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Words washed in blood - An interview with Billy Joe Shaver

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Posted: Thursday, November 14, 2013 10:40 am

A few years ago, Bob Dylan released a song on his album, Together Through Life, which paid homage to the iconic Texas song crafter Billy Joe Shaver. On the song, “I Feel a Change Coming On,” Dylan breezily growled, “I’m listening to Billy Joe Shaver and I’m reading James Joyce.” 

Dylan probably needed to hear Shaver’s rural, spiritual and existentialist musings as a tonic for the esoteric and avant-garde discourse of Joyce.

Shaver, who is still presenting his profound “simplicity in poetry” and lucid but interestingly styled truths to the accompaniment of his symbiotic melodies, has developed an impressive list of fans over the obdurate and contentious years. These include the aforementioned Dylan, the late Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, Kris Kristofferson and actors Robert Duvall and Luke Wilson. (Shaver starred in the film The Apostle with Duvall, and in The Wendell Baker Story with Wilson).

His words and phrasing have even been referred to as koans, which are paradoxical statements used in Zen Buddhism. Whatever his style may be, one thing that is incontrovertible is that his music has been informed by the curbed and choppy ebb and flow of his life.

After spending many years drugging, womanizing and outlawing his way through the tangled forest of chasing dreams he became born-again, sober, moderately successful and formed a partnership with his son. However, in 1999/2000 he lost his wife and muse Brenda, his son and musical collaborator Eddy Shaver, and mother Victory.

His pain did not end there. While on stage in 2001, he suffered a heart attack, adding relentless insult to emotional injury. Ultimately, Shaver soldiered on and sought refuge from this onslaught of heartbreak out on the cathartic road. He has not stopped performing since then.

The past 11 years haven’t been without controversy and struggle for Shaver, but the show must go on and so it does. Shaver’s purpose, his mandate, his need seems to be wrapped inside the artistic expression of his turbulent and triumphant life. Perhaps Shaver’s essence is reflected in this gift-wrapped expression that he presents to broken, saved, content and appreciative audiences year after year.

Billy Joe Shaver will most likely be up on the stage of candid revelation singing about his laments, losses, good times and redemption until his last breath from God or at least until diamonds cannot be formed from an old chunk of coal.

His unique musical style of Texan Americana headlines the stage on Friday, Nov. 22 at Alpine’s ArtWalk 2013.

Shaver provided insight on a host of topics. Below are his comments.

His current band, live performances, selection of songs and the road-

BJS: Well, there are certain ones that everybody would be very upset if I didn’t play them. “Old Chunk of Coal,” “You Asked Me To,” “Ride Me Down Easy,” “Georgia on a Fast Train,” things like that. I play them all the time…and now I’ve got newer songs. We did a live album at Billy Bob’s with this band that I’ve got now. It’s pretty good, but my son played with me…he did really great…he played with the Allman Brothers, the Eagles. He was Dwight Yoakam’s guitarist for the first two years. I miss him quite a bit. But the guy that plays it (guitar) now learned a lot from Eddy and he pretty much plays a lot like Eddy but he’s got his own style too…Jeremy Woodall, he’s real good. The band I got now, I’m happy with it. They’re real good.

I love to travel...and when you're traveling, you can write a whole lot better because your brain has to think because you're seeing new things...if you're sitting around you have to conjure up shit, excuse my language, you have to conjure up and it all becomes fiction really and with me I'm just dead honest you know, it's easy for me, I got a handle on that...honesty is the best thing there is. I try to write something that is going to be here forever.

The upcoming album-

BJS: I’m doing my first studio album in seven or eight years and I’ll be doing that I think December first, second or something like that but uh, hopefully getting it out in a couple of months. It’s all new too and different…There are some political things. The songs are so different then what’s on the radio now. It’s either going to change things around or get kicked out. One or the other. I’m hoping that this here will, as a matter of fact I know it will, it'll kick ass...it's going to be a good one. I feel like that I’m still doing the same thing I always did, it just got lost in the shuffle because all this new stuff came in. There’s a lot of money behind these people…It’s just people trying to make money, that’s all it is and I can’t begrudge anybody for trying to make money. We're all trying to make a living and do the best we can.  I feel that the art part of it just went out the window...but every once in awhile you will hear a good song. I can’t say that it’s all bad, it’s not. It’s just most of it’s bad...It's kind of gotten way out of hand right now I think, but the solid foundation is still there.

The genesis of the poignant song, “Blood is Thicker Than Water,” one of the last songs he and Eddy wrote together-

BJS: We had it out one night-we have this big round table there in the kitchen. It's all wood made from a whiskey barrel. It was solid wood. We use to call it 'nights at the round table'- we got in there and got after it, got after each other you know… and we put it down on paper...and that was cool. We kind of aired all of our grievances out toward each other...We we're punching each other pretty hard.  

You come dancin’ in here with the devil’s daughter

Spillin’ beer and doin’ things you hadn’t oughter

You found her walkin’ the streets carryin’ a sack of quarters

Now she’s stealin’ rings off the hand of your dyin’ mother

If that witch don’t leave I believe I’m gonna’ have to help her

Can’t you see I’m down to the ground I can’t get no lower

I’ve seen you pukin’ up your guts and runnin’ with sluts

when you were married to my mother

now the powers that be are leadin’ you and me like two lambs to the slaughter

I need a friend, I’m your son and you’re always gonna’ be my father

The origins of his early songwriting success and the songs he brought to Waylon Jennings that became Jennings’ album, Honky Tonk Heroes, which spawned the ‘outlaw country’ sub-genre-

BJS: We're still doing it that way. Most of it comes from me. Waylon, he and I got in together and he was doing the same thing I was doing, but not exactly. He saw in me what he wanted and sure enough we did it.  He stuck his neck out for me. He really did. He knew that it had to be done and at that time the songs were bigger than me. I couldn't sing them as good as he could...Chet Atkins, I remember he was real mad about it, it wasn't going to make it, it was just a big flop, you can't do this, you can't do that and sure enough the first album went platinum...They called us outlaws but it was more outcasts…Most of it is poetry with a melody to it. 

On his suicide attempt and born-again faith-

BJS: “Old Chunk of Coal,” the first half of that I wrote on a hill. I tried to commit suicide. I tried to jump off a cliff and wound up on my knees asking God to forgive me. I was coming down a trail and it was dark. As I came down it…some kind of voice inside me, it wasn't an audible voice, was just like God speaking to me, but not in a language, telling me what to do and I got my family together and moved out of Nashville and moved down to Houston, Texas...I went cold turkey and quit all of the drugs and everything and I dropped down to about 150 pounds. I looked like something out of a concentration camp. I finally finished that song and the very day I finished it I could keep food down. It was amazing. It was a miracle. I finished that song and it’s a standard. It will be around as long as there is diamonds I imagine. He’s got His hand on me and it doesn’t mean I’m any better than anybody…I'm still a sinner like everybody else but the thing is when you get born again you get your slate wiped clean and you get to start all over and I did, but now I've come so far for so long...and I have slid back so many times, I was wondering if you could be born again-again. It don't necessarily make you any better than anybody else it just gives you another chance. That’s what it does and that's what it did with me…as a matter of fact I'm probably lower than most. King of sinners. It's a struggle. Especially in this day and time. A lot of people don't have a job. They’re out there looking for a job. It’s rough. I'm glad I’ve got a job. I am blessed. I was blessed the day I was born. I was blessed with this ability to write songs. 

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