Brandy Lee Dixon interviews one of her songwritin’ heroes, Mr. Billy Joe Shaver.
I’ve been a fan of Billy Joe Shaver for quite some time now. Finally, I got the chance to see him live in Maryville, Tenn. A few weeks after that I interviewed him by phone. I don’t believe I can even begin to put into words what an incredible show it was, or how honored I was to get the chance to have a few words with a man that I consider to be one of the greatest songwriters in the world.
BLD – Let’s talk about when you first came to Nashville, I heard you rode your motorcycle up on Harlan Howard’s yard and pronounced yourself “Billy Joe Shaver, The best songwriter in the world.” Where did you get the balls to do that?
BJS – Yeah well, I rode it up on his porch and bumped against his door, he came out and he was a bigger fella then I thought he was it shocked me a little bit, but that’s what I told him, and he said he thought he was and we had a big laugh. He told me to come on in. I knew he’d get a kick out of it. I wasn’t doin’ it to be a ding bat! I figured he’d get a kick out of it and he did. I came in and we had some whiskey and we talked. We were gonna write together, and he said to be over there at 6:00 a.m. and I said “Man, that’s bout the time when I get in!” I never did get to write with him but we were good friends all the way until he passed.
BLD – So, did he tell you to go see Bobby Bare? Is that how you got involved with him?
BJS – I think he told Bobby about me I’m not for sure. I don’t know exactly how that happened.
BLD – So, speaking of Bobby Bare, that’s got to be a bit of a love/hate sort of thing. He kind of helped you out, got you writing for his company right?
BJS – Well, I already had a bunch of songs so I just sort of turned them over to him.
BLD – How did you feel about him changing the title of ‘Christian Soldier’ and taking part of the writing credit for it?
BJS – That was really a shame, but also I was such a Bobby Bare fan that I let it go. He said everybody else did it. It didn’t make it right I knew it weren’t right. I was such a fan of his I think he mistook kindness for weakness and he just went ahead and did it. I could have wiped the floor with him real easy but I didn’t, ’cause I liked him a lot I let him get away with it. I shouldn’t of. I was really struck with him and to this day I think he was one of the best singers that ever lived. I wrote a few tunes with him and a lot of the tunes I wrote he just put his name on ‘em- there’s a lot of things that happened but he said everybody was doin’ it. I don’t know, I guess that’s just the way it was back then. When you walked into a place they usually want your publishing for sure and they want half writer on your song whether they wrote it or not. That was way back yonder and people usually did it to get in the door so a lot of that happened.
BLD – Old Five and Dimers the record was produced by Kris Kristofferson…
BJS – Yeah, Kris did “Christian Soldier”, I thought he was making fun of me, I sang it for him and he did it and I had went back to Texas cause I thought he was just making fun and, then they finally got ahold of me and low and behold Bobby had put the word “good” in front of it and took half the writing credit. It didn’t matter to me too much at the time. I was so happy to get a Kris Kristofferson recording. Kris heard some more of my other songs. He wasn’t doin’ too well at the time. He was hot but even when you’re hot it takes about a year before they start paying you. What happened was his folks wasn’t getting along real good with him, he was supposed to have gone and taught literature at West Point and instead he started doin’ janitor work there in Nashville. So they really weren’t on his side. Kris was just as broke as the rest of us is what I’m trying to say. He had this album, though, The Silver Tongued Devil and he went to the bank and borrowed money on it, and produced my first album Old Five and Dimers . He’s such a good friend and that guy is the most unselfish fella I guess I’ve ever run into in my life. You’d have to go along way to beat him, I don’t think ya could.
BLD – Tell me about the song “Black Rose.” Where did the idea for that song come from?
BJS – They wrote it up in Rolling Stone as “Black Rose” being heroin, and that just wasn’t it. What it was I was referring to a girl I had, uh well, had sexual relations with when I was 12 years old. These boys talked me into the idea that if ya wanted to be a true Texan your first sexual encounter had to be with a black woman and I bought into it. So I was standing in line there with my three dollars in my hand and all of a sudden the line disappeared and there weren’t no one but me. The woman grabbed my three dollars and you’d be amazed at how fast you can become a true Texan. She said “you’re done” and that’s all there was to it!
BLD – Ya wanna talk about Waylon Jennings a little bit?
