Billy Joe Shaver: 36 Years Ago
From August of 1976, an article published by Buddy Magazine and written by Bill Conrad.
SHAVER’S WINGS – Billy Joe Shaver writes Western Music and may be the new king of the picker poets.
Country and Western have split up; seems Country is content in Music City, hanging around the Grand Ole Opry, and Western prefers flirting with Folk and Rock. Ever since Nashville Skyline and Sweetheart of the Rodeo, the famous couple has been having their differences. Also common knowledge: County has never appreciated the attention Western and its home state, Texas, has received in cowboy-and-Indian movies.
What really burns both Country and Western is the handle that disc jockeys and record people have attached to the latest music out of Texas: “Progressive Country.” The educated listener already knows that Texas ain’t nothin’ but progressive, and practically a country in and of itself.
The latest musical correspondent from Texas is mostly a writer of words that sound real good as song lyrics. He hails from Corsicana, home of legendary Country & Western singer Lefty Frizzell and the best damn fruitcakes this side of Macon, Georgia. Billy Joe Shaver recently recorded his second Texas Music album, When I Get My Wings, in Macon for Capricorn Records.
Adding to the Dicky Betts/Allman Brothers influence is the producer-genius, Bob Johnston, a man definitely drawn to the lyric side of music. You might have noticed his name on albums by Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, and Michael Murphey (a Texan). In that trio of musicians, Billy Joe might stick out like Joe Buck in Manhattan, but logic is often lost in show business. For instance, three years ago, Waylon Jennings recorded nine Shaver songs on Honky Tonk Heroes, which marked Waylon’s break with Chet Atkins as producer and became the album that launched the Outlaw movement in Country Music.
Billy Joe’s only been climbing onto stages and singing publicly since Willie’s first Picnic (Dripping Springs, Texas-1972.) As an entertainer, he’s got some more climbing and vocalizing to do before he’s a complete package. Lately, he’s eager to get at it, calls his new album When I Get My Wings, and in the title song, declares that when he gets them, he’s “gonna fly away singing.”
Kris Kristofferson from Brownsville, Texas, wasn’t looking for new talent one early A.M. morning he met Billy Joe and heard him sing “Good Christian Soldiers.” Before noon of the same day, it was added to Kris’s Silver Tongued Devil album and was the first song Kris recorded that he had not written. A big fan of lyrics, Kris loves Billy Joe’s no-nonsense “real images you can’t predict. You don’t know where they come from, and God knows, looking at Billy Joe, you wouldn’t think he was thinking all these things.”
Kris took Billy Joe and his early compositions to Monument Records in ‘73 and walked away with a contract to produce Shaver’s first recorded album, Old Five and Dimers Like Me which contained all of the songs chosen by Waylon for Honky Tonk Heroes. Kristofferson’s production was basic and sparse which worked best for Shaver’s young voice. The new Bob Johnston production demonstrates how much the 37-year-old Texan matured over the past three years. Two songs, “Ride Me Down Easy” and “Ain’t No God In Mexico” have been lifted from the first disc and given that Johnston/Macon energy.
Texans enjoy delivering friendly arrogance with the occasional sucker punch. When I Get My Wings comes out swinging with some trademark Macon-style electric slide. On “Texas Up Here Tennessee,” the first words out of Billy Joe set the geography and the tone of the album: “I come up here from Waco on a U-Haul-It freight/ In my mind, Tennessee was just another state to me/ Now I weren’t trying to get into, I’m just swinging on your gate/ I’m about to go under from this hurry-up-and-wait.”
Before this reads too much like an indictment of the music industry, a few words in defense of any town that invites cowboy singers looking to get rich and famous: show business is a necessary evil, set up to package and promote the arts. Wherever it opens shop, there follow the sharks who feed on all the little fishes seeking fame and fortune. The innocents, who school in Music City, come carrying their six-string acoustics and reel-to-reel demo tapes. Hayseeds and cowboys somehow always figure they will get a fair shake in a town full of like-minded pickers and poets. On Music Row, they built a hall of fame and filled it with used guitars, wigs, and boots left behind since Hank Williams sold his first disc of three-minute magic. Nashville’s not a bad town, if you’re recording and making a few bucks on some honky-tonk stage. There are always openings for waiters and waitresses and mailroom apprentices.
Billy Joe writes he’s going under, but he sings it like he will remain afloat long enough to see how the record sells. The album cover, front and back—just look at it: ever see a grin like that on a man who’s going under? Over the edge maybe, but not under. Kristofferson described Billy Joe as looking like “a spooked steer, or somebody who just got thrown off one.”
When asked how he comes up with his tidy little song stories, Bill Joe answered, “They just roll around in my head, and when they come out, I can do ‘em in about five minutes.” He tried to hide from musical influence, but knows it’s everywhere he turns. He writes about life on the road like Chaucer, about faithless women like the men who penned Genesis, and about God and the Devil like a dustbowl Pentecostal.
Just yesterday, he was hitchhiking from Nashville to Ft. Worth where he was booked to perform. You’d think his royalties would pay him enough for bus fare, if he would ride one. It seems this Texan is content to wait for a pair of wings. Bob Dylan is one of a select few who have made it on word power. Billy Joe Shaver stands in line with other waiting greats like John Prine and Randy Newman and other Texans with two first names. Even though it’s got a price on it, When I Get My Wings already belongs to everyone who enjoys finding self and surroundings in Texas-Western music.