A Conversation with Billy Joe Shaver
Billy Joe Shaver returns to Tulsa’s Cain’s Ballroom – 1/13/12
By Julie Wenger Watson
Tulsa, Okla. – Texas musician Billy Joe Shaver and his band are riding into Oklahoma this month. They will play Grady’s 66 Pub in Yukon on Thursday the 12th and the Cain’s Ballroom on lucky Friday the 13th. Book Smart Tulsa will also host a book signing with Shaver at Dwelling Spaces at 5:30 pm prior to the Cain’s concert. Shaver will read excerpts from and sign copies of his book Honky Tonk Hero, which will be available for purchase. In anticipation of this Oklahoma run, I recently spoke with Shaver.
The historic Cain’s Ballroom and this Outlaw Country icon would seem to be a match made in roadhouse heaven, and indeed, Shaver has played this venue before. “Oh, yes, many times,” he told me. “I wrote a song years and years ago called ‘Oklahoma Wind’ and I wrote it at the back of the Cain’s Ballroom. Yeah, I sat down in my truck and wrote it.”
He laughed and went on about his previous visits to the Cain’s, “Yeah, I was kind of shook up when I saw the floor kind of moving, and I thought ‘what in the world is going on?’, and it was that they had springs in the (dance) floor. Everybody had played there..Hank Williams and everybody, I guess. Yes, it’s quite a thing for me. I always thought it was great.”
Like a classic Country Western song, Shaver’s life has had its share of passion, heartbreak, hard times, and a close brush or two with the law. There’s even religion and redemption, if you’re looking for it. It’s easy to imagine that Shaver has never had to search too far for songwriting material. His own life has been one long honky tonk tune.
Shaver’s 2007 Grammy-nominated release, Everybody’s Brother, was produced by John Carter Cash. His songs have been recorded by the likes of Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, Kris Kristofferson and even Elvis Presley. “Yeah, I’ve been around a while. It just seems like a lot of stuff happens to me. I think I was born to be a songwriter. I’ve been writing songs since I was a kid…I don’t know, I guess I’m lucky, well, I know I’m lucky that I’ve been blessed with that ‘cause I’ve always got a job,” Shaver reflected.
Shaver’s talents aren’t limited to music. He’s met with success as an author and actor, as well. The autobiographical Honky Tonk Hero was published in 2005. “Bobby Duvall got after me. Robert Duvall, the actor, you know,” Shaver commented by way of explanation. “He and his wife Luciana (Pedraza), they just kept telling me I ought to be writing a book, so I finally started writing one. I wish I’d waited a little longer ‘cause a lot of crazy stuff happened to me after that, and now everybody is after me to write another one. I think I might do it because it seems like it might be more exciting than the first one.” Shaver paused and laughed, “The first one is pretty good. It ain’t bad.”
Shaver’s association with actor/producer Duvall has led to Shaver’s appearance in several movies, including The Apostle (1999) and Secondhand Lions (2003). Duvall and his wife Luciana Pedraza even produced and directed a documentary about Shaver’s life, The Portrait of Billy Joe (2004). Says Shaver of his friend Duvall, “He’s a really down to earth good guy. Just a regular fella. I enjoy being around him. Everybody else does, too.”
Shaver believes his experience as a musician helps with his acting. “I’ve done a lot of acting. Sometimes you have to do a lot of acting to entertain and keep from getting people down, ‘cause that’s the last thing you want to do is get anybody down.” The transition to film was a natural one for him. “It worked out good for me ‘cause I just had to be myself, which was really easy…The first thing Bobby (Duvall) told me…he said, ‘Billy, every chance you get, don’t act.’ I said, ‘Okay. I can handle that.’”
Shaver’s days of hard living and years on the road have taken their toll on his health, although the 72 year-old Shaver shrugs it off with good humor. “Yeah, I’m doing all right. I ain’t having much trouble. I’ve had a few stints and things put in and stuff like that. I’ve had shoulders that went out on me. Ahh, you don’t want to hear all this, “ he laughs. “I’m wired together, but I’m still getting around all right. You could jiggle me out, I guess, and get more than what I’m worth. I’ve had a lot of screws and bolts and things in me. Both shoulders and broke my neck three times and a heart attack and a four-way bypass, good lord, and got a new knee put in, and that helps. Yeah, it’s really pert near everybody that is a performer that’s been around for a while has a lot of pain. It helps you with the blues songs.”
As a genre now mainstream enough to justify its own satellite radio station, it’s hard to remember a time when “outlaw country” was rebel music. However, when Shaver and his contemporaries first bucked the Nashville trend with their scruffy appearance and raw-edged honky tonk, they were the counterculture. “Back in the day when (Waylon Jennings’) Honky Tonk Heroes came out, we were kind of like ‘outcasts’ more than anything up there in Nashville,” Shaver recalled. “More of the ‘outcasts’ than the ‘outlaws’. The way it just went against the grain. They had a big machine. It was sequin suits and stuff…It wasn’t working that good, but they didn’t realize it. We came in there just being ourselves, wearing blue jeans and playing, and all the guys that had anything to do with it were from Texas, really.” He paused a minute, then continued, “It just caught a hold. It caught a hold and changed things around. In a good way, ‘cause now they’re building on that foundation. It’s good for them.”
-With permission from The Current.