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New Breed
A Conversation With Billy Joe Shaver
Samuel Barker
August 2, 2001

Let me begin this interview by telling you how enjoyable this was, I've respected Billy Joe Shaver for a long time and his music has been a part of my life for more time than I ever knew. He's questionably the best songwriter this earth has seen in the past 30 years and more than likely ever. Filling his songs with everyday situations and complete honesty has given Shaver the ability to appeal to everyone who hears his music. I was fortunate enough to have a phone conversation with Billy Joe Shaver. You are about to read everything as it was said, and I mean everything, from the conversation about my family to the conversation about the music. You can learn a lot about a person by seeing what they say when the they're not answering questions about the same old stuff. I hope you see something here and learn something here that you won't find somewhere else. I hope you enjoy this interview.

Billy Joe

Samuel Barker: I'm having to do this interview from my home, so if a two year-old comes in and starts singing to us, don't be alarmed.

Billy Joe Shaver: That'd be wonderful. I have a couple of pit bulls, they run in and out, but I have the door closed so they won't bother me....They have the attention span of about a four or five year-old.

Samuel: Yeah, my daughter is that way, she'll run in and out of anywhere.

Billy Joe: Yeah, but they stay that way though, no matter how old they get they stay about a four or five year-old. But they do love you, real loyal.

Samuel: Well, my daughter still runs to whoever will give her ice cream.

Billy Joe: Yeah. Well, that's only natural. (laughs) Is that all the children you have?

Samuel: No, I have my daughter and I have a son who just turned one.

Billy joe: No kidding? Man, you got you a good bunch going there.

Samuel: Yeah, we got our set so we're happy.

Billy Joe: You got your work cut out for you, but it's the most rewarding job in the world.

Samuel: It's nice, but our boy is everywhere, he gets into anything, and our daughter is more loving, she's happy sitting by you and hugging you, but the boy wants no part of it.

Billy Joe: It sure is fun though isn't it?

Samuel: It is, it's a fun to watch them.

Billy Joe: I notice still, even in this day in time, that if there's a kid in the room and there's a TV, people don't just come in and start watching the TV, they watch the kid. (laughs) everyone watches the kid.

Samuel: Yeah, I see that too. They're fun to watch, and they grow up so fast.

Billy Joe: They grow as fast as a weed.

Samuel: Our boy is almost as big as our daughter and she's a year and half older than him.

Billy Joe: Well, the boys will get bigger, and of course, the girls are real smart.

Samuel: I can see that too.....Is everything going good with you this evening? I keep talking about my family and haven't really asked how you were.

Billy Joe: I'm fine. I'm just fine. Thanks for calling.

Samuel: Thanks for answering. I've really been wanting to talk to you for a while. Your music has been there most of my life and this is great to be able to talk to you about it.

Billy Joe: Thank you, you could do worse, I guess.

Samuel: I enjoy your music a lot. It was something always around the house. It was only one record, because you didn't do much until I got older.

Billy Joe: Well, it all starts with one. I wasn't trying to influence anybody, I was just doing the best I could with what God gave me.

Samuel: Well, I know you wrote for a lot of people, was it ever hard to have someone else sing your songs or were you happy writing?

Billy Joe: I've always been happy writing, that other thing (performing), the main reason I stayed in that was because there wasn't enough recognition of my songs, I don't think. No one was recording them, well not no one, but not enough people were recording them, so I just recorded them myself (laughs). I enjoyed doing it when my son was alive, he passed away this year. It gave him something to do, even though he had offers to do other things because he was a world class guitar player. But he stayed with me. He tried to stay with me until I got a little more recognition and a little more of a pat on the back. I was never in it for the money, if I had been I would have written silly songs. So, the quality will always be there, his quality playing was fine. I sure do miss him, but that's just the way things go. Our music was really quality music and we kept it that way. That's why it'll be remembered.

Samuel: Do you think it helped make the music flow better because you and Eddy were son and father?

Billy Joe: Yeah, there was a connection there where I never had to worry about where he was going, and he never had to worry about where I was going, on stage especially. And in the studio he was a real wiz. He could get something so fast and so good that people wouldn't let him do it again. And he'd be like 'come on man, I can do it better.' Sometimes they'd let him but most times they wouldn't. Some producers don't think you can do it, they reach a point where they think it's the best it is and that's that. But I've seen them say that many times and then have him go out there and play one that blew the other one away.

Samuel: You can hear on the new album how strong his guitar playing was.

Billy Joe: Yeah, we didn't do much of that album over, it's mostly first takes.

Samuel: So how has the new album been doing?

Billy Joe: From what I hear it's selling real well, where it is in charts and things, I don't know, I've been into that. I was kinda interested in it a little bit when it was up around #3, I don't know, I think it went the other way it went down to #7 and the I said I didn't need to be worrying myself about that anymore, I never did before.

Samuel: I noticed when we saw you Friday that there were a lot of people singing along to the new songs, is that fun to see?

