He still limps a little after a recent knee replacement, his second, and inner ear problems are giving him trouble with his balance. One shoulder is held together with screws, and the other needs work. Stents have been holding key arteries open since a 2001 heart attack onstage. Yet Billy Joe Shaver — widely considered one of the best songwriters alive, and a pillar of the ‘70s country outlaw movement that turned Nashville upside down — recently put out what is arguably the strongest album of his star-crossed career. What’s more, he turned 75 years old just 11 days after Long in the Tooth’s August release.
“I’m still enjoying what I do,” Shaver volunteers. We’re sitting in a diner next door to Austin’s Waterloo Records, where Billy Joe is about to give an in-store performance. Long in the Tooth, with its often-self-mocking meditations on growing old but still not fitting in, is his first album in six years. The intervening years have not been uneventful; in 2007, he shot Billy Bryant Coker in the face outside of Papa Joe’s Saloon in Lorena, Texas, just south of his hometown of Waco. Shaver claimed Coker was acting unseemly toward his former wife and had threatened him with a knife. Ultimately, he was acquitted of aggravated assault.
“I didn’t wanna write anything all the time I was waiting trial, because I was afraid bitterness would creep in,” Shaver says. After the 2007 shootout was adjudicated in 2010 and Billy Joe was found to have acted in self-defense, he wrote “Wacko from Waco.” The song pokes a little fun at Shaver and tells what he calls “the true story” of the incident, which he claims didn’t come out during the trial.
Shaver’s forte has always been simply explicating complex themes. He was born in Corsicana, Texas, a town known for its mail-order fruitcakes, and raised mostly by his grandmother while his mom waitressed at a honky-tonk in nearby Waco. He began writing when he was about eight, and by the late ‘60s had found his way to Nashville, where he scuffled and wrote while drinking and drugging prolifically. His break came in 1973, when Waylon Jennings released Honky Tonk Heroes, a cornerstone of the burgeoning outlaw movement; all but one of its songs written by Shaver.
Billy Joe’s own debut, Old Five and Dimers Like Me, produced by Kristofferson, came out the same year but didn’t sell nearly as well as Waylon’s album; Shaver was, in a word, unmanageable, and the Nashville music business didn’t take well to that. Nor did it help that his first four albums came out on Monument and Capricorn, labels that shut down soon after releasing them. Yet even without song-pluggers pushing his work — an absolute necessity in Nashville — established artists from Bobby Bare to Johnny Cash to Elvis recorded Shaver’s material through the ‘70s and into the early ‘80s. John Anderson took “I’m Just an Old Chunk of Coal (But I’m Gonna Be a Diamond Someday)” into the country Top 10 in 1981. Tunes like “Ride Me Down Easy,” “I Been to Georgia on a Fast Train,” “I Couldn’t Be Me Without You” and “You Asked Me To” have become barroom staples, and Shaver has been interpreted by non-country artists as diverse as Bob Dylan and the Allman Brothers, Carol Channing and Tom Jones.
After taking time off for most of the ‘80s, Shaver continued cutting albums on a variety of small labels. The raucous Tramp on Your Street, released in 1993 with his son Eddy Shaver on incendiary electric guitar, yielded “Live Forever.” The song, a Christian testimonial to everlasting life that co-written by the two Shavers, has become one of Billy Joe’s most oft-covered songs. The 1998 Victory (his mother’s name) was the polar opposite, with just Billy Joe and Eddy on acoustic guitars for an austere, spiritually-directed set. The albums of the last 15 years haven’t necessarily been as consistent, but nearly all of them have contained a song or two (“Try and Try Again,” “Freedom’s Child,” “When Fallen Angels Fly”) that should become standards.
Shaver’s personal life has been just as erratic. He married his Waco sweetheart Brenda Tindell three times and divorced her twice; they were still married when she died of cancer in 1999, the same year his mother passed away. The next year, Eddy died of a heroin overdose. The night after each of those three deaths Billy Joe played his scheduled gig. He didn’t know what else to do, and simply felt he shouldn’t cancel. After Tindell died, Shaver married Wanda Lynn Canady three times, and divorced her three times;. The two are currently platonic roommates, with Wanda Lynn watching the house while he’s on the road, which he is as much as possible. (“I guess moving’s about the closest thing to being free”).
For Long in the Tooth, Shaver wound up writing “four or five” of the songs in the studio. But he also pulled out a pair (“I’m in Love” and “Last Call for Alcohol”) that go back about 35 years, to the time he was born again and swore to give up his hellacious boozing and drugging. He’s had numerous slips since then, but still embraces his rugged brand of Christianity. And like a modern-day Jimmie Rodgers, he still writes unsparingly about his rough and rowdy ways. The album opens with “Hard to be an Outlaw,” a duet with Willie Nelson, who recorded both that song and this album’s “The Git Go” on his latest outing Band of Brothers. “Long in the Tooth,” which centers around Shaver’s hoarse, rap-like delivery, salutes his actor friend Paul Gleason, who died before it was finished — but could just as easily be about Shaver himself. So could the loose, ambling “Music City USA,” though he says it was written for Kris Kristofferson. The mournful “I’ll Love You as Much as I Can” details Shaver’s own inadequacies, (“I’ve always loved a little too much/There’s not much of me left for you”) while “Sunbeam Special” fondly recalls childhood pleasure. “[I] cut the best songs I had and tried for a different sound with each one; I picked songs I thought clashed with each other. I wanted something good for an old guy. I wanted to be sure everyone saw me as I am right now.” Long in the Tooth not only shot up the country charts upon release, but made an impressive debut on the pop charts as well — his first chart appearance since the ’70s.
“The timing is perfect,” declares Shaver. “Country music has gotten real bubblegum-y, and it’s time for things to be turned over again.” Billy Joe Shaver is an expert at “turning things over,” and he really does seem to enjoy it.