BJS – Sure! I loved Waylon and still do. I think Waylon was the greatest singer that ever lived. I just think the world of him. I think he still hasn’t got his due as a singer. He had such a great range. If you’d ever been to one of his live shows you would know what I mean, it was great.
BLD – It took you a while to track him down, after he heard you singing once and told you he wanted to do an album of your stuff…
BJS – Yeah, uh huh, it did.
BLD – But after you did track him down obviously he loved it. Soon he did a record that consists primarily of your material -Honky Tonk Heroes-which is said to be the first outlaw country record.
BJS – Actually what made it so is that he bucked the system, they didn’t want him doing those type of songs cause they was a little rough around the edges and different. On top of that, he used his own band which was really quite a thing for him to do. He stuck his neck way out for me and everybody else and for anybody else to come along and say they did it first is not right. I noticed a thing the other day, they was talking about Willie Nelson and they said he did Redheaded Stranger before Honky Tonk Heroes, but he didn’t. I guess people just buy that stuff and it just wasn’t true. Willie himself told me, if he hadn’t heard Honky Tonk Heroes he never would have done Redheaded Stranger.
BLD – Your songs are pretty much responsible for starting the whole outlaw country music movement….
BJS – If Waylon hadn’t done them I don’t think it would have gone that way. The songs were bigger than I was and I just really couldn’t sing that good. He could take those songs and whip em’ into shape cause he was as good as those songs were.
BLD – He never recorded anything else by you, right?
BJS – No, there was a write up in Rolling Stone, a big write up on Honky Tonk Heroes, and they said the true hero of the album was Billy Joe Shaver, the guy that wrote all the songs. Waylon didn’t like that very much, (laughs) and he said he wasn’t gonna do no more of my songs, and he didn’t. I don’t blame him ’cause he had done enough of my songs and I didn’t want to be no Waylon Jennings supplier and he didn’t want to be no Billy Joe Shaver singer. We both wanted to be ourselves. It wasn’t a thing where we clashed heads on it. It had to be done that way cause he was an individual and I was too, and still am and that’s just the way it has to be.
BLD – A lot of people have done your songs, is there anyone that hasn’t done some of your material that you would like to hear cover you?
BJS – Oh I don’t know, wow that’s a good one. I guess it’d be George Strait. They got their own writers over there. I’ve known George real well for years. We’ve played together before. I like him real well. Maybe he forgot about me, ya know that happens sometimes. I need to call him and remind him I’m still alive (laughs).
BLD – Who first inspired you when you first started out?
BJS – I was very much impressed with Jimmie Rodgers- big time. I was also impressed by the African American people like Willie Dixon, Muddy Waters and all those people. I used to go across the railroad track and listen to some cotton pickers. I was about seven or eight years old. One of the houses had a stand up piano and everyone would come up there in the afternoon and I’d pat my foot and sing with them. I was always welcome ’cause I could sing pretty good when I was young. I’d pick up what I could and I’d make some up and kind of wrote my own songs. Been writing since I was eight years old. Jimmy Rodgers influenced me quite a bit. I love Jimmie Rodgers and the black people did too. Everyone thought he was black, me too. There was a lot of folks that I liked a lot. One guy, he more inspired me- Ian Tyson from Canada. He wrote “Four Strong Winds.” Have you ever heard it?
BLD – No, I don’t think I have…
BJS – I think Neil Young does it a lot. Ian Tyson was an old cowboy and he was such a great writer. I think the world of him. Willie, Waylon, and Kris all of them are great writers. Mickey Newbury, I think the world of him too. I don’t know, just the whole gang of them.
BLD – You ever run around with David Allan Coe anymore?
BJS – (laughs) We used to run around. When he first got out of prison we’d walk around Nashville and we’d go to these places that would have guitar pulls and they’d always have something to eat there and we’d eat and eat and eat and eat. Then, finally someone said “Ya’ll need to do something if you’re gonna come down here and eat.” Then they handed a guitar to one of us and that’d be a mistake – ’cause boy, when we started playing all the girls would get all over us (laughs).
BLD – I’ll bet!
BJS – So, they made a big mistake letting us have a guitar ’cause we’d put em’ under the table. I don’t really remember the other people – just David. He was tough and I liked running with him. Nobody messed with us! (laughs).
BLD – I’d reckon not! Do you ever talk to him anymore? Ya’ll ever do any shows together?
