If Billy Joe Shaver were a cocktail, it'd be composed of piss, vinegar and a dash of simple syrup. The 73-year-old self-described "Wacko From Waco" is one of the original country outlaws, providing the powder for Waylon Jennings' incendiary Honky Tonk Heroes. Minus two fingers and with just an eighth-grade education, he's the greatest living American songwriter today by Willie Nelson's reckoning.
There's a stark honesty and simplicity to Shaver's songs that gives them great resonance, whether he's puffed up with naive pride because he's been to "Georgia on a Fast Train" or powered by the faith that an "Old Chunk of Coal" can be a diamond someday. The straightforwardness of the songs allows the sentiment to ring loud, unencumbered by string sections, country guitar or the latest production fad.
"Simplicity doesn't need to be greased," Shaver says, enjoying himself at Papa Rollo's Pizza in Waco. "It's just so simple it slides right in there. It's a good thing to do, because dumbasses like myself can understand. The smart people gonna get it anyway. So you don't have to worry about them, and they appreciate it too, because it's different from what they're used to."
Shaver comes to Nashville supporting last year's release Live at Billy Bob's Texas, which features a couple new songs: the powerful ode to the immutability of politics, "The Git Go," and the humorous take on his 2007 Texas bar fight, "Wacko From Waco," with Nelson contributing a verse. (In the well-publicized incident, Shaver shot a man in the jaw who'd asked him to step outside. "I just want my bullet back," Shaver cracks.)
It's been 50 years since Shaver first met Nelson, who encouraged him to go to Nashville. At the time, Shaver thought he'd head to Los Angeles. But when he started hitchhiking I-10, he couldn't catch a ride West, so he crossed to the other side. The first car that passed stopped and took him all the way to Memphis.
The young, frequently inebriated Shaver took issue with the treatment he received back then from Nashville industry types. "I'd just as soon punch them as talk to them," he says. "They finally figured out they shouldn't be talking to me like that."
Shaver was no stranger to fisticuffs in those days, and even threatened to kick Waylon Jennings' ass in front of his biker friends. Jennings had promised to record "Willy the Wandering Gypsy and Me" and any other "cowboy" songs he had at Nelson's July Fourth party in Austin, but ducked Shaver for months in Nashville. When Jennings offered Shaver $100 to just leave, an at-the-end-of-his-rope Shaver blew up.
"You told me you were going to do a whole album of these songs, and you ain't done a damn thing," Shaver recalls telling Jennings. "If you don't at least listen to them, I'm going to kick your ass right here in front of everybody."
Jennings led him to another room and made him an offer he couldn't refuse. "You start playing the song," he told Shaver, "and if I don't like it — I only like 'Willie the Wandering Gypsy and Me,' and I'm gonna do that, I don't know when. If I don't like the song, I'll stop you, you'll pick up your stuff and get out of here, and we won't ever see each other again."
Jennings was suitably impressed and kept his word. Shaver contributed 11 of the 12 songs on Honky Tonk Heroes, helping establish the outlaw country genre and Shaver as one of country's finest songwriters. The book's not closed yet either — Shaver's cut several tracks for a new album.
"I think it's going to be the best album I ever did," Shaver says. "It's so descriptive that I hesitate to tell you the titles of any songs because that'll be the end of it. Somebody in town will write it. The big stars, if they hear it, they write around it or get influenced by it and don't even realize it. Then they play it and it looks like I'm sucking hind-tit every time."
"I've screws in my shoulders, and a new knee — it's been there about two years," says Shaver. "The other one is going out. I got a four-way bypass, had a heart attack onstage, broke my neck three times. I got stents in me all up and down. If you was to junk me, you'd get more than I'm worth. I'm beat-up, but I still got a lot of fight left in me."
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