Interview by Scott Preston
Photos by Jim McGuire
Billy Joe Shaver
with opener Dave Hawkins
Southgate House Revival (Sanctuary Room), 111 E 6th St, Newport, KY
8pm doors, 9pm show, $15 adv, $18 dos, Buy Tickets
Billy Joe Shaver’s finest songs prowl (“Hard To Be an Outlaw”) and punch (“Music City USA”) with welterweight fury. Evidence: The legendary outlaw’s seamless Long in the Tooth. Shaver’s first studio album in six years showcases a singular songwriter in absolutely peak form as he unearths his trademark truths around every corner (“Last Call for Alcohol,” “The Git Go”). “This is the best album I’ve ever done,” he says. “It’s just dangerously good. I expect it to change things and turn things around the way Honky Tonk Heroes did.”
Long in the Tooth, set for August 5, 2014 release on Lightning Rod Records through Thirty Tigers, charts his journey as an unrepentant outlaw. Accordingly, Shaver delivers the classic country fans expect but also brings all new sonic tricks this time around. “Each song is different with different beats and different kinds of music,” he says. “I even have one rap song. The titles are all so catchy like ‘It’s Hard to Be an Outlaw’ and ‘The Git Go.’ Those are pretty hard to beat. Songwriting is gut wrenching, but if you dig down and write real honest you’ll find something real great. I believe everybody should write. It’s the cheapest psychiatrist there is and, God knows, I still need one.”
Long in the Tooth spotlights all the highs, lows and in-betweens from Shaver’s storied career, an evolving narrative never short on color. “The record’s about me,” says Shaver, who turns 75 years old in August. “I’ve written a lot of great songs and I’m still writing great songs, but I felt neglected. I have been, actually. The reluctance to play old people’s music is as bad as it was to play young people’s music. I think it should level out where everyone can hear good art, but it seems like radio doesn’t play older people’s music. Man, it’s like throwing out the Mona Lisa. I don’t understand, but I’m just so proud of Long in the Tooth. This record will be a gigantic step.”
Cincy Groove: I heard that you compared your latest release to Waylon Jennings 1973 album Honky Tonk Heroes (which Billy Joe wrote almost on the songs on). Why do you make that comparison?
Billy Joe Shaver: It was the album that really turned everything around for me. It wasn’t just me releasing great albums that year, Kris Kristofferson released Silver Tongue Devil and Willie Nelson released Red Headed Stranger. Chet Atkins, who was the head of RCA at the time, really fought Waylon on the recording of Honky Tonk Heroes. Waylon stuck his neck out and brought his own band in to record the album. After the album went platinum, Chet changed his mind on his feelings toward Honky Tonk Heroes. He became a real good friend of mine after that, but didn’t have much use for me up until then. I feel the songs on my new record are just as good as the ones I wrote for Waylon back in 1973.
Cincy Groove: Do you have any of your songs on anyone else’s recent release?
Billy Joe Shaver: Willie Nelson just came out with Band of Brothers and has 2 of my songs on it, Hard To Be An Outlaw and Git Go. His album was out a week and a half and went number one. So if thats any indication I think mine will do pretty well.
Cincy Groove: How long have you been friends with Willie and how did you meet him?
Billy Joe Shaver: I was just a kid when I met him back in 1953. I was hitch hiking on a road on my way to Dallas. Willie was on his way to Dallas with a friend of his and they stopped and picked me up. Thats how I met Willie. He had a matchbook that he wrote “Good luck with your songs in Nashville” and gave it to me. I had no idea what he was talking about, because I didn’t think I would be going to Nashville. I stuck it in my pocket and I still have it somewhere around here. Willie has a way of pointing you in the right direction, he is just a very nice person. He always has a helping hand out for everybody. He is pretty much everybody’s brother.
Cincy Groove: Back when you started did you think you would be more successful as a songwriter for other people compared to your own records?
Billy Joe Shaver: I came up thinking I was going to be a great singer. I had no idea at the time that my song writing skills would be helpful to other people. The producers at the time twisted me around so much that I didn’t really get to sing the way I wanted to. I am on track now with my vocals so everything is alright. Songwriting became the main thing. I started to realize that after a while because it all starts with the song. I will do anything for the sake of the song.
Cincy Groove: What kind of environment do you like to be in to write your songs?
Billy Joe Shaver: It doesn’t matter, hell I could be hanging upside down and I will write a song. Whenever a song hits me is when I will write it. Sometimes I feel like I have so many songs that no one is going to hear, kind of like a warehouse full of furniture no one will sit on. I really worked hard to make sure this new record has my best songs. I really feel its going to turn everything over.
Cincy Groove: Who are some of your favorite songwriters?
Billy Joe Shaver: Bob Dylan recorded one of my songs back in the 1970’s. I still haven’t met him. The song was from Old Five and Dimers. On the album he put written by “An Old Folk Singer”. I was kind of upset about it for a while, but he probably didn’t know where it came from at the time. Bob did an interview a while after the release and mentioned my name when he found out who wrote it. He still is one of my favorite songwriters. There is a new guy, Jackson Taylor. He is young and wild, but writes great songs. He is a good fella and I love being around him. I also have a guitar player who plays with me who I think is really good, Jeremy Woodall. He is going to be doing something really special I think so I am going to hold onto him for as long as I can.
Cincy Groove: What do you like to do to relax when you are off the road?
Billy Joe Shaver: I really like movies, especially going to see them on the big screen. I’m not really one of those tv guys.
Cincy Groove: Have you been in any movies?
Billy Joe Shaver: I was in a movie with Robert Duvall The Apostle, where I played his best friend. When I came on the set Robert told me “Every chance you get, just don’t act”. They didn’t even put any make up on me, they just let me roll and it worked out pretty good. I was also in a few other movies with Robert, Secondhand Lions and The Wendell Baker Story.