Billy Joe Shaver in L.A.: A conversation
While three of members of country music royalty -- Emmylou Harris, Vince Gill and Dwight Yoakam -- gathered Thursday night at the shiny new 2,000-seat Club Nokia for a tony dinner and concert fundraiser benefiting the Country Music Hall of Fame, one of country’s under-sung heroes, Texas singer and songwriter Billy Joe Shaver, held court a few blocks away in decidedly rootsier surroundings.
Shaver, one of the kingpins of of the Texas outlaw movement that took off in the ‘70s, stopped in on his way to Saturday’s Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival in San Francisco for a bristlingly energetic set at the tiny Redwood Bar & Grill downtown, which is developing a lively roots and alternative music scene.
A few dozen alt-country aficionados jammed the Redwood to check in on the man who wrote “Georgia on a Fast Train,” "Old Chunk of Coal" and two numbers that became unofficial theme songs of the Waylon Jennings-Willie Nelson-led outlaw camp, “Honky Tonk Heroes” and “Old Five and Dimers (Like Me).”
Shaver’s a true original, writing songs that cut straight to the heart of whatever subject he tackles. He figures he’s written more than 500 songs, although never got the acclaim or commercial success that fellow Lone Star State musicians Nelson, Jennings and Kris Kristofferson found. One of Jennings’ most highly regarded albums, “Honky Tonk Heroes” from 1973, consisted of nothing but Shaver songs.
“It’s like a game of cards,” Shaver told me in a backroom at the Redwood about an hour before his performance. “You get dealt a hand, and sometimes all the right cards aren’t there.”
He was circumspect rather than bitter, jealous or sad about how his career has unfolded.
“There are lots of reasons I could be depressed,” he said. “I’ve broken my neck three times, I had a heart attack, I’ve broken my shoulder.” He also lost two fingers on his right hand when he was in his early 20s, and earlier this decade suffered the loss of his son, guitarist and songwriter Eddy, to a heroin overdose, his wife to cancer, his mother and mother-in-law within the space of about a year.
“But depression is a nasty thing,” he said. “When it gets you, you don’t even want to get out of bed. So I just stay happy.” He’s gone through his bouts, and said there were times he had to stop writing songs because he didn’t like the place that depression took him to. “I don’t want to hurt anybody, so I just had to take a break.”
He looks at the ups and downs of his life with a wry sense of humor: “I’ve been down the road, but the road’s been down me too.”
No less than Bob Dylan saluted Shaver on his latest album, “Together Through Life,” in the song “I Feel a Change Comin’ On,” which includes the line, “I'm listening to Billy Joe Shaver, and I'm reading James Joyce/Some people they tell me I've got the blood of the land in my voice."
Shaver displays plenty respect for Dylan: When a fan brought up his name and said, “He’s no Billy Joe Shaver,” the amiable Texan shot back, “Aww, Dylan is great.”
Backstage he told me about his earliest exposure to Dylan’s music in the ‘60s, which he said almost put him off songwriting altogether.
“I had a bunch of his albums, and after I listened to those, I thought, ‘Wow -- what’s left to say?’ I had to throw them in the river, ‘cuz if I didn’t, I would have become a fan. And if I became a fan, it’d be all over.”
He did, however, have one bone to pick with the Bard of Hibbing, Minn. “When he was on tour a long time ago, he played ‘Old Five and Dimers,’ and he introduced it as an old folk song. I think he’d learned it from Waylon, and probably just did think it was an old folk song. But that always annoyed me.”
He’s working on a new album, even though he expressed some frustration over the lack of response to some of his recent releases, despite containing songs on a par with many of his now-considered modern country classics. “It’s like if you were making beautiful chairs and somebody just keeps stashing them away in a furniture warehouse. But I guess I’ll make at least one more.”
-- Randy Lewis
Photo credit: Mike Faneuff