Billy Joe Shaver: The Full Interview

Billy Joe Shaver: The Full Interview


We spoke with Billy Joe Shaver a couple of weeks ago, and I’ve written this overview of our talk.  Here is the complete and unedited interview:

First off, how’s your health? How are you feeling?

Feelin’ great. I got Jesus in my heart and he ain’t gonna let me down. 

Why a Christian album at this point in your life?   

 Well, the album leans in that direction, but it’s not all religious. And all my stuff’s been spiritual since I started. My first album had two Jesus songs on it. The first song I got recorded was ‘Jesus Christ, What a Man’ by the Oak Ridge Boys (when they were a gospel group) and it got nominated for a Grammy. Waylon used to call me a a Bible-thumper, even when we were raising hell. I guess he was right. I’ve always been a big sinner. Still am. I still get pretty rough sometimes, but not like I used to be. I got born again when I wrote “Chunk of Coal.” That was a big hit. But I’ve … wavered, gone back and forth a few times, I guess. How would you say it? How would you put it if you get saved more than once? “Born again, again”? That’s it. That’s me. Born again, again. I’m not a full-blown crazy fanatic Christian – not really. I know I’m talking like one, but that’s just because I want to share it with everybody.

Tell you the truth – it’s like when I was back dopin’, when I run across some real good stuff I’d call all my friends and say you got to get into this, it’s amazing, come on over. It’s the same with Jesus. I know you’ve had some losses in your life and my condolences to you – Thank you. But I know they’re in a better spot. I know where they are. I could feel bad about that, but I’d just be feeling bad for myself. That happens sometimes, but it’s just self-pity. – so was it that or something else that made you decide to do this kind of music right now? It’s just where my heart is, where I guess it’s always been. 

Let’s talking about the album. “Rollin’ Stone” – is that a new one? 

It’s brand new. 

That’s a real Texas song to me. 

Yeah. I grew up there, mostly raised by my grandmother. I liked to get going, travel around. Still do. She would light into me when I took off. She knew I’d start rolling as soon as I hit the ground. She died when I was twelve.

That diminished chord in there, that gave it a Western swing kind of feel. 

Yeah, there’s a couple of those diminished chords in there. People don’t use them much anymore in country. But I used to love all the old stuff. 

There’s a little Eldon Shamblin guitar feel there, a little Texas Playboys groove. 

Yeah, that and Django Reinhardt. We were really blessed because the band was really swinging. We did five songs in a day. 

“Get Thee Behind Me Satan” – that’s some old fashioned preaching, fear-of-Jesus  style. That’s the scary preaching, not the love and peace megachurch kind.  Well, that’s another side of reality, isn’t it?  You and John Anderson get to testifying there. You sound like preachers yourselves. The kind that talk about damnation. And the story’s like a nightmare. It’s, what do they call it,   

 Fire and brimstone. 

Right. And John Anderson’s right there with you. He’s a great singer, and a great writer too. 

Yes, and he’s a very nice man. Very nice. A good Christian fellow. 

“Seminole Wind.” That’s his song about the Native Americans being driven out of the Florida swamps. 

That’s a great one.

Aren’t you part Indian? 

I’m Blackfoot on my father’s side. Half Blackfoot, half French. Some Cherokee on my mother’s side. But we’re all the same inside, and we all get into the same kind of trouble. You know, I’ve written my way out of a lot of messes. I’ve always said writing is the cheapest psychiatrist there is. I say I was either trying to save myself or trying to get back in the house. I wasn’t trying to be noble, just trying to get out of trouble. 

“Winning Again” – it sounds just right for Buck Owens to cover, if he had ever sung Christian music. Your harmony with Marty Stuart sounded like Buck Owens and Don Rich.  It sounds like one of that classic Harlan Howard songs Buck used to do. 

Harlan Howard. That’s a great compliment. I’ll take it, and thank you.  

Alright now – “If You Don’t Love Jesus Go To Hell.” I mean, weren’t you Kinky Friedman’s “spiritual advisor” when he ran for Governor? Who were you thinking when you wrote this? 

Well, they didn’t want me to put it on the album. Some people objected because they don’t think “Jesus” and “hell” should be in the same sentence. And some other people figured some of those radio stations up there wouldn’t play it. You know, the “Americana” ones. Those stations are kinda snooty, you know, so they figured the song wouldn’t get played. But it’s the only song they want to play. They play it a lot. And some people didn’t want me to put it on the album.

But isn’t “go to hell” a little harsh? I mean what did Kinky think? 

If it’s harsh, then God’s harsh. And Kinky, you can’t tell him nothin’ anyway.  It’s just a way to put things: “Take your rotten rags of righteousness and stuff ‘em.” The Bible says “your rags of righteousness are as nothing to me.” 

That’s Old Testament. Isaiah, isn’t it? That should make Kinky happy. And then you sing “if think that you can kick my ass/you better move that foot pretty fast.”

