Stories abound about Billy Joe Shaver, the tragedies endured, the stands taken, the paths chosen. Suffice to say that there is not an insincere bone in the body of this man. A son of Corsicana and Waco, Texas, Shaver’s songs leap straight from the heart and speak to those parts of us that need some dignity, some justice. This is poetry straight from the black soil of East Texas, earthy and real.
The word outlaw has a bit of a nefarious meaning. To the Nashville establishment in the early seventies, it was tagged to a number of country and western artists who weren’t as welcome on the Grand Ole Opry stage as the likes of Porter Waggoner or Dolly Parton. At the helm of the “outlaw movement”, as these artists came to be known, were Texans Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings and the lesser known Shaver…maybe the truest outlaw of them all.
The trio’s work, and more importantly their attitudes and actions, led to a minor exodus out of Nashville and into Texas, where they found a much better reception for their heartfelt music and their wicked ways.
“It’s all right to call me an outlaw, but it’s hard to be an outlaw when you ‘ain’t wanted”, Shaver said in an interview. “No, back in those days when we first started that movement, it was more like outcast than outlaw. They didn’t want us in there.”
For his part, Shaver stayed out of the spotlight, likely not by choice. Rather, his penchant was for crafting indelible, gruff and spare country songs that bled authenticity. The kind of stuff that didn’t get played on the Opry stage too often.
These songs eventually got the attention of Jennings after he was confronted by Shaver in a Nashville studio. Billy Joe famously warned Jennings to listen to his music or get his “ass whupped”, and Jennings wisely chose to listen. The result was Honky Tonk Heroes, Waylon’s 1973 album of Shaver’s songs that ushered in the outlaw movement, instilling a more rock ’n’ roll approach to country, and influencing a slew of artists then, such as David Allan Coe and Kris Kristofferson, and now, such as Hank Williams III and Wayne Hancock.
Yet, for all it has accomplished, outlaw country has yet to be accepted by the Nashville elite, and that’s just fine with Shaver. “They were afraid we’d mess up what they had and they had something that was good,” Shaver added, “but it wasn’t as good as what we brought to the table. We were probably ten or fifteen years ahead. They claimed it was rock ‘n’ roll; it wasn’t. It was just kick ass country, the way we play down here in Texas.”
Shaver stands as one of country music’s true originals that is still actively writing, his latest release being the highly acclaimed Long in the Tooth, an album which has shed a brighter light on the honky-tonk hero. The album’s opener is a duet with Nelson, aptly titled “Hard to Be an Outlaw.” It’s the perfect frosting on the cake that is Shaver’s hard fought career, one that was never ideal in terms of development. However, he’s still standing and he remains the epitome of Texas music… independent, ornery as hell, and steadfast. Country as it gets, in all the right ways.
Three things you should know about Billy Joe Shaver: (1) at a young age he lost two fingers working in a sawmill, which shaped the way he plays guitar; (2) Shaver’s son, Eddy, performed alongside his father up until a tragic heroin overdose in 2000, and (3) his on again/off again wife Brenda refused to let Billy Joe play on Honky Tonk Heroes, telling Jennings “He don’t want to be on no outlaw album. He don’t want to go back to that kind of life.”