joe Shaver and his band shake the walls and regale you with whiskey-soaked stories of a life well lived, Thursday, May 28, at Old Rock House as part of the Listening Room Series. Tickets are $27 reserved, $20 general admission.

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