A Prophet in Cowboy Boots: An Interview with Billy Joe Shaver
I recently had the opportunity to interview Billy Joe Shaver for The 9513 when he was in town promoting his new album, Everybody’s Brother. First off, I would like to thank Cassie and Logan over at Compadre Records for setting this up for us and a thanks is due to Billy Joe for taking time out of his busy schedule to sit down at Waterloo Icehouse before his performance to talk with me.
We started up a website, called The 9513, about a year ago and it’s about country music. A lot of our readers are fans and some of us are fans of yours and I just wanted to come here and talk with you about your music and career.
Well, I guess we’ll start out with your album, “Everybody’s Brother.” My grandpa was a professional wrestler way back when…
Really? Did he know Buddy Lee?
No, I don’t think he did.
Buddy Lee, he used to book us, his Buddy Lee Attractions and he was the one that started all them women wrestlers and he was a wrestler himself.
Naw, this was way back in the 20’s or 30’s probably. He said that he felt the calling from God for awhile, but kinda ignored him and one day he got in a car wreck and took that as a Jonah and the Whale experience and he became a preacher. It seems like you had the same kind of experience with your music.
You know what? It just overtook me. I don’t know what happened. It’s been along there in all my records if you’ll go back to the very first ones; they always had a couple of Jesus songs. And most of them I wrote when I was young. It’s funny how you write religous songs when your’e young, but you seem to be a little closer then, but I always leaned that way and I can’t get it out of my music. It won’t go out. And now, I let it turn loose real good. That’s about as good as I’m gonna do, probably.
It took awhile to get around to it. Why did it take so long for you to get around to recording a gospel album?
Because I wanted to get to a point where I was respected and not thinking too much about it, but I think God wanted me to get there, too, and go through all that hell I went through in order to be able to say it with conviction — what happened to me and how I got saved and why I’m here. I still don’t really know why I’m here, but I’m here, which is very unusual because it’s hard to be here when you go through near-death experiences. [looks over to his ex-wife sitting next to him]
So you’re saying she’s a near-death experience?
Yes she is, that’s Esmerelda, you can’t beat her when she’s sober, but you got to when she’s drunk.
You said you were waiting until you were respected. You got your first award back in 2001 or 2002…
Something like that.
Why do you think it took so long?
Mainly because Waylon Jennings, well… Waylon told me that if he ever caught me writing for an award that he’d shoot me between the eyes. And I said, “Well there ain’t no need in worrying about that ‘cuz I ain’t writin’ for no award.” And of course when they would offer him one, he’d tell them to stick up their ass and shove it. And I guess they assumed I would, too because I was runnin’ with him, but I wouldn’t have. I woulda took the durn thing, but they didn’t offer me none. I think maybe for that reason. And then, too, I stepped on a lot of toes, I just really did. Most of them are dead now.
Well a lot of these guys from the outlaw movement sound like they stepped on a lot of toes as well, but they were still getting their awards. Was it just because you weren’t singing or recording as much?
No, I was out there, we were hittin’ the skull orchards. It was small places. Places about this size, really, or even smaller. And me and my son, we played all the time. He loved to play, though. He loved to go out and I loved to travel, too.
He’s actually playing on “You Just Can’t Beat Jesus Christ,” right?
Right, he was just about 15.
Yeah, y’all recorded that one awhile ago.
A long time ago.
Did you ever put it on a record before now?
Did you just kinda keep that one in the vault?
Well, no, I tried to put it out on my last record, Real Deal, my last studio record, Real Deal, and they wouldn’t let me, uh, my own song. Sony Legacy put it out through some Sony Legacy deal where they put that cut out where it wasn’t no where near as good as this one. This one here, John Carter had the master, so John Carter went to work on it. It’s great. It’s better than that other one.
I haven’t heard the other one.
Well, it hasn’t got the words in it it hasn’t even got Billy Joe in it. It hasn’t got a lot of things in it. And he had the regular deal, it was no phony, either.
You also have “Get Thee Behind Me Satan” on the album and I saw the video for that one and it’s kinda charismatic.
John and I, both, were in that kinda shape and it actually hit John harder than it did me because he actually needed it. He was going through some stuff. I don’t know exactly what. I didn’t ask, but I knew he was because he prayed with me and John’s a good Christian and a good guy and he said, “This just woke me up,” he said, “it just helped me so much,” and he said he needed it. That’s great because it hit him so hard that he wanted to do it and he did two of them, which is great. I’ve always been a big fan of his and he’s always been a fan of mine. Well ol’ “Chunk of Coal” that would glue him to me.
He’s on there again in “Jesus Is the Only One Who Loves Us.” You got another good song in “When I Get My Wings.”
