Billy Joe Shaver is truly an artist who needs no introduction, so I won't bother. On a personal note, when I received an offer to interview him, it took me about a second and a half to say I was interested. By phone, he discussed his beginning in Nashville, his chances if he were looking for his first job in Nashville now, and the business of country music.
I read that you got your first writing job in Nashville in 1968. What was your feeling when you landed your first job in Nashville?
I headed there in '66 and it took me that long to get that first job. I felt good about it. A big hero of mine Bobby Bare hired me for $50 a week and I got to stay in his office because I didn't have a place to stay. It was a little bitty office, but it had a #3 washtub and I'd take a whore's bath. It was good for me because I could concentrate on just writing songs. I was washing dishes, doing everything else in the world other than writing songs. It worked out good for me. It took me a while to get with Bobby, but when I got with him, I got some things done. When Waylon (Jennings) recorded almost an entire album of my songs - one song on the album I didn't write - the Honky Tonk Heroes album went platinum.
Chet Atkins was upset about it. He thought it wouldn't work because it was real raw and different from what they were doing. Waylon of course jumped all over that. He was a whole lot like me and he understood what I was doing. He grabbed it and recorded it. Chet Atkins's record label was telling him it wouldn't work, it would ruin everything. Sure enough it worked. It changed a lot of things around town. You could go in places with blue jeans on. Otherwise you had to wear a tie. Nashville was a little uppity. There was a lot of rock n roll in Nashville, but the only country thing in Nashville at the time was the Grand Ole Opry. Some of the places on Lower Broadway that I'd play - just me and a guitar - and I'd make a little change. It worked out good for me. I was happy as a mud duck. I enjoyed it and was able to concentrate on writing a whole lot more.
I would say it worked out pretty well for you.
It did. It got me on the map. Of course I had to threaten Waylon to get him to...he said he'd listen to the songs, but he never did listen to them. He listened to one and he said, "If you got a whole bunch of them cowboy songs, I'll do them. A whole album." I said, "Well, good." I chased him around for a long time. It's a long story. It's too long. Anyway, I got him to do it.
Bobby was paying me 50 bucks a week, and sometimes the check would bounce. He had an old Cadillac and I used to haul him around in it. He used to get drunk a lot and I had to carry him in here and there. That was just a part of the deal. Everyone did that the same. His old Cadillac had a coat hanger that went through a hole in the back...just like baling wire. The coat hanger worked a little better. He wasn't in much better shape than I was, but we all came out smelling like a rose.
I'd say so. If you were looking for your first job in Nashville now, what do you think would happen?
(laughs) I don't know. They got such a lock on it now. These guys who have money behind them, it's pretty hard to beat them out. I don't think I could get in there. I've got great songs, but there's so much favoritism going on there now, you have to be careful. If you're going to pitch it to someone else, you're better off doing it yourself. More than likely, somebody's going to write around it. I'm telling you the truth. If you don't watch it, you'll get your song took away from you. You'll hear it on the radio and think "That's great." Then it won't have your name on it. It's kind of heartbreaking. Nowadays, I probably couldn't get in. I'd wind up busting somebody in the mouth or something. It'd be trouble for me. Lawyers and stuff...I got nothing against anybody trying to make a living, doing the best they can. But they just shovel a bunch of stuff down peoples' throats, and some of it just makes me gag. Money talks. They got a lock in now where all the radio stations won't play anybody over a certain age. They're playing all these young people. You have these shows where young people go on there - they're maybe 15 or 16 years old - they learn one song and play it well and they win the contest and get a record deal with it. It's kind of strange to me. That's the way life goes. You have to roll with the flow and figure it out.