Billy Joe: That lets you know that the album is selling.

Billy Joe

Samuel: So how's the tour been going?

Billy Joe: We've been doing great. We've been standing on vases everywhere we go and pretty much filling all the places up. Not having trouble at all.

Samuel: Great. So what led to you getting Jessie Taylor playing with you?

Billy Joe: Jessie has been a friend of mine for years. He and I toured together way back in the 80's. Just me and him. We'd go out there and play. It was around the time that Eddy was playing lead guitar with Dwight Yoakum. Eddy played with him for a couple of years when he first came out. He was Dwight's first guitar player out on the road.

Samuel: Yeah, I remember seeing Jessie with Joe Ely about 8 months ago, and then I saw him with you in April at Cactus.

Billy Joe: Yeah, Joe and a couple others are doing the Flatlanders. I think they wanted to do that. I don't think it included Jessie, so he was loose. Here he came and it worked out perfectly for everyone. I love Joe Ely though, I think the world of him.

Samuel: Yeah, I keep hearing that a lot of the Texas artists are pretty close.

Billy Joe: Most all of them are.

Samuel: That's good to see, I know a lot places are bad. Like in Nashville....

Billy Joe: (laughs) In old Nashville you gotta watch your back.

Samuel: Yeah, everyone is looking to get over on you.

Billy Joe: They'll cut your strings there. One time Eddy and I left our guitars on stage and when we went up there to play, Eddy started to play and all six of this guitar strings broke..This is not an accident.

Samuel: That's a great story, I couldn't imagine that at all.

Billy Joe: (laughing) It was so funny, we just laughed. We just strung it back up again and went. It was funny though, you couldn't help but laugh.

Samuel: Was it difficult in the older days to find someone to hook up with and write for?

Billy Joe: Well, actually, I need really didn't write FOR anyone. If it got played, it was up to someone else or if they wanted to record it, they knew where to find my songs.

Samuel: So you were never really a contracted songwriter?

Billy Joe: Yeah, I was a contracted song writer several times. I worked for ATV, well, I worked for Bobby Bare, then ATV bought my catalog and the Beatles catalog. I don't why they bought mine, but anyway, they bought mine and I worked for them several years. Micheal Jackson then bought the ATV catalog and he bought mine too, I don't know why he bought mine, still again. And now I see Paul McCartney is buying it back and I guess mine too. I don't know what's going on. I don't know, maybe God likes a little country too.

Samuel: You never know.

Billy Joe: That's an old Tom T. Hall line.

Samuel: Cool. I know when I saw you at the Aerial opening for Delbert McClinton things were a bit stiff, is it harder to do those gigs?

Billy Joe: Yeah, because I'm in such awe of him. Playing in front of him was fun. I don't go out there and do anything special though, just what a front man is supposed to do.

Samuel: Right, but everytime we've ever seen you, like at Dan Electro's, you've been more at ease there.

Billy Joe: Oh, well, what happened was that a guy came to interview me before the show that I didn't know about, and he asked me some really crazy questions. And for the first time in a long time I got emotionally twisted around a little bit and it showed. I was just ready to get out of there. It was strange and I was really sorry about it, but those things happen, even if it's just once in a lifetime, it happens.

Samuel: It wasn't that you played bad, you just seemed disconnected.

Billy Joe: I was.

Samuel: It's probably a bit easier in a more intimate place than up on that stage.

Billy Joe: Yeah, I'd say that, but you just came at a weird time. Normally nothing ever phases me. Of course, I had a lot to get over. So, if I stumbled once there, I guess I deserve to stumble once.

Samuel: No one is perfect every night.

Billy Joe: Yeah, on that particular night, it was a rough one. I've never had that one that rough.

Samuel: After Eddy passed on, was there ever a time when you weren't sure if you wanted to tour anymore?

Billy Joe: Oh yeah, of course. It went through my mind, but then I thought that this was the last album we did together and I wanted to make sure everyone heard the songs on it, because they are important.

Samuel: Well, I'm glad you decided to do it. I brought my daughter to see you at Cactus when you played.

Billy Joe: Well, thanks you.

Samuel: After I heard the new songs that day, I went and bought the new album, it was something I needed to get. I just wanted you to know that the music is that meaningful, that I didn't just wait to bum it off your record label. (I did get another copy with the press kit, thanks Jill, you can never have too many copies of a great record)

Billy Joe: Well, they'd give you one.

Samuel: Yeah, but if I see someone who is working hard and has great songs, I'll buy something from them to help them out.

Billy Joe: Yeah, I do that myself. When I go out to see someone I usually pay. Then I try to hide somewhere so someone doesn't get in my ear and start talking.

Samuel: On the new record I saw that Ken Coomer and Jay Bennett of Wilco played on it, were you two fans of theirs?

Billy Joe: Yeah, I'm a fan of theirs, but the record company actually wanted them on it. They wanted to play on it, and they asked the record label. (laughing) They just sorta pushed their way in.

