Billy Joe Shaver likes to drink Red Bull. A lot of Red Bull. In Nashville, he sits in a small conference room at his record label’s office, located above Grimey’s New and Preloved Music. At his feet lies a tattered old bag adorned with images of bald eagles, filled with at least six cans of the potent energy drink.
“I drink 10 to 11 a day sometimes,” Shaver says. “Other times, three or four. It’s an old man’s bumper jack.” He mimes jacking up a car. “It lifts me up.”
That this particular beverage might not be advisable for a man who had a heart attack onstage at Texas’s Gruene Hall in 2001 is of no concern to Shaver.
“I had a four-way bypass and I have stents, but I figure if there’s new stuff in there it oughta not hurt it,” he says, taking a sip from the tiny can. “It’s better than the old one.”
Shaver, who turned 75 on August 16th, the anniversary of Elvis Presley’s death — the King recorded one of Shaver’s songs, “You Asked Me To” — released his first studio album in seven years that same month. Titled Long in the Tooth, the record returns Shaver to the fore as one of country music’s most gifted songwriters. He famously penned the bulk of Waylon Jennings’ seminal 1973 LP, Honky Tonk Heroes, which included such classics as the title track, “Old Five and Dimers Like Me” and “Ride Me Down Easy.” His own solo albums, while never as commercially successful as those of Jennings or others who interpreted the Corsicana, Texas, native’s compositions, are the building blocks of the famed Outlaw Movement.
For Long in the Tooth, Shaver returned to Nashville with a fresh batch of songs. He addresses inequality in the deceptively simple “Checkers and Chess,” the fall of man in the religious imagery of “The Git Go” and pays genuine respect to Nashville in “Music City USA.”
“It was written with Kris Kristofferson in mind,” Shaver says of the track, which romanticizes the journey of aspiring country singers and songwriters. “It’s fun. They are all coming up here to do exactly that. To have fun doing it and then harvest the doggone stuff. That’s what I’m doing right now. I’m harvesting. I work really hard and make sure those songs hopefully live forever.”
He also addresses the state of the industry for an aging artist like himself in “Hard to Be an Outlaw,” a duet with Willie Nelson, who also cut two of Shaver’s song for his new Band of Brothers album.
Shaver, dressed in his workingman’s denim shirt, blue jeans and crumpled cowboy hat, is a firm believer that everything in country music begins with the song.
“It’s not the tight pants and all that other shit, you know? It’s the song,” he says. “I hate to say it, but it’s true: I think some of the big-time stars actually started with songs written by someone else and they got popular and thought they could write too. They couldn’t.”
Songwriting is a commitment, Shaver stresses.
“Not everyone can be dedicated to it. I’m a songwriter first and then whatever else I do second… I enjoy the heck out of entertaining and I enjoy all the aspects of what comes with it, but the song is like the cheapest psychiatrist there is. And I pretty much need one all the time,” he says with a raspy laugh.
Shaver has had more than enough heartache to require therapy. In 2007, he shot a man in the face during an altercation outside a Waco, Texas, area bar and was charged with aggravated assault. He was ultimately acquitted and turned the ordeal into a song, “Wacko From Waco.” When he was 21, he lost two fingers on his right hand in a sawmill accident (“I ain’t no finger-pointer,” he quips, “I can’t”). He married one of his wives, Brenda, three separate times and lost her to cancer in 1999. Around that same time, his mother died. Then on the morning of December 31, 2000, his son and creative partner Eddy Shaver, a fiery guitarist who recalled Stevie Ray Vaughan, was found dead of a heroin overdose.
A grieving Shaver performed that same evening at a New Year’s Eve concert with Nelson.
“Willie put a band together. My band just went nuts, they all flaked out and went off crying and stuff. But Willie called me up…and said, ‘Billy, you gotta get back on the horse,'” Shaver says. “And I’m an old cowboy, I know what he’s talking about. So I got up there. Most the people that came didn’t even know about Eddy passing away. Every once in a while, later on at night, you’d see some couple going out crying. They had heard about it.”
