Shaver learns if there's Justice after Zoo

Dallas Clemmons, September 1996

In 1978, Kris Kristofferson sang: "We measured the space between Waylon and Willie/And Waylon and Willie and me/But there wasn't nothing like Billy Joe Shaver/What Billy Joe Shaver should be."

Kristofferson was making a statement about the "outlaw" country movement and all the folks suddenly trying to include themselves in that movement.

There's but one true outlaw, Kristofferson seemed to say in "The Fighter," and his name is Billy Joe Shaver.

And while Willie and Waylon were selling millions of records, Shaver remained largely unknown, a situation that would not change until his 1993 release, "Tramp on Your Street."

And now Shaver has a new album, "Highway of Life," on the Justice label, fittingly the recent home of Nelson, Jennings and Kristofferson.

Shaver's connections with Waylon and Willie run deep.

Jennings's 1973 "Honky-Tonk Heroes" album, his masterpiece, is comprised entirely of songs by Shaver.

One of the finest songs on that album, "Willy The Wandering Gypsy and Me," is about Nelson. Willie has sung numerous other Shaver compositions, and Shaver has long had a reputation as one of America's finest songwriters.

Classic Shaver lines include these from one of his best known songs "Georgie On A Fast Train": "I'd just like to mention/My grandma's old age pension/Is the reason why I'm standing here today/I got a good Christian raising/And an 8th grade education/Ain't no need in y'all a-treating me this way," and from "Black Rose": "The Devil made me do it the first time/The second time I done it on my own."

John Anderson had a hit with Shaver's "I'm Just An Ole Chunk of Coal."

But until 1993, few had heard Shaver sing his own songs.

Shaver began songwriting after hearing Jennings in the '60's. By 1968, he was paid $50 a week to write for Bobby Bare's company. Bare, Kristofferson and Tom T. Hall eventually recorded Shaver's material over the next five years.

Shaver bounced among a few labels, including Columbia in the 1980's.

Prior to "Tramp," his previous six albums had not sold well and were long out of print (since Tramp's success, Bear Family and Razor & Tie both issued compilations of Shaver's early material). Shaver, 55, explains how he ended up on Justice: "We got dropped off of Zoo, or whatever you call it. Zoo is like a rock label, we did the one album 'Tramp on Your Street.'"

"We couldn't get a deal here in Nashville is what it was, and we went out to California....and we went ahead and did the two albums (a live album followed "Tramp"), and then they decided they wanted to get out of that part, the leanin' toward the country thing," Shaver says.

"And we got dropped and bounced back down into Texas," Shaver says. "And old Randall Jamail (Highway's producer] is the son of one of my biggest fans, Joe, and I didn't even know he had a record label to tell the truth, until one day I looked up and saw that Willie and Waylon and Kris were on it...I don't know how he got my number, but he called up. He called me pretty often."

"There was a couple of other labels that were kind of courting me, you know , but I decided, the best thing to do was just get on back to Texas and rewind...And they work so hard, they're great folks. Just real enthusiastic, I couldn't be in a better place."

"Highway of Life" won't disappoint Shaver's longtime fans, although to those who know him only from "Tramp," it will sound spare and subdued.

His son Eddy, who played with his father for 15 years, is a fiery guitarist, but on the new album Eddy plays mostly acoustic, and restrained, music.

"Eddy's been playing with me since he was 14, and he's like a Jimi Hendrix, Billy Gibbons, Johnny Winter, Dickie Betts influence, and you can tell it," says Shaver.

In fact, Betts of the Allman Brothers Band played on Shaver's 1976 album "When I Get My Wings," and Shaver's sound has often had something of a rock and roll edge. This is one of his quietest albums.

(Betts reportedly lured Shaver, who drifted away from music for a few years while hitting the bottle in the early '70's, back to recording. This later led him to record for Capricorn Records, home of the Allmans.)

While some may perceive Shaver as being traditional country, he doesn't see it that way.

"Yeah, you know, we're not all that much 'traditional' as we...just stuck with what we had, you know," he says. "The traditionalists, lots of times they'll just put a fiddle and steel guitar on something and call it 'traditional'.... I'm so glad we didn't abandon (my sound) you know, because I could have way back there, I could have just put a steel guitar and fiddle on my music and went on and made a whole bunch of money and be another country-and-western singer, a pickin' and singin' star...I'm glad we didn't do that.... But we're pretty much rooted in that country stuff, you can tell it, you can hear it. We're about as country as you can get, really."

He talks, too, of "Texas" music: "Yeah, Guy Clark, Jerry Jeff, Townes Van Zandt, Mickey Newberry, Kris Kristofferson" and certainly he does fit well alongside those singer/songwriters. But his biggest influence came not from Texas but Mississippi: Jimmie Rodgers.

Shaver says, "Yeah, I pretty much, I've almost, not trying to be egotistical or anything like that, but I pretty much think that if Jimmie Rodgers were alive today these are the kinds of songs he'd be writing, they'd be a lot like the ones I write... I got a lot of influence from him and when I was just a kid, I'd listen on the radio and sing his songs."

Rodgers was as much a blues singer as anything else, and while one of the songs on Shaver's new album is called "Blue Blue Blues," it is in fact a rare Shaver song that doesn't have something of a blues feel.

He explains: "There was an African-American settlement across the railroad tracks from us [in Corsicana, Texas where he grew up], black people, and I'd go over there every afternoon and there'd be somebody over there playing a guitar and singing and I got a lot from them...we lived way out, kinda in the cotton fields out there, outside of town. Corsicana was a big gin town...has railroad tracks all around it...we lived way out in the patches, and across the railroad tracks were black people, cotton pickers just about all of them, lived in these little shacks. I'd go over there a lot...Yeah, [that music] really stayed with me. I think when you're young, like that, the biggest impressions stay with you."

Shaver sings in "Highway of Life's" title song, "You keep yourself real/and you watch what you dream/yeah you keep movin' on/on the highway of life," and the theme and imagery of traveling, of course, can be traced to Rodgers and country blues. If anything comes through in his music, whether loud and raucous or quiet and spare, it's that he is keeping himself real.

No doubt it would have been a smarter move, commercially, to try to duplicate Tramp's harder sound, which won Shaver a new generation of fans.

"Yeah, you know, gosh, we played over here (in Austin) the other night, and I realized a big, big percentage of our audience is college kids. I don't know how that happened," he laughs, "I haven't got a clue! The bands I have, you know, I've got a great band, and that kind of draws 'em to it."

But instead of emphasizing that band, he says, these were more personal songs, and so "we kept it real honest, and didn't try to bowl nobody over. And I tip my hat to the producer on that, because he left things on there, that were just like me and a guitar... (the last track, "The First and Last Time," was recorded in Shaver's kitchen, just him and his guitar)...He said 'nah, don't touch it, it's got something to it.' Most producers would say, 'no man, they'll think I did that' but he didn't. He's not that way. He's real cool."

"I hope to God (people hear this record), because I think the world of it, I know I love it, but you know it's big enough for me right now. When we got it done and the final mixes were made... and all that done, I just breathed a sigh of relief, I said, you know, 'there's one. There's a good one... It's just like it's supposed to happen."

© Country Standard Time • Jeffrey B. Remz, editor & publisher •