“I knew that the writing was good enough — that the cream would finally come to the top. I always knew, I just figured I’d be dead when that happened.”
Legendary singer-songwriter Billy Joe Shaver is still full of life and full of what made him famous decades ago: Great songs. “I write just as good as I always have. I hope this shows everybody that I do,” Shaver says of Long in the Tooth, his first new studio release in six years, which came out earlier this month.
The 75-year-old Texas native has garnered unprecedented attention with the record's release. “I’m more popular than I ever was,” Shaver says. “I get so many interview requests, I can’t hardly keep up with them.”
Today's spotlight is much more positive than the one Shaver found himself in seven years ago when he was charged with shooting a man in the face outside of a Lorena, Texas bar. Shaver said his actions were in self defense and, after a very pubic trial, he was acquitted of all charges. “It’s the last thing I wanted to do was shoot somebody . . . I mean if they think I planned that, they’re out of their minds,” he says.
“I wouldn’t have written the songs I’ve written today if things in my life hadn’t happened to me the way they did.”
The incident had a profound effect on him — personally and professionally. Although Shaver continued performing, the event and the negativity that followed muted his desire to do what he loves most. “During that five years, I was a little bit bitter . . . I didn’t really want to write any songs.
"I just let the bitterness get in,” he laments. “It hurt me pretty bad . . . set me back many years I’m sure.”
But just like other setbacks in his life, Shaver found a silver lining. “I wouldn’t have written the songs I’ve written today if things in my life hadn’t happened to me the way they did.”
That sentiment reflects Shaver's entire life, which has all the makings of a great country song. He was raised by his grandmother; lost parts of his fingers in a sawmill accident; married two woman, three times each; had addiction issues; and lost his son, guitarist Eddy Shaver, to a drug overdose in 2000. He was also an influential part of the famed outlaw country movement that took over Nashville in the 1970s.
An Outlaw Country Rebel
In the mid-1960s, Shaver left Corsicana for Nashville and landed a $50-a-week writer deal. He hit his stride in 1973 when Waylon Jennings put nine of Shaver’s songs on his Honky Tonk Heroes album . “Waylon was the perfect guy to do it ‘cause the songs were so much bigger than me and I couldn’t sing ‘em as good as him.”
The album played an important role in the development of the outlaw sub-genre of country music. But Shaver’s presence in Music City and affiliation with the outlaw movement was met with reluctance. “Chet Atkins just had a fit about it,” Shaver recalls. “He thought it was gonna ruin Nashville to come with that kind of music, and the sequins went out the window and blue jeans came in. It did change things, but it changed it for the better and he finally realized that and he apologized to me.”
“They ain’t gonna get but one shot at it, ya know, so you might as well be yourself.”
Throughout the controversies and hardships Shaver has encountered, he’s turned to songwriting as therapy. You’ll often hear him say, “songwriting is the cheapest psychiatrist there is.”
The poetic lyrics on Long in the Tooth cover everything from politics to money, from romance to drinking and faith. Shaver answers in a charming country way when asked which song is his favorite. “It’s like kids, you love the bucktoothed one as much as you love the others and I just can’t pick.”
Title track “Long in the Tooth” explores aging and change. But in a move that defies his musical persona, Shaver recorded it as a rap. He started writing the song many years ago with good friend and actor Paul Gleason, best known for playing the teacher in '80s cult film The Breakfast Club. Gleason passed away before the tune was finished. “I wasn’t going to put the song out, and then I changed my mind and decided I would do this in honor of Paul and I dedicated the album to him.”
Shaver also got an assist from long-time friend Willie Nelson on a song with a brilliant hook. “It’s hard to be an outlaw who ain’t wanted anymore,” they sing. “Actually I ran the idea by Willie and he said,‘Write that!’ So I did and he liked it so he recorded it before I did. Then he came over and recorded it with me.”
“I’m in Love,” a track about being born again, holds a special place in Shaver's heart. “I’m a born again Christian, I got born again back when I was doing drugs and stuff … I almost died.” Shaver says he doesn’t want to preach his beliefs, but if you listen to his music long enough, there’s no denying an underlying theme of faith.
It’s in large part that strong faith and belief in forgiveness that has carried Shaver through his lifetime. And after 75 years on this earth, his attitude is “I am what I am, take it or leave it.”
“One thing in common we all got is that we’re all different and I believe that we were made that way on purpose, so everybody ought to be their self,” he says. “They ain’t gonna get but one shot at it, ya know, so you might as well be yourself.”
And Billy Joe Shaver is an American original, from his wispy gray locks, to his over-washed denim shirts and his uncanny powers of observation about the human spirit. The songs like those on Long in the Tooth will ensure that the legendary Texas songwriter lives well beyond his 75 years — ultimately forever.