You know what, that’s an old song. That’s back, I bet I wrote that in the 60’s. It didn’t get published until later on, but that’s one of the first songs I wrote, commercially, I guess you’d say. When I knew that something would happen with it and I didn’t pull no punches, though. I let it go. As a matter of fact, Robert Duvall, who is a good friend of mine, when he got ahold of the record, he said, “I can’t get past that “When I Get My Wings,” I just want to hear it over and over and over.”
You were actually on a gospel album put out earlier this year by Aaron Watson, reading scriptures. One of my favorite tribute songs is on that album, “Barbed Wire Halo.”
Yeah, you know, I used to wear barbed wire around my hat.
Why did you stop wearing that?
It got to, when my hat got old, it got to stickin’ in my head. I didnt’ want to be Jesus that bad! But I did, I wore it around for a long time and then I started using leather and tying it up where it looked like barbed wire and then I quit.
What do you think about Dale Watson running around singing this song..
Dale is a good friend of mine and I don’t care what he does. Everything he does is right because he’s such a good guy.
Right after that incident, we saw him over at the Broken Spoke…
I know and he called me up… he called me up and says, “Can I do this one?” I said, “Dale, I didn’t say that. I said “Why you wanna do this?”” I didn’t say “Where you want it?” And he said, “Yeah, but it sounds better that way,” and I said, “Well Dale, if you feel good about doing it, go ahead and do it.” He said, “I already done it.” And we were playing in Waco and he got a bigger write up than I did. Of course, Waco’s that way.
In your biography, I read that your grandmother’s last name was Watson. Are either of these guys, Dale or Aaron, related?
They might be. It’s very likely they are. Now my grandmother was a Collins she was Irish. Tough one, too.
She raised you, so she must have been.
Yeah, she was. She raised me on her old age pension. She was that old when she took me in. Bless her heart, tough as a nail.
I just wanted to see what the first thing is that comes to mind when you hear “Bob That Head.”
Bob that head?
You know what that’s from? That’s the title of a Rascal Flatts’ song now, that they just put out on their last album.
I don’t blame ‘em. They know how to do that stuff.
Todd Snider wrote in his liner notes that you were a prophet. What do you think about that?
Well, I ain’t really never made much profit, but I can see where he’d say that. One of the famous writers in Nashville — he wrote speeches for presidents and senators and stuff, he’s well respected — and he wrote this thing about me that said, “Prophet in cowboy boots.” I went back to him and I said, “Man, it ain’t time for you to put that down. I’ll get in a lot of hot water in that camp.” Now it’s time, but then it wasn’t. Then I had too much pressure on me and I’m not sure. I am an apostle; I’ve seen Jesus Christ. That’s pretty good.
Where did you see him? When did you see him?
I saw him on my bed the night that I came in that I was about to die. I wound up going out into an illuminated — I don’t know what kind of light it was like neon or something — and he was white. White clothes and everything, except his eyes were like coals and I dared not look at him. He had his head like this, sitting on the end of my bed [resting on his hand, slowly nodding side to side]. Scarier than… and it was like He was saying, “How long are you gonna do this?” ‘Cause I was just about to die. And I got in my truck, that night it was real cloudy and dark and I drove out to a place that my son showed me. He used to go there with these spelunkers, you know, when they find caves and things. There was actually a cave underneath this cliff where the slaves had dug a hole in the cave so the water would flow over onto this plantation owner’s place. Up on top of the cliff, there’s a treacherous path to get up there, but on top of the cliff, there was this great big altar. You could tell it was just this altar. It was the durndest thing you’d ever seen. No one knew where it was at hardly, at that time, of course now it’s different. I got up there and I coulda swore I had my back to the altar, I coulda swore I jumped, but I didn’t. I found myself on my knees asking God to forgive me and I looked over there and my boots were off. Over there with a golden glow… it would take me all day to tell you what happened up there. God, when I came down that path, He gave me this song. I asked Him to help me put my life back together. I was worrying everybody and He gave me this song…
Old Chunk of Coal.