Well, God and fighting … Evander Holyfield, he’s a good Christian, he said “if a fellow hits me on the cheek I turn the other cheek – then I knock the hell out of him.”  

But you always said “May the God of your choice bless you.” Kinky used that slogan when he ran for Governor.  How does that fit with “go to hell if you don’t love Jesus”? 

If everybody prayed for everybody else, if everybody loved everybody else, then no matter what religion they were there would be peace. Look, what I do is ask Jesus to let everybody into Heaven regardless of religion. I believe He will, not that I’m any expert. I hope so, though. He’s everybody’s brother.  

Is that how you really see Him?

Sure.  If everybody prayed for each other like that, think about how much better the world would be. I love everybody. I want them all to be happy, Christian or not. Why shouldn’t everybody go to heaven?  You like to say “God loves you when you dance.” Either you worship a very forgiving God, or you haven’t seen me dance.  (laughs) Aw, I like to say those kinds of things. “It’s bad luck to be superstitious.” “Reality is artificial imagination.” I’m always saying that kind of thing. 

Sounds like you’ve got another book in you – a book of sayings.

I probably got a couple books in me.

“To Be Loved By a Woman” – when was that written?

A while back. Keith Whitley sang it so I figured I’d leave it alone. He’s such a great singer. It was such a loss when he passed. But I wanted to sing the song because it makes sense. I like a song that makes sense. 

That’s not so common nowadays. Is that what’s wrong with country music these days?

I guess so, but that’s just the way it is. I don’t knock the ways things are. Everybody’s just trying to get by. They’re doing whatever they have to do to make a living. I don’t fault nobody for that – but I’m doing art.  I’m doing it for the sake of the art. Getting a hit record made? It’s not even in my mind. I just do what I do, and that’s it.  These young kids, they bring ‘em, they’re unseasoned. They believe ever’ word they tell ‘em. But I don’t blame ‘em. Everybody’s got a dream. 

People want to be somebody.

Everybody needs to remember, you’re not a loser not matter what. You’re the sperm that made it. And the odds against that were astronomical. 

“The Greatest Man Alive” – when was that written?

It was written about my wife after we split up. I was that way at the time. Some people said why would you say that? Why would you wish the person just divorced good luck? That’s me, though. I love everybody. It’s just what they do I don’t like. 

How’d you get Tanya (Tucker) to do the duet? What was that like?  

Oh, we’re old, old friends. Nothin’ romantic, just pals. She’s a great artist and a great friend. I knew her Dad and liked him. He was her manager. He was tough as nails. He was an old fighter pilot. Oh, they say Tanya’s a little rough around the edges but she’s still got that great talent. I love her. 

“You Can’t Beat Jesus Christ.” You and Johnny Cash tear it up there. When’s that from?

It’s an old demo we cut with the band. John came by and we just did it. My son Eddy (who died in 2000 of a drug overdose) plays some great guitar on it, doesn’t he? He was only fifteen at the time. The band sounds great. I’ve been lucky so far as musicians are concerned. I’ve always had a great band. 

Maybe it’s not just luck.

Well, sometimes they could get more money playing with other people, but they stick with me. Maybe they like the songs. 

“Everybody’s Brother” – what a great phrase. It was in the song you cut with Johnny Cash, “You Can’t Beat Jesus Christ.” Then you made it a separate song and got (traditional Native American musician) Bill Miller to record it with you.

John Carter (Cash, Johnny’s son and the album’s producer) suggested that. You know, the night before I wrote that I coulda sworn that Johnny Cash came to me in my room. I felt him there, so I got up and started writing. What I wound up with was nothing liked what I’d started with. He helped me … it’s like he wrote it with me. 

What was it like working with John (Carter Cash) s a producer?

He’s the best. He’s a wonderful producer. He’ll let you do your thing, and then he steps in and helps you when you need it. He’s more like a spiritual guide than a producer in some ways. He’s there for you. And he knows his music. 

You’re one of the best songwriters around, but you don’t tend to get mentioned as often as some of the others. Any bitterness about that?

Nah. I’m into for the art. I love it, and it’s a hobby for me. A hobby, and a living. I never worried about awards or getting a hit record. Waylon Jennings said he’d shoot me right between the eyes if he ever caught me writin’ for an award. My award’s when somebody records one of my songs. Waylon did an album of my songs. Willie did an album. Kris Kristofferson. Bob Dylan cut one of my songs. Elvis Presley.  Those are my awards. 

Other songs – what about “Freedom’s Child”? That’s a song about the futility of war. I didn’t think it got the kind of attention it deserved.  

It says a lot more than you think. I wrote it back in the sixties but didn’t record it until recently.

I read that you thought it ought to get heard after 9/11 happened. Why?

Because it’s about the sacrifices that people make. They lay their lives down for you. Human beings are such wonderful people.

It says that there is an endless cycle of war.

I knew after 9/11 it was happening again. All the soldiers that I run into – rangers and paratroopers – that’s their favorite song. They know what I’m talking about. I love these heroes and I honor them every chance we get. 

