He tours now in what he describes as an old “church van,” a 15-seater with almost 500,000 miles on it. It replaced another van that eclipsed 500,000 miles. Billy Joe Shaver still has that one. It still runs. He married Brenda Tindell three separate times. After she died, he married Wanda Lynn Canady. Three separate times.
When he was young, he wrote a signature song with the chorus hook, “I’m just an old chunk of coal, but I’m gonna be a diamond someday.” A decade or so later, he wrote another one of his best, a Christian testament to life everlasting titled “Live Forever.” He’s still a diamond in the rough, but his new Long in the Tooth album doesn’t sound like the music of a man who plans to live forever. On this earth, at least. He raps (yes, raps!) on the title cut — “Time did a number on me / I ain’t the man I used to be.” On the opening “Hard to Be an Outlaw,” he sings, “It’s hard to be an outlaw who ain’t wanted anymore.” It’s an album about getting old, about falling apart, and Billy Joe thinks it’s the best one he’s ever recorded. It’s hard to argue with him. Top three at least.
Willie Nelson, who sings with him on “Hard to Be an Outlaw” (and has also included that and another song from Billy Joe’s album on his own new album, Band of Brothers), has often called Shaver the best songwriter alive. Waylon Jennings once recorded almost an entire album of Shaver songs, 1973’s Honky Tonk Heroes, which became the cornerstone of the Outlaw Country movement. Elvis Presley sang one of his songs, and so has Bob Dylan (who also name-checked him in his own “I Feel a Change Coming On,” where Dylan sings, “I’m listening to Billy Joe Shaver, and I’m reading James Joyce”).
He was born and raised in Corsicana, a central Texas town that many know for its fruitcakes. He’s long lived in nearby Waco, as reflected in “Wacko from Waco,” which details the 2007 incident in which he shot a man at a bar and was subsequently acquitted. He can’t wait to hit the road and get away from home, as soon as his new knee works right and his inner ear problems, which affect his balance, clear up.
The night after his mother died, he played his scheduled club date. The night after his only son, guitarist Eddy, was discovered dead from a heroin overdose, he played his scheduled club date. The night his trial ended and he was free, he played his scheduled club date. The show must go on.
When he talks, he has no filter, and he pulls no punches. He’ll turn 75 on Aug. 16. A month later, on Sept. 28, luminaries will gather in Austin for a star-studded concert celebration. He deserves nothing less — and a whole lot more.
What makes this the best album you’ve ever done?
I’ve advanced a lot in my songwriting. A lot of people say there ain’t that much left to write about, but there always is. To me, it’s the cheapest psychiatrist there is, and God knows I need one. Most of mine were written trying to stay alive, and the rest of them were written about trying to get back into the house. [Laughs] We pulled from about 500 songs and picked the right ones. One, “I’m in Love,” was written around the same time as “Old Chunk of Coal,” when I got born again. It is an older song, but all of them are new if you haven’t heard ’em.
And I sing pretty good now. I never really had the chance to sing that good before. They wouldn’t let me overdub stuff. And we really didn’t overdub much this time — we’d just sing the song over again, over again, over again. Like Elvis used to do. And then pick out the best one. We had to live with a few things, but you can’t be completely perfect.
You’re rapping on the title cut. How’d that come about?
A friend of mine, Paul Gleason, who was in the movies … we’d been kicking around writing this. Then he had cancer and passed away. So I decided I’d finish it and make a rap song out of it. I just turned it loose and let it go. They say rap is a word that has one letter missing—“c”rap—but I don’t think so. I like it.
You listen to a lot of rap?
No, I don’t. I listen to what I have to, and sometimes you have to, when it’s blaring on the radio and things going down the streets. Once you get into it, I’m afraid you can’t get out, and I don’t want to get that far into it. Some of it’s a little crazy raunchy, but the good stuff is really good — poetry, really.
A lot of songs on this album are about growing older.
My mind’s still young. And a pretty girl still turns my head. I’m not like an old, over-the-hill guy. It’s just sometimes my body won’t cooperate. They’ve put so much metal into me, they’re turning me into a robot. I guess you could junk me out and get more than I’m worth. I’ve got screws in my shoulder and stents and things from my bypass. And I’ve had both knees done. Now my other shoulder needs work.
But you’re writing at the top of your game.
I’ve always tried my best to do my best. And I’ve always written songs I hope will be here forever, not flash-in-the-pan things … or things to make money with. It’s been good to me. There’s been some good ones people haven’t recorded, but then, I don’t go out and push ’em.