Well, half of it and it took me almost a year to write the other half. What I did was, I went straight home because He told me in a voice — not a voice, but you could hear it. He told me to get my family and then get out of Nashville and I had to because all these people, I couldn’t get well around them. My family didn’t really understand. They got real mad at me because we were all sunk in, you know, and I was supposed to be the next big deal there in Nashville. I just got everybody in a truck and we left. I remember walking by the garage and I had a lot of trophies I won in rodeos and stuff, and my wife looked over and saw all them trophies and she said, “Aren’t you gonna get those trophies?” and I said, “Naw, I don’t care about them no more. They ain’t part of me no more.” And the old man actually died. And he was good enough, bless his heart, he was tough, but he was good enough to die for me. He passed away and a young man came in, but it took me a long time. I went cold turkey and I tell you what. I dropped down to about 150 pounds, I looked like a refugee. I couldn’t keep nothing down. It went on and on and on. I could eat nothin’ but toast and A&W Diet Root Beer. That’s it. And that’s all I did and everyday, I’d get up and walk down to the store and get it. I couldn’t drive of course. My wife was just hanging in there with me, she was hangin’ in there with me. And I finally told her, I said, “I finished that song and I finished another one called “I’m In Love,” it’s ’cause I’m in love with Jesus.” It’s different, it’s not no homo thing, I mean, I love Jesus. When I finished that, the next morning, I said, “Fix me something to eat.” She said, “You’ll just throw it up,” and I said, “No I won’t” and sure enough, I kept it down. I kept it down and I started slowly getting my strength back and of all people, I thought I was really hid out, you know. I’d been there nearly a year over in Houston and you can’t drive in Houston if you’re messed up. There’s no way. And Willie calls up. Now I don’t know how he got my number and he says, “Billy, you need to come on and go with me and Emmylou. We’re doing a tour, we’ll stick you on in front of us and may not get the time to advertise you, but come on and play with us.” And Emmylou is a great friend, too. I come on and I brought my band, which was Eddie and a couple of other guys hanging around, you know. We’d play every day. And Eddie, I went down to the school to take him out of school and I told the guy, “Is it against the law to take kid and take him on the road? I mean he’s 13 years old. He said, “I’ll tell you what, Billy, if you’ll promise not to bring him back, you can take him.” So I took him and he started when he was 13 years old playing. It was big crowds, too, but Eddie never was scared of nothin’. He was so good, though, and he knew it.
So he was a laid back kinda guy?
Well, yeah, he was. He was laid back, but if he got mad, he got hard to deal with, but he very seldom got mad.
I guess we’ll try to wrap this up, but I wanted to throw a few names out and see what the first thing to come to your mind was.
Just say whatever the first thing is that comes to your mind.
Oh no, not the the bobbin’ heads again.
Haha, no no. How about Kinky Friedman?
He’s got a heart bigger than Texas. He really has.
What do you think about his campaign for governor?
He’ll win it this time. He’ll win the Democratic nomination and he’ll win.
Kris… most unselfish person I ever known.
Did he pick on you a lot? It sounded that way from your biography.
He used too. He don’t no more. I don’t pick on him, either. He used to be the Golden Gloves Champion. I mean, he’ll punch your lights out. You know, he helped me so much. He’d tell me when to shoot down and what not to shoot down. Very emphatically as a matter of fact. He loved it, too.
Townes Van Zandt
Townes Van Zandt was one of the best friends I ever had. I knew him back in the early 60’s and we played at a place in Houston called The Old Quarter. This guy named Rex — I think he still does — but I’d slide in there and play and nobody would pay much attention to me. But I’d get to playin, and I thought I was keepin’ up with him. He was a big hero, man, I just thought the world of Townes, but my wife just hated him because I’d lay a lot of stuff on him, you know. We’d get out and we’d have to call her to come get us and we’d be in a mess. I’m talkin’ about a real mess. He’d have like painted tears and shit, just a mess. And the last time she picked us up, she said, “This is the last damn time. I ain’t gonna pick you up no more,” and she said, “I’m gonna tell you Townes Van Zandt, if a person was to sell razor blades at the door at your show, they’d get rich.” She hated him so bad. She had cancer the last three years of her life and I was with her right there by the bed. She was terminal, she was about to die. The doctor came to me and told me, don’t look for her to live another day, especially another week. And I said, “I know,” it was real bad. I went to her, of course I was there with her all the time anyways, and I said, “Brenda, I had a dream last night. I had a dream that you went to heaven and Townes was there to meet you.” And she said, “I’m gonna live.” She lived another year, I swear she lived another year. I didn’t have to remind her of it, either. Ooh she hated him… but I layed a lot of stuff on him that wasn’t true. If I got in trouble, I’d lay it on him.
Waylon… Waylon stuck his neck out for me. He stuck his neck for everybody. Nobody knows how much he did for music. He stuck his neck out when he could have gone down, but he fought it all the way and he made believers out of them. He would not take no for an answer. He went in there with his own band and did my songs.
It sounds like you kinda forced him to do your songs…
Well, now, the first time I had to get him to listen to ‘em. After he listened to them, of course he knew what he had to do. Then I’d get there, I didn’t realize how lucky I was. I’d get in there an argue with him about melodies and shit and he’d say, “You know Billy, I love your songs, but I hate your f***ing guts. I can’t stand ‘em.” And I said, “Well, it’s kinda mutual here, buddy.” I coulda knocked myself out of the box on that, but I just kept going at him and everything all about melodies and things and it wound up being good.
Well, that’s all folks. If you haven’t seen it yet, give the video of “Get Thee Behind Me Satan,” from Everybody’s Brother a watch.
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