"OK, we're the flavor of the month. Let's go!"
--Win Butler (The Arcade Fire)
Aug.14 Cover - Billy Joe Shaver
Written by Bob Townsend   
ImageThe Outlaw Life
Pill Poppin’ at 75 with Billy Joe Shaver

Billy Joe Shaver is at a drug store somewhere in Ohio trying to get a prescription filled for his memory pills.

“They got an ingredient in them that helps you remember,” Shaver allows. “They work on me, but it’s been like a month since I’ve been able to get a refill. Well, maybe it hasn’t been that long, but it’s been long enough that I can’t remember.”

It’s another moment of kismet in the long and fitful history of the “phoner,” when the long distance call and the vagaries of the road suddenly merge into something that easily illustrates the subject under discussion.

In this case, Shaver – who his Texas running buddy, Kinky Friedman, thinks should be enshrined alongside Hank Williams, Irving Berlin and Stephen Foster as one of the greatest songwriters who ever lived – is getting ready to release his first studio album in six years and will soon celebrate his 75th birthday.

Certainly, the album’s title, Long In The Tooth, is a tell. And so is the lead track, “Hard To Be An Outlaw” – a punchy, pissed-off duet with Willie Nelson that takes down country super stars “singing ’bout the backroads they never have been down,” while lamenting that “it’s hard to be an outlaw who ain't wanted anymore.”

The Billy Joe bio goes back to a hardscrabble barefoot boyhood in Corsicana, where early on he felt the call to become a singer-songwriter. Years later, he was the full-on-crazy epitome of the long-haired Nashville outlaw, reveling in drink, drugs, women and fights all through the seventies and eighties, while hanging out with Nelson, Waylon Jennings and Kris Kristofferson.

In the heyday, Jennings’ 1973 landmark outlaw album, Honky Tonk Heroes, featured ten Shaver songs, including the title track, and the likes of “Old Five and Dimers Like Me,” “Willy the Wandering Gypsy and Me,” “You Asked Me To,” and “Ride Me Down Easy.”

Billy Joe rocked on into the ‘90s, with his guitar slinger son, Eddy, helping to revive his career for new era and audience. But, sadly, his wife, Brenda, who he married on three different occasions, died of cancer in 1999. And a year later, Eddy died of a heroin overdose.

Grief-stricken, Shaver nearly died of a heart attack in 2001. And after surviving all that, the born-again outlaw cleaved even tighter to his savior, still performing his catalog of honky tonk hits, but always reminding audiences, “You Just Can’t Beat Jesus Christ.”

One of the strangest chapters of Shaver’s life, shooting a man in the face outside Papa Joe’s Texas Saloon in 2007, is recounted in the song, “Wacko from Waco.” He was indicted for aggravated assault with a deadly weapon but found not guilty. Throughout the trial, Nelson was there to lend support, along with Robert Duvall, who made Billy Joe his Pentecostal preacher sidekick in the 1997 film, The Apostle.

Currently, Billy Joe is on tour, traveling around the country with his band. On the day we talked, he was thrilled to report that he’d just played The Village Idiot in Maumee, Ohio. “It was a good show and good people,” he said, laughing.

Here’s more of what Shaver had to say.


Copyright 2000 - 2007 Mambo Foundation. All rights reserved. Mambo is Free Software released under the GNU/GPL License.

Web Design by Code18 Interactive, NYC