Is that your personality, or do you just not care about that?
Oh, I care about it. It’s a big deal when somebody else does one of my songs, because that means they care enough about it and thought enough about it to think it was good enough. Especially someone who writes great songs, like Bob Dylan or Kris Kristofferson. Of course, Willie’s done about an album’s worth, and Waylon Jennings did a whole album.
It tickles me when somebody does one. It’s like a trophy. I don’t get any other trophies. Waylon told me when he was alive that “If I ever catch you trying to write a song to win one of those awards, I’m gonna shoot you right between the eyes.” I never intended to do nothin’ but write the best song I could. When I’m satisfied with a song, it’s a success.
What makes your songs different from other people’s?
Man, I don’t know. I’ve got a little language thing I do that I got it from when I was growing up, and it’s old-timey, because my grandmother raised me until I was 12. That’s the way I talk. When I go to Nashville, I’ve had people walking behind me with tape recorders. I don’t intend to be that poetic, but that’s just the way I feel. Philosophical — some people call it that.
Willie’s already recorded two songs from this album on his new album.
Yes he did. Matter of fact, he recorded both of ’em before I did. You play something for Willie, you’d better be ready for him to record it. Because if he likes it, he will. And a lot of that stuff is like something he’d write.
How does your songwriting process work? Does the title come first?
I wish I knew. It’s liable to come first, or it might be a throwaway line that comes first. It’s hard to believe, but it seems like it’s different every time. Sometimes the melody will come. I’m pretty lucky that when I do write a poem, the melody seems to come right along with it. When I started I was just a kid, around 8 years old, and I was writing stuff like I heard on the radio. And then I started writing about myself. I’m liable to write a song about a sunflower. I just love to write. And I’ve been doing it all my life, so it’s kind of become second nature.
So the six years since your last album of new material wasn’t a case of losing inspiration or drying up?
No, I had plenty of material. But I’d been trying to get with [co-producer] Ray Kennedy, because he did some other albums of mine, and I still believe he’s the best. So I had to wait on him, wait on him. Meanwhile, Todd Snider kind of kicked me in the ass and told me to get up to Nashville and do something, even if it was wrong. [Laughs] So we did a few demos, and they turned out all right, but they were old songs I’d already done. And I’d talked to a bunch of critics, and they wanted me to have new songs. So I finally got together with Ray and them to do all these songs.
They’re strong songs.
Yeah, they are. There’s a few of them on there I’d already started, but you have to be really careful when you start a great song to be sure the whole thing is great. So I got some help from Ray and [co-producer and veteran songwriter] Gary Nicholson, and they made the songs that much stronger. I hadn’t really written with anybody that much — somebody who was real active in it — and it was quite a pleasure.
What’s your life like on a daily basis?
It ain’t all that great. [Laughs] I just got a new knee put in … this right knee of mine … and I haven’t had it long enough to heal completely.
I also heard you were having some inner ear problems?
Yeah, this happened to me before, a long time ago, at one of those SXSW things. I didn’t know what it was. I thought it was my heart, because I’ve had a heart attack, you know, and bypass. So I had to crawl at each show just about, but they finally took me to the hospital and figured it out. Todd Snider said I was on LSD. I’m just trying to get the old ship going, because we’ve got a lot of work to do.
You sound like you’re looking forward to it.
Moving’s the closest thing to being free, and I love to travel. If it weren’t for this business, I wouldn’t be able to afford it. We get to go wherever I want to go, it seems like. We’re going to New York and then out to California. I enjoy being with these guys — they’re great players, and we all take turns driving. Of course they won’t let me drive, because I drive a little too fast. And you’ll hear them hollerin’, “Pick a lane, Billy! Pick a lane!” I’m not that good a driver, and they are.
We get on down the road in this 15-passenger van, old Lightnin’, like an old white church van. It goes on down the road like crazy. It’s got almost 500,000 miles on it now. I’ve had three others I put over 500,000 miles on.
Are you still living in Waco? For a guy who loves moving around, that isn’t too far from where you were raised in Corsicana.
Yeah. I stay here, let me put it that way, in this house. And I’m okay with it. I’m fixin’ to move back up to Nashville. I was born in Corsicana, and my first wife and my kid were from Waco — my kid, Eddy, was born here, and my sister lives here, and that’s about the only reason I hang around. I just wound up with a house after everybody died. I’d never really owned a house — it just got passed down to me. I’d lived in rental houses and stuff. But I’m not the home type. Never was.
Are you married again?