BJS – I see him now and again not too often anymore. Ya know, everybody thinks we all see each other a lot but we don’t. We’ve all went different directions. When they have these festivals, though, it’s a good thing because it’s kind of a family reunion type thing. Where you get to see people you normally don’t get to see. It’s a good thing.
BLD – What about Guy Clark?
BJS – I love him, he’s one of the greats. When he first came to town I took a shine to him right away. I was pretty hot back then. When I would play, he would always come to see me. When I’d get near the end of the show I’d say “there’s a guy here I want ya’ll to listen to” and then I’d call him up on stage and as soon as I’d call him up, I’d go get my money and go on and raise hell and just leave him onstage. One time in Austin, Townes Van Zandt was with him and I didn’t know it and I pulled the same thing. The guy told me I’d have to come back tomorrow and then he’d pay me. I came back the next day and the guy tells me I owe him four-hundred and some odd dollars. I said “what?!” and he says ” Well, Townes got up and bought rounds on you several times.” That cured me from suckin’ eggs- I quit doin’ that. We was all good buddies and really close back then.
BLD – Out of all the songs you have written, what’s your favorite?
BJS – It’d be hard to pick. Like everybody says - they’re like children. I love the buck-toothed ones just as much as the others. I don’t know, it’d be hard to pick. “Old Five and Dimers”, I guess.
BLD – How do you feel about country music today?
BJS – I don’t know, every once and a while I’ll hear a country song and I like it. It’s not like it used to be. Some stuff is better then the rest of it. Nashville is more concerned with the way things look instead of how they sound.
BLD – I think that’s true and it is sad.
BJS – But I guess it does look good. Maybe some of the art is out the window. There’s some, Alan Jackson and Toby Keith, they’re good writers. They are honest. They write honest songs.
BLD – Let’s talk about your latest CD “Everybody’s Brother.”
BJS – I’m really proud of that. I really think it’s good.
BLD – You did some stuff with John Anderson on here….
BJS – John is a real good friend of mine. Well, even before he done “Ol Chunk Of Coal” and he did a great version of that. I’ll always be in his debt for that cause that thing is still kickin’.
BLD – It went to number one, didn’t it?
BJS – Yeah it did. I even got a rock ‘n’ roll award for it cause it played so many times.
BLD – Lets see… a song on here with Marty Stuart?
BJS – Marty … I love him. He’s a great musician too really good.
BLD – Tanya Tucker is on here, too….
BJS – Tanya is a good old friend of mine. I’ve known her for years and years. She is a good person, she works hard.
BLD – You also have a song on here, “You Can’t Beat Jesus Christ” with Johnny Cash. When was that recorded?
BJS – That happened way back yonder in the 70′s. We were doing my band with Freddy Fletcher and my son Eddy we were at the studio doing demos with Cowboy Clement and John came by and he done a couple songs with us and that was one of ‘em. Cowboy records where you don’t get to overdub anything. So that was the first take and there’s nothing you can do to it, it just stays the same. I always thought it was great and it still is. I’ve got Bill Miller on there with me, too. He’s a good friend of mine. He’d played on “Tramp On The Street” back in the 90′s. He’s an Indian flutist, he’s won grammys and all kinds of stuff. A special guy – a really wonderful person. Very, very talented. He did all the percusion and flute playing on Everybody’s Brother. Pat McLaughlin played with us. I think the world of him and all the other players, too. Johnny Cash’s old bass player played with us and everybody was really great. We did five songs in one day which is uncalled for. It’s not very usual that you can do that many songs in one day.
BLD – Ya’ll did a video for “Get Thee Behind Me Satan”….
BJS – Yeah, we did. I think it’s great.
BLD – What are you doin’ right now? What do you have in the works?
BJS – Well, we are headed back to Texas right now. Coming back from Missouri where we played with Chris Knight. Then we are going to Tyler, Ohio, and then to Austin.
BLD – Any last thoughts you want to add?
BJS – Well, I don’t know, if ya don’t love Jesus – go to hell.
BLD – Well, Billy Joe – I just want to say that this has been a real honor.
BJS – Thank you very much, honey.
~Brandy Lee Dixon
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Brandy Lee Dixon is from Nashville, Tennessee by way of Somerset, Kentucky. She’s a writer as well as a songwriter, passionate music lover, and a self-proclaimed Country Music Snob. She likes to drink, smoke, and fight the bastards of the Universe with the help of her faithful four-legged companion, Leafy The Wonder Dog.
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