Yet, despite his seeming composure that night, Shaver was also incensed and considered revenge for his son’s death.
“I spent the night over at Willie’s house and we sat up and talked all night about it. I was going to go back out there, ’cause I knew where [the drugs] came from — that drug dealer, I would have shot him up and killed him instead of calling the police,” Shaver says. “I was going to go kill that bunch. But Willie talked me out of it. He said, ‘You’re best just leaving it alone.’ And I did. I just left it alone. But you don’t ever forget something like that.”
Shaver trudged forward, releasing the final album he and Eddy had recorded, The Earth Rolls On, in April 2001. Freedom’s Child came in 2002, and in 2007 he released what would be his last studio album for nearly seven years, Everybody’s Brother. Eventually, Shaver found the motivation to once again pick up his pen. Inspired by friends like country-folk artist Todd Snider, whom Shaver says “kicked his ass” to record again and who oversaw the early sessions in Nashville, he began writing original material.
“Sometimes when you’re a singer, you don’t lose interest in the singing, but all that it takes to get that song into the world further than just the sound of your voice can get grueling,” says Snider. “I could tell he wasn’t wanting to do anything, but that if somebody did it for him, he’d do it. But he’s not going to pick up the phone and do things like that. That’s just not him. So I called him and said, ‘I’ll put this all together.'”
Ray Kennedy and Gary Nicholson produced the finished version of Long in the Tooth, but Snider worked alongside Shaver on the demo tracks. “Which proved to him that he had enough material,” Snider says. “But I’m not a producer — I’m a fan.”
He’s also one of Shaver’s trusted friends. Snider, who was also close with Eddy, says he looks up to the plain-speaking, no-nonsense Texan.
“He terrifies me,” Snider admits. “Billy started being a father figure in my life. And by that, I mean threatening to beat me up sometimes. The same way he would threaten to beat up Eddy sometimes. He’d also threaten to beat us both up sometimes. And he’d yell at me if he heard I fucked up at a gig. One time I dyed my hair black and he called me: ‘What are you fucking doing?'”
Shaver wonders the same thing about the Country Music Hall of Fame, which has yet to honor him with induction. He pulls no punches when asked if he would like to one day be invited to join the Hall. He is already a member of the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame and the Texas Country Music Hall of Fame.
“It kind of bothers me that I’m not. When I got inducted into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame people told me it wouldn’t be more than a couple of weeks and I’d be in the Country Music Hall of Fame. That’s what happened to Kris,” he says. “I think I ought to be in there. If you don’t want to put me in there, that’s fine. But I just don’t understand it to tell you the truth.
“I feel like I am part of the foundation and maybe even a cornerstone. I think I’m that much,” he continues. “People can argue with me if they want to, I don’t care. I have put in a lot here and everybody oughta at least say thank you, because I worked hard.”
With his comeback album behind him, Shaver continues to toil away. Currently on the road — he plays Nashville tonight and New York City on December 17th — he and his three-piece band travel in a bare-bones 15-passenger van. No plush tour bus for this crew.
“It’s hard to put a finger on people like him,” marvels Snider. “I remember reading someplace in an interview, and I don’t know if it was Willie or Kris or somebody like that, but they were talking about the Outlaw Movement, and they said, ‘It’s mostly just a bunch of guys trying to sell themselves as Billy Joe Shaver really is.'”
At another Nashville concert earlier this summer, at the club 3rd and Lindsley, Shaver shows up in the same shirt, jeans and hat, the threadbare bag of Red Bull and assorted stage props clutched in his hand as he ascends the stage. A bit wobbly from knee surgery last April, Shaver is nonetheless animated in the spotlight.
“When I’m onstage I don’t feel nothing. I just get that adrenaline going. Someone asked me the other day, ‘Bill, you get that adrenaline rush, don’t you?” And I said, ‘Yeah, I do.’ They said, ‘You reckon that’s the reason you entertain? Is it for the people or is it for the adrenaline?'” Shaver says, pausing.
“I thought a while and I said, ‘It’s probably just for the adrenaline.'”