If there is a true Honky Tonk Hero in American music, is it surely Billy Joe Shaver. The 72-year-old Texas native has lived a life as storied as the many songs he has penned. In 1973, Waylon Jennings released the album “Honky Tonk Heroes,” a collection of tunes mostly written by Shaver. That album helped put the Outlaw Country genre on the map and the music of Shaver and his compadres like Waylon, Willie Nelson and Kris Kristofferson on the charts. While the name Billy Joe Shaver might not be as well-known, his songs have been by covered by artists ranging from The Allman Brothers and Johnny Cash to Emmylou Harris, Elvis Presley, Alison Krauss and Bob Dylan. Classic songs like “Old Five and Dimers Like Me,” “I Been to Georgia on a Fast Train,” “Ride Me Down Easy” and “I’m Just an Old Chunk of Coal” are just a fraction of a catalog that by Shaver’s own estimation numbers around five hundred.
Ever the wordsmith, Shaver also released a memoir, 2005’s “Honky Tonk Hero,” a worthy read that plays out like one of his songs. In the last decade-plus, Shaver has survived much personal tragedy. Both his wife Brenda and mother died in 1999; within a year his 38-year-old son and longtime guitarist Eddy would be dead of a drug overdose. Yet Shaver seemingly coped with their deaths by doing what he has always done: He wrote. In 2007, Shaver released the Grammy nominated gospel album “Everybody’s Brother,” featuring duets with Johnny Cash, Kris Kristofferson and Tanya Tucker. A new generation is also becoming familiar with Shaver’s voice in the theme song for the Adult Swim Television show, “Squidbillies.”
Shaver performs at The Florida Theatre on Thursday, Feb. 16, along with Van Dyke Parks, in a benefit concert for the St. Johns Riverkeeper honoring the service of the man who has held that position since its inception: Neil Armingeon.
Ever the ramblin’ man, Billy Joe Shaver spoke to Folio Weekly from his hotel room at the tour stop of Yukon, Okla., where he talked about living on the open road, the power of poetry and divine intervention.
Folio Weekly: Judging by the stories in your songs and memoir, I guess it’s safe to say that when you were a kid, you didn’t spend all your free time hanging out at choir practice.
Billy Joe Shaver: No, I didn’t. [Laughs.] Yeah, I was pretty out-there. I’d run o. from home and stay gone two or three days and get the devil of a whippin’ when I came back home. I liked to roam a lot. I still do but I don’t have to run away no more. But that’s why music is so great. I wouldn’t be able to afford to do this [touring] without music and, man, I love to travel. But there you go — I got blessed all over the place.
F.W.: What are they putting in the water out there in Texas that seems to grow all of these great songwriters?
B.J.S.: I’ll tell you what — they are all from there. If it wasn’t for Texans, I don’t think I’d even be here, because Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson, Guy Clark and Kris Kristofferson and all of those guys have helped me quite a bit. Which of course encourages you when you have such great people from your own home state. And good Lord, there’s so many of ’em.
F.W.: You were part of a group of singer-songwriters that really put Nashville back in blue jeans and focused on the songs. When you were starting out, did you ever doubt that your music would be heard?
B.J.S.: Well, no, and mainly because the drive and the stubbornness and hard-headedness of guys like Waylon and Ray Wylie Hubbard — people that just don’t give up. And you know you have to keep going on. You can’t just be a slacker. But I did my part, too! [Laughs.]
F.W.: In your memoir, you wrote, “To me, the song is poetry. That’s all it is. It’s the way I describe the world around me, and make sense of it.” How old were you when you first started making sense of the world through your writing?
B.J.S.: When I was eight years old, I started writing. It was songs, but was really more like poetry. But poets are so great. I can’t categorize myself as a “poet.”
F.W.: Who are some of your favorite poets?
B.J.S.: Robert Service and things like “The Cremation of Sam McGee.” He was a guy that went to Alaska and found gold and struck it rich. And while he was up there, he wrote all of these poems and they’re all true. Service [1874-1958] went through some rough-ass times, but he said a great thing and it’s always been with me and I’ve always loved it. He had a handful of money and went down to San Francisco and blew it all on whores, just to see if he could come back and make it again. And he said, “It’s not the finding the gold, it’s the looking for it.” And we’re all looking for that one precious thing and when we get done finding it, we go on looking for another. Man, he was a cool dude. I also loved what Kahlil Gibran was saying, although I could never say it so eloquently. And of course, I’d surely thrown in Jimmie Rodgers, Hank Williams and Ernest Tubb.
F.W.: You’ve been pretty bulletproof in surviving the honky-tonk lifestyle. How much of that resilience do you attribute to combat wisdom and how much do you chalk up to divine intervention?
B.J.S.: Well, I call divine intervention “dirty old luck.” I believe luck is the will of God. I’m a born-again Christian and you get your slate wiped clean. But the thing is, you get to start all over again, but if you don’t watch it, you’ll do the same crazy-ass things you did before! You get back with your same wild, old friends and pretty soon, you’ll have to get “born again,” again and again and again! [Laughs.]