A lot of us do. You could call this an antiwar song. And yet you say that soldiers respond to it?

Yes, they do. It’s kind of an antiwar song, but it’s also based on the acceptance that this is going to go on as long as we’re human. Soldiers understand this. They accept the nature of the sacrifice they’re making, and they do it anyway. That’s real heroism. Hopefully someday it’ll be out of the question to do that, to engage in war. But we’re not there yet. I believe as long as there is Man there will be war.

I believe songwriters have a moral obligation to expose as much as they can. Bob Dylan inspired me in that regard. If you get a chance and you can help – help. 

Dylan opened the door for a lot of people to write about different things besides love, didn’t he?

Yeah, he did. Every song doesn’t have to say something new or different, but if you’ve got it to say, say it. They’re my songs, after all. I’ll do what I want with ‘em. It’s my barn, I’ll paint it if I want to.  That’s one thing we got in common, we’re all different. 

So music is personal, like faith?

I believe in the notion of Jesus as a “personal Lord and savior.” Personal. That means he’s gonna be different for you than he is for anybody else. He meets your needs, and you’re unique. Each of us is unique, and thank God for that. So He’s different for you than for me.

This world is getting where it’s so crowded – I tell ya, the Indians believe that if one person moves one grain of sand it changes the course of time for everybody everywhere. That’s why bein’ nice to each other – that’s the best policy. If you can’t be friends, at least be friendly. 

“Black Rose,” “Old Five and Dimers,” “Honky Tonk Heroes” – I’ve heard you only have an eighth grade education, but you’re a really a short story writer. You ever write non-musical stuff?

I’ve written a few short stories. I might publish them someday. Then there’s the book (Honky Tonk Heroes, Univ. of Texas Press). But mostly it’s about the songs. I’m a songwriter and a singer. Too late to change my stripes now. I’m getting on in years. On the other hand, I like to try new things. In another way you could say I’m still a young man. I can open new doors.

Well, that gives me some hope then. I’m getting up there myself and I’d like to try some new things.

Then you’re like me in that respect. If you haven’t grown up by now you probably never will. 

What about acting? You gonna do any more of that?

Oh, I might if they ask me. Robert Duvall, he’s a friend of mine, he’s asked me a couple of times. 

It says on your website you’re an Official  Texas State Musician of the Year. What’s that?  

I don’t know myself. But they give that title to somebody different every year. 

Just one a year? With all those musicians in Texas ? That’s impressive. If they wind up having you, Flaco, Doug Sahm, and T-Bone Walker I’ll be happy.

That’d be a good list, all right. I love them all. And Flaco’s terrific. I cut a song with him. 

I’m not gonna ask you about that little incident. (Shaver was arrested after allegedly shooting a man in a Texas barroom. He says he it was self-defense; the man says otherwise.)

Oh, I don’t mind. God’s taking care it. I’ll take whatever God says I’m supposed to take. I’ll accept it. God’s in charge. It’s taken care of. I’m covered. 

Are you still playing biker bars?

Oh, yeah, I still play where they love me. I love playing those biker bars – skull orchards, as I call ‘em. You have to kick a little harder there. I love getting out and playing for my fans.  I have some wonderful fans. I love them. 

How are these new songs going over?

They love ‘em. And I have one new song that says “If you must drink, then drink.” It puts them at ease when they’re in the bars, and doing what they came to do. It’s as we were taught: It’s not what goes into the mouth that defiles you. It’s what comes out of the mouth that defiles you.

So I tell them, don’t worry about what you drink. Worry about what you say.

I guess I’ll ask the question everybody asks you: What is it about Texas that produces so many great songwriters? I liked it when you told one interviewer “well, it’s a pretty big state.”

Yeah, everybody asks that question, all right.

You’ve got quite a few great songwriters from Texas. The latest great one is who, Steve Earle?

I love Steve. He’s fantastic. Then there’s Kristofferson, Willie (Nelson), Guy Clark, Townes Van Zandt – that’s stuff so good it’ll make you slap your knee. And I do have a theory …

Why aren’t I surprised?

Right. You know, from an early age we learn in school about the Alamo, about brave people. Real true stories about big heroes. People down here don’t seem to be afraid to say anything. Everyone down here is brutally honest. The sky’s big. You’re kinda raised with that attitude. We’re raised to speak our minds.

People in Texasdon’t steal anything anybody else says because they think they’re the greatest. So why steal? Who would they steal from? No need to steal when nobody’s as good as you.

This is a pretty spiritual album, even the non-Christian parts. What would you like to say about it?

(pause) “If you don’t love Jesus, go to hell.”

Anything else you’d like my article to say? When I’m interviewing someone I think of my role as bringing out their message.

(laughs) Oh, you’re getting all humble on me now, are you? You’re just the vehicle, is that it? 

Well, some of us deserve to be humble. 

(laughs) That’s a good one. Think I’ll steal it.

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