No, I married another girl after I married my first wife three times. I didn’t divorce her the last time, after she got cancer. I stayed with her the last three years of her life. I took really good care of her until she passed. Then I got a little bit crazy, had a heart attack, wrote a book, and then I run into this other girl — Wanda Lynn Canady was her name — here in Waco. And she’s about as wild as I was. So I had a lot of fun with her and married her three times.
You married your second wife three times, too?
Yeah. I don’t know what happened. I didn’t do it to be a smart aleck. It just happened that way. And now she’s staying here until she finds a place. She’s a good old gal, and we’re good friends now — no romantic stuff. So she stays here for nothing, and I go hoofing it down the road. The divorces don’t seem to work out so good, but, no, I’m not gonna get married again. And she ain’t going to either.
Now you’re turning 75 with a new album and a big concert celebration. Is this a big milestone for you?
Well, yeah. I’m a little more popular than I’ve ever been, I guess, because of the internet, so I’d better get on down the road and enjoy some of it. I’ve never had any of the trappings that go with popularity. They say you’re making a comeback, but I’ve never been anywhere. I’m just goin’. And happy to be able to do that, and happy there’s people out there who like my music. And older fans who’ve been with me all the way.
Did you ever think you’d live to see 75?
I never thought I’d live to see 21. [Laughs] A gypsy fortune teller told me I wouldn’t. I just can’t believe I’m still here, what’s left of me — I’ve got fingers missing and stuff. I’m lucky to be here.
I regret I threw away a few things from getting into drugs too heavy. And drinking. I don’t do either one of them anymore. I haven’t smoked in over 25 to 30 years. I just went cold turkey. But I’m all right. With me and Jesus, it’s all good.
Tell me about that song, “Last Call for Alcohol.”
I don’t drink any more. I can’t. I take these pills for blood thinner and for my heart. And if you drank on those things, man, you’d be liable to kick the bucket. It hits you harder. There’s no sense in drinking; it’s like throwing it down a rat hole. Every once in a while some old brute will insist on buying me a beer, and I might have a sip or two and then pour it out or set it somewhere away. I couldn’t drink any more than that if I wanted to put on a good show, and I sure couldn’t put on a good one if I were up there goofy as hell. I’ve been through that, and that’s probably why I didn’t make it when I was younger. Just too damn crazy. Then again, if I hadn’t done that, maybe I wouldn’t have wrote the songs. Even during the time I was doing drugs, I was still writing.
How about “I’ll Love You as Much as I Can”?
That’s about the second lady I married three times. She said, “I love you” and all that, and I told her straight out that I’ll love you as much as I can. And I did … I did the best I could.
You start and end the album with songs that say something about country music today. Where do you think you fit in?
I think I’m right in the middle of it. I just hope it comes back down to where I’m at … or down or up or sideways or wherever. I’ve stayed true to country. I haven’t gone out and done any goofy things. Except for that rap song I guess. But everybody likes me in Nashville, and I like Nashville, too.
The last time you were receiving this much press was with that bar shooting. Why’d you write a song about it?
I had to, because Dale Watson had written a song called, “Where You Want It?” And I didn’t say that, but they used it against me at the trial. Good song, but I kind of had to straighten things out by writing “Wacko from Waco” the way it really happened. And it does, pretty much. What they never mentioned in the trial is he had a gun, too. It was pretty much a gunfight. They said he just had a knife, but that’s not true. I had to defend myself. He’d done shot at me two or three times, and I had to return fire.
In the aftermath, are you sorry it happened?
Oh, no. If I hadn’t returned fire, he would have just kept on shootin’, I guess. And he might have hit me after awhile — he was such a bad shot.
The last time your music got this big a push might have been with 1993’s Tramp on Your Street, when you and Eddy were recording as Shaver.
Man, he was great. I miss him still. And that was a great album, and it should have been a million-seller, to tell you the truth. The record company went out of business or something right in the middle. We did it there in an old church in Nashville … put some stuff in there and went to work.
And it launched “Live Forever,” which has become a standard.
Eddy gave me such a great melody, and I carried it around with me for about a year, trying to figure out what to put with it. And then I wrote “Live Together” to it, and he helped me finish it. Everybody wants it sung at their funeral. For a long time, I had so many friends pass away, I had to go sing it. But I can’t do that no more.
With all the great songs you’re written, are there songs by somebody else you wish you’d written?
Oh God, there’s loads of them. Good God, anything Kris wrote. And “Crazy” is a pretty hard song to beat. I think “Crazy” is as good a song as has ever been written. In a song like that, the truth rings through real good.