You know Billy Joe Shaver's music, even if you're not familiar with the 74 year-old's name. Shaver's best-known for a song from his 1973 debut, Old Five-and-Dimers Like Me
, "I Been to Georgia On A Fast Train," a song that's been covered by everyone - Willie Nelson, Commander Cody, and Johnny Cash are just a handful. Shaver is also known for having shot a man in Lorena, Texas in 2007, and having nearly died from a heart attack on stage in 2001.
He has a new album due out this summer called Long in the Tooth
, and it's an all-killer, no-filler affair - ten songs that resonate with experience and hard-won lessons. For all his notoriety, it was a pleasure to simply discuss music and nothing but with Shaver by phone ahead of his headlining slot at the Westport Roots Festival this Saturday.
The Pitch: I imagine that, at this point, your touring has taken you everywhere.
Billy Joe Shaver:
Yeah, I've been all over the place. Matter of fact, I've been touring since I was a young man. Been a long time. But, then, I've kind of been bubbling under - not much recognition, so I think most folks think, "Well, he ain't doin' nothin'." So, I been playin' honky-tonks since I was kid, just about.
Are there still honky-tonks out there?
Oh, yeah - there still are. I call 'em "skull orchards." There are a few. They're not exactly like they used to be, but again, there's some that are. Some of them are just little holes-in-the-wall, but we're still playin' them, too. We just haven't graduated to the big stage thing. I don't know if or when it's gonna happen, but we got a new record comin' out, and it's the best one I ever done. I think it will help us get a little leg up.
There are a lot of folks out there, man, and it seems like they're just tryin' to make a livin' doin' it the best they can. We've been doin' it forever, likely because I been writin' songs. That was my main game. I still make money off that. But, I like to play, and it's worked out all right. It's okay. Can't complain.
Speaking of your new album, it just sounds amazing.
Yeah, it's a good one. I like it, 'cause hopefully, every song is different. There's a little different angle, different music - I like to keep it that way, because - in truth - I like to have that ... what do you call it? Diversity. Yeah. I like to have that, where everything ain't the same. I know I write great songs, but I try every time to put forth my best effort and try to make every one of 'em a hit, not just filler.
That's what I'd noticed - there's not a weak song on it.
I'm glad, and I'm real proud of that, man. I worked with some great guys: Ray Kennedy and Gary Nicholson, and I'm back with a good ol' buddy of mine on Lightinin' Rod Records, Logan Rogers. He's a real good friend.
How old are these songs on
Long in the Tooth? Did you write them for the record, or have some of them been kicking around for a while?
They're all new. As a matter of fact, a lot of 'em were written during the record. There's one that's real old, but I'd been holding it back for a long time, waitin' for the right train to put it on: "I'm in Love."
How long had you been holding it back?
I can't remember, but I wrote it when I wasn't with any publishing company, and I'm glad I wasn't. It's cool. Actually, when I wrote "Old Chunk of Coal," I wrote half of it. It took me - oh, I went cold turkey and moved to Houston, and it took me almost another year to finish it.
Do you have big touring plans for the record?
Well, we've been tourin' like crazy, but you don't know about it, because of all the big dogs out there. Well, not big dogs - just guys that are real popular. Guys that should be. We're just workin', goin' on through there like we always have. Everybody knows that we're good, and when we play these small places, they have to turn people away.
It's always seemed that you're a musician's musician, like Townes Van Zandt.
Oh, that's great. I love Townes. He's a songwriter's songwriter.
Or like a Jerry Jeff Walker - the people who know you, know you, but -
Yeah, some of them don't know me. But, then again, with my songwriting - Bob Dylan, Kris Kristofferson, Elvis Presley - just about everybody's recorded my songs, so they know me by them songs. So, I'm not really unknown.
It helped me a lot, because as I go to each town, there's always somebody doin' interviews and things, and some of these guys comin' up - they've got a hit song, but they don't really have much to talk about, so they don't have very long interviews. But I do, because there's a lot to talk about.
I've always been proud of my songwriting, but I'm proud of this other part, now. Songwriting's the cheapest psychiatrist there is. People out there know a lot of my songs, even if they don't know I wrote 'em - and that's cool. They've still tapped their foot to many of my tunes.
Billy Joe Shaver headlines the Westport Roots Festival this Saturday, May 24. Details can be found here.