Samuel: Are there a lot of younger artists/bands you really enjoy?

Billy Joe: I like Todd Snyder, he's a songwritter of course. I also like the Waddell Brothers, out of Austin, David Waddell and Leeland Waddell. They actually used to be my drummer and bass man. They have a band and they play down at a place called the Cabaret every Wednesday night. They have come good songs. David plays bass and Leeland plays drums. It's a little place that's hard to find, right off of 51st street. You turn like your going down 51st but then you turn onto Cameron and it's there right before you know it. It's a rough little place, well, I wouldn't say "rough" but it's a place like where we usually play(laughs). Really nice folks.

Samuel: I'm always looking for new people to see.

Billy Joe: Yeah, you should go see them. They got some funny songs and some good songs. They played with me for years and years, we were like brothers.

Samuel: Well, it's good to see they're moving on and doing something. I was laughing about that Friday when you were saying that you guys were a stepping stone band.

Billy Joe: (laughs) Well, they played with....ummm....I can't think of his name right now, some guy over in Europe. He got real big.

Samuel: Billy Bragg maybe?

Billy Joe: No, I know Billy. I like him too, he's great. Hmmm....If you go down and ask David, he can tell you. Sometimes I hit a blank.

Billy Joe

Samuel: It's okay, I sometimes do the same thing. I get stuck. It even happens when I interview some people, I just blank out.

Billy joe: (laughs)

Samuel: In a lot of your songs you write first hand life experiences, has it ever been hard to be so honest?

Billy Joe: I found to be....my grandmother told me that a long time ago, that honesty is the best policy. In songwriting I've found that be a very distinguishing thing that set me apart from others.....dangerously honest. I'm not scared.

Samuel: Do you think that helped keep you sane after all these years in the music business?

Billy Joe: I think so, it's the cheapest psychiatrist there is, writing songs. Waylon said it too, I'm half crazy and it keeps me from going insane. Something like that.

Samuel: What were some of the first things that made you really want to play music and write songs?

Billy Joe: When I was just a kid, the first music I heard, that's what I wanted to do. We didn't have a radio, my grandmother raised me and I wanted to....I'd listen to bits and pieces of songs and I'd make up the rest. I'd just sing back when I was five or six. We lived across the railroad tracks from a black settlement, cottonpickers. I'd go over there and listen to them play and I got a real big influence from them. Then, later on, we got a radio and I'd listen to the Grand Ole Opry or whatever was going on with the radio. I'd listen to pieces and parts and then I got to the point where I'd make up my own songs and people liked them. I sold papers on the corners there in Corsicana, Texas when I was about ten years-old. I'd sing and sell papers. I didn't have any instruments.

Samuel: What age were you when you started playing guitar?

Billy Joe: You know, I didn't play guitar worth a darn until about....I still don't play it worth a darn. I just play enough to get by. My grandmother bought me a guitar when I was about eleven years old, it was a Gene Autry guitar. I think she paid about eleven dollars for it. You could buy them at Sears And Roebuck or somewhere. I put it up and kept it for a long time. I went back and forth to it, but I didn't get too serious about it, professionally, until I was about 30.

Samuel: So you had already been going a while.

Billy Joe: Well, I had been working, I had a family. I cowboyed, I did everything, and it's good that I did because I learned a lot of stuff when I went to really seriously write. I wrote poetry and stuff at this time, but you couldn't let anyone see that or they'd think you were a sissy. I really did start writing, professionally, I say professionally, but when I really bared down and decided that this is what I'm going to do to make my living and I was going to be serious with it, it was a gift God gave me that I fell back on. Because I cut my fingers off working at the saw mill, I broke my back, I've had three back operations, I've had all kinds of stuff happen to me. I fell back on the music, it's a good thing I did. It took a lot to get me here. But I knew what I was talking about when I wrote, so that helped quite a bit.

Samuel: So you feel that by taking your licks coming up helped you be more prepared?

Billy Joe: Yeah, and I knew more from the ground up about what was going on, it wasn't all from books and things, not that there's anything wrong with that. But I knew first hand what I was talking about.

Samuel: So that helped with the whole turth factor.

Billy Joe: Yeah, it does. You know exactly how to say it, or I do.

Samuel: Well, that's what I've always loved about your music, you didn't try to squeeze in a lot of big words to make yourself look important, it was real life.

Billy Joe: I always thought simplicity don't need to be greased, it just slides right in there. If the simplest people on Earth can get what you're saying, surely the smarter ones can. And if you say as much as you can in as few words and mean exactly what you want, you've done something. That's my cup of tea. I'll get out there sometimes and have some fun with it and do some fiction things, but I know where my heart is.

Samuel: Has it been surprising to you at all that a lot of your audiences are now getting younger?

Billy Joe: Yeah, somewhat. A lot of those are grandchildren and children of people who used to come to my shows. A lot of that is going on, and a lot of the just like it. I'm glad they do.

Samuel Barker is Senior Editor. Contact him at suma@rockzone.com.

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