BILLY JOE SHAVER
The Texas legend’s singular songs are inspired by his remarkable life
Billy Joe Shaver’s weathered Texas accent is every bit as world-weary as one might expect. After all, at 75, he’s lived a full life, from a hardscrabble childhood to personal tragedy to a brush with the law. Meanwhile Shaver’s formidable songwriting talent has earned respect from loyal fans including Johnny Cash, Bob Dylan, Elvis Presley, Willie Nelson and many others.
“I found out a long time ago that if you’re honest, you have to write about things you know,” says Shaver. “So I decided to just be honest, which made it necessary to write about the way I felt and the things that happened to me.”
Shaver’s latest album, Long in the Tooth, is an example. With songs that delve into an array of issues, Shaver’s first studio album in six years features friends Willie Nelson, Tony Joe White and Leon Russell. “I’m real satisfied with it,” Shaver says. “I wanted the material to be fresh right out of the cooker. I wanted this
album to be special.”
Shaver deserves to be pleased. Raised by a single mother, he left school after eighth grade and picked cotton, joined the Navy at 17, then took a series of low-wage jobs—including working at a lumber mill where he lost two fingers on his right hand in an accident. Yet when it came to his songwriting, he was focused. “I knew I was good,” says Shaver. “I’ve been writing since I was 8. When I cut my fingers off, I fell back on music. I said, ‘God, if you help me get through this, I’ll do what I’m supposed to do.’ I knew I could
make it in music.”
Shaver hitchhiked to California to seek his fortune, only to end up in Nashville. “I tried to go to L.A., but I couldn’t get a ride because I guess I was on the wrong side of the road,” he laughs. “The first guy that came along set me on the road to Nashville. It was just luck. Or maybe it was the will of God.”
Shaver landed a gig as a songwriter for $50 a week, and in 1973 Waylon Jennings put him on the map when he recorded Honky Tonk Heroes, comprised nearly entirely of Shaver’s tunes. The album is still revered as the first example of country’s “outlaw movement.” “Waylon was great, but it was a double-edged sword,” recalls Shaver. “He told Rolling Stone that he would never cut another one of my songs because I was getting all the credit.”
The album opened doors for Shaver, allowing him to record his debut set, 1973’s Old Five and Dimers Like Me—produced and financed by Kris Kristofferson. “I still don’t know if it shook the world, but it’s solid,” Shaver says.
Despite the early triumphs, life challenges continued. Shaver married wife Brenda three different times and divorced her twice. In 1999, she died of cancer, months after Shaver lost his mother. The following year, his son, guitarist Eddy Shaver, succumbed to a heroin overdose. The year after, Shaver suffered a heart attack onstage and underwent heart surgery.
In 2007, Shaver was accused of shooting a man following a confrontation outside a Texas bar where witnesses overheard Shaver saying, “Where do you want it?” After initially fleeing the scene, he turned himself in and was later acquitted. It led him to write “Wacko from Waco,” recounting the incident. Austin-based country artist Dale Watson was inspired to pen “Where Do You Want It.”
“I’ve had my moments,” reflects Shaver, “but I’ve taken it well. I’m proud that I’ve been able to stand up and carry on. There’s always someone who has it worse than you. I don’t feel like I was picked on or kicked down. That’s just the luck of the draw. You play the hand you’re dealt.”