I just keep on writing good poetry and songs, and hoping that things turn out good for me. I'm trying to make a living and doing the best I can. I'm real good at it, and every once in a while one gets through and does real well. I'm doing an album right now with Ray Kennedy and Gary Nicholson. It's a great album. It's probably going to be my best one. I sing pretty good. I've always sung pretty good, but didn't get noticed because I never had a manager. If I had a manager, I'd have to let him go after a while, because they couldn't figure out what they were doing. Around town, I'm known as the guy who is unmanageable. I'm just as smart as the rest of them. I got an eighth-grade education, but I got a really high IQ. I'm as smart as the rest of them. I just didn't finish school. The theory in Nashville was that if you didn't fly an airplane or if you weren't a Rhodes Scholar, they didn't really want you. They thought it was a bad example to youth that if you succeeded without finishing school, that would get kids to quit school and concentrate on music. I'm sorry that I happen to be a weirdo. I got my GED, but that doesn't seem to cut it. They like guys that have a lot of money behind them and are wealthy. I'm not saying that because I feel left out. I don't. I feel like I'm blessed because I'm able to write great songs. I've always been able to write great songs, and I'll keep writing great songs. The cream always rises to the top. You just need a lot of patience.
What's your reaction to most of the stuff that comes out of Nashville?
There's some real good stuff. Some of it's real bad. These guys that are big stars now, they got rolling with songs that were written by other people - great songwriters. That took them to the top. Then they leveled out, and did a few more songs by those songwriters. Then they decided that they knew how to write. They wrote songs when they had their popularity going and people would buy anything they gave. It worked out good for them. That's business, but to me it's art. They had me write this book Honky Tonk Hero. I wrote a book a long time ago with a friend. He said, "Nashville would know how to spell art if you spotted them the A and the T." (laughs) It is kind of that way. The art part went out. There's no art to it now. It's just business. I'm in it for the art. I have to have something I'm really proud of before anybody will hear it. I'm my worst critic, and I write some really great songs.
Artists generally are their own worst critics.
A lot of them are really great and get discouraged and quit. They get frustrated. Some of them commit suicide. Some of them go back to driving a truck. Some of these old country boys can't afford to do that now. They don't have somebody sticking a whole bunch of money behind them. I'm not saying this to be sorry for anybody. That's just the way the business runs now. I can see it. Anybody with half a brain can figure that out. That's just the way it runs. There's some great songs that come out once in a while. There's some guys I really admire. They're the backbone of the whole thing, but they're getting shoveled back because they're getting a little age on them. Nashville doesn't like older people. I don't know why it is. The youth has taken over. Youth is wasted on the young nowadays. That's the superficial world we live in now. I wish it would change, and I think it will. This new album I got, I hope it changes everything. Honky Tonk Heroes changed things, and I'm fixin' to come out with another one that's gonna change things. I know it is. They might as well get ready. I'm just going at it the same way I always did, with pen in hand. That's about it.
Of which of your albums are you most proud?
They're all great. The first one I did, Kris Kristofferson produced it. It was called Old Five and Dimers like Me. It's like you got a bunch of kids - and everybody says this - but you love the buck-toothed kids as much as you love the others. It's hard to say. I'm proud of everything I've done so far. There was a time or two where I let producers take over and I wish I hadn't.
What do you think is the key to your longevity?
Jesus Christ. I'm a born-again Christian. I wasn't always. Since I've been born again, I do a great imitation of that old fella, better than anybody. I'm not the same person. A lot of things that used to be important to me aren't anymore. I still write with a lot of grit. Everything that should be the way it is is actually better than it was. He's the one that made us all number two. I'm sure He's the right way to go. I've turned my life around. I was hung up on drugs, and alcohol, and everything in the world. I've lost my mother, my wife, and my son in less than a year. I lost my son on New Years Eve to a heroin overdose. When I wrote "Old Chunk of Coal" is when I was born again. The first half I wrote way back yonder and I started turning my life around. I came down off this cliff where I wrote it. It took a year to write the second half. During that time, I went to Houston to dry out. I went cold turkey, smoking, doping, everything. I got down to about 150 pounds. I thought I was going to die. Miracles still happen. If you don't love Jesus, go to hell.
What would you be doing if you weren't making music?
I'd probably be driving a truck. I was a pretty good cowhand and I still wear that rig I always wore. Once you're a cowboy, you're always a cowboy. You can't seem to give out of it. Even if you live in a brick house and don't have a horse, it sticks with you. I've been a cowboy, and I still am. My hat's in my hand a lot of times. I got a few bumps on my head, but I'm a cowboy.