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Billy Joe Shaver: An outlaw fights on

Billy Joe Shaver
Billy Joe Shaver
Photo by Frederick Breedon IV

You might think outlaw country pioneer Billy Joe Shaver and former heavyweight boxing champion Mike Tyson are an odd pairing, but Shaver thinks that the two were more than kindred spirits back during their wild days.

“It’s like Mike Tyson,” he said in a 2005 interview with Texas Monthly. “They (say they) like him but they wouldn’t want to take him home for dinner, and that’s the way they were with me, and still are, some of them.”

More than eight years later, both legends have cleaned up their act and are still plugging away, long after many predicted their demise. These two are survivors, and only one survivor can truly appreciate another.

“He’s an honest guy,” said Shaver of “Iron Mike.” “He’s just as honest as the day is long, and he fought like he lived. I have great admiration for him. He wrote something once and it almost saved my life. I read it and kept on going. I figured if he could deal with it, I could too. Psychologically, he was getting kicked around a lot by a bunch of people that had a whole lot of brains, and now he’s found out that he’s just as smart as they were.”

In Shaver’s case, he found out that once he got past his battles with his health, drugs and the law, as well as with the losses of his mother, wife, and son, he remained someone who was still one of the best songwriters to do it, and a relevant force in a genre of music that has tried to dismiss him and his peers for a long time, as they opted to replace his raw songs with commercial pop that has more to do with product placement than real life. Luckily, his fans won’t let that happen, and as he prepares to release his first studio album since 2008 – Long in the Tooth – in August, the soon-to-be 75-year-old is still reaching the people the only way he can.

“You just keep whacking at it, and hopefully things will get better,” he said. “I’d rather be doing this than just sitting at home. This is more fun. I like to travel, I always have, and I couldn’t afford to do this if I didn’t play music.”

One of the original country “outlaws” that included Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson (who duets with Shaver on the Long in the Tooth track “Hard to be an Outlaw”), Shaver has had such a remarkable life’s journey that if he didn’t exist, someone would have to create him just to hear the stories he’s compiled since his birth in Corsicana, Texas in 1939. Yet the one thread that runs throughout his life is the music.

“When I first started talking, I knew I could sing, and I would sing for anybody that would listen, and if they didn’t I’d sing anyway,” he laughs. “I would go across the railroad tracks and there was a settlement of cotton pickers over there. One of the houses had a standup piano in it, and I would go over every day from the time I was six or seven years old and listen to them and sing whatever they would sing. I got most of my influences from them. I guess it was just a gift. I’ve always treated it like that and it’s still kind of like a hobby to me, I enjoy it so much.”

You can hear that love of the game on Long in the Tooth, and you will be able to pick it up even more as he continues what has been a never ending life’s tour for him. Friday night he settles in at Hill Country in New York City and he is likely to mix in songs from the new record with the classics, all of which hold special meaning to him because they’re based in reality, not fiction.

“Everything I do is about my own personal life and things that happened to me, and to be honest, you almost have to do it that way,” said Shaver. “If you’re talking about somebody else, you’re going to have to judge them, and you don’t really know what the hell’s going on in them. But you know what’s going on in you, and it takes a while to get down to the real, honest truth, but it winds up being very simple. And simplicity don’t need to be greased like a wheel, but you have to work hard to get things real simple. And that’s what I do best, and I’m lucky to be able to do it.”

We’re lucky to hear it, but when you’re talking luck in Shaver’s case, you may have to go back to 1973 and the release of Jennings’ Honky Tonk Heroes, an album written by Shaver, but only after he chased Jennings down and practically demanded an audience with him in order to play his songs. If not for that, and Jennings’ willingness to record the virtual unknown’s songs, Shaver’s career path might have been a lot different.

“They said it was the Outlaw Movement when Honky Tonk Heroes came out,” Shaver recalls. “Chet Atkins and all them were way against it and they were giving me a hard time, and all the songwriters in town were mad because they claimed I just came into town, but I had been there since ‘66. Waylon went ahead and stuck his neck out and did that, and the songs were bigger than I was. I couldn’t possibly sing them as good as he could, so he delivered them real well and it changed things. People started to write a little more raw.”

The raw got replaced by pop over the years, but old habits die hard for guys like Billy Joe Shaver, who’s still fighting the good fight.

“I can’t be against anybody trying to make a living doing the best they can,” he said. “There’s nothing wrong with making a living. But I felt like an outcast more than an outlaw. (Laughs) But if it’s irresistible to the ear and the heart, it’s going to get there, and music is a great thing. It’s healing to the soul. That’s what keeps me going.”

Billy Joe Shaver plays Hill Country in New York City on Friday, July 11. For tickets, click here

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