If there are two men qualified to weigh in on what it means to be a country outlaw, they’re Billy Joe Shaver and Willie Nelson. The two Texans have always recorded music — and often lived — outside the lines. In 2007, Shaver shot a man in the face at a Texas bar, and the famously pro-green Nelson has been arrested for possession of marijuana. The longtime friends and collaborators team up on “Hard to Be an Outlaw,” the lead-off track from Shaver’s first new album in seven years, Long in the Tooth, due August 5th.
With lines about “superstars” braying about “back roads they never have been down,” “Hard to Be an Outlaw” takes an unflinching look at the state of country. “It’s not harsh enough, I don’t guess,” says Shaver, who wrote the song and enlisted Nelson to sing his share of the skewering lyrics. The Red Headed Stranger’s most cutting line suggests today’s country music is “enough to make a renegade want to terrorize the town.” “He and I both feel the same way about that,” says Shaver.
Shaver bounced rough ideas for the song off Nelson via cellphone. “We text back and forth, and we figure we’re the only ones over 70 years old that text. I’m sure that’s not right, but I know Kris won’t. Kristofferson won’t do it,” Shaver says. “I mentioned this title to Willie and he said, ‘Man, you oughta write that.'”
Nelson liked the song so much that he also recorded his own version for his upcoming album Band of Brothers, out June 17th. Another Shaver song, “The Git Go,” also appears on both Nelson’s project and Long in the Tooth. But the latter album is the only one that features a rap song. Long in the Tooth‘s title track finds Shaver spitting out words with fury.
“I didn’t know it was that easy. I took a crank at it and went crazy and did it,” Shaver boasts of rapping.
Shaver hopes the release of Long in the Tooth will remind listeners that great art is still being made by veterans long since struck from radio playlists. “It’s just stupidity,” he says of the lack of attention paid to older artists. “It’s like walking down a hall and seeing a Picasso and saying, ‘Damn, that thing’s old! Let’s throw it out.’ Fortunately, you can’t burn songs. You can burn pictures, but a song will live forever.”