Long in the Tooth and Still Not Short on Songs and Stories

By Lisa Morgan

“When the country outlaws were collecting their holy writings, Billy Joe Shaver was carving out Exodus.” – The Washington Post

Billy Joe Shaver is a country music treasure, one whose fingerprints (the ones he has left) can be found on nearly every influential country music artist past and present.  Legitimately, one of the most respected living figures in American music, Shaver is a songwriter’s songwriter.  His music has been performed/recorded by artists the likes of Kris Kristofferson (“Good Christian Soldier”),Tom T. Hall (“Willie the Wandering Gypsy and Me”), Bobby Bare (“Ride Me Down Easy”), Allman Brothers (“Sweet Mama”) and even Elvis Presley (“You Asked Me To”). Shaver’s songs left their most indelible mark through Waylon Jennings who recorded Honky Tonk Heroes, considered the first true “outlaw” album, and was an album composed almost entirely of Shaver’s songs.

Shaver’s first album, Old Five and Dimers Like Me, was produced by Kristofferson in 1973. Johnny Cash recorded “I’m Just an Old Chunk of Coal (But I’m Gonna Be a Diamond Some Day),” a song Shaver wrote just after he chose to give up drugs and booze and turned to God for help. Bob Dylan, who rarely covers other writers, often plays Billy Joe‘s “Old Five And Dimers Like Me” in concert, and Johnny Cash called him “my favorite songwriter.” He has survived a rough poverty stricken childhood, a tour of the Korean “conflict” as a Navy Corpsman, the loss of his fingers in an industrial accident, more intensely, the loss of a wife (cancer) and son (heroin), shot a man and was found innocent by a jury of his peers, and these are the only the “cliff notes” of a life saved by his Grandma, God and music, and the short list of his stellar contributions and collaborations.


On May 22, 2014, Rolling Stone premiered the single-duet with Willie Nelson, “Hard To Be An Outlaw,” from his album Long In the Tooth.  After four decades of music, Long in the Tooth became Billy Joe Shaver’s first album to chart in Billboard’s Top Country Albums, entering the chart at 19. The album also entered the Billboard 200, peaking at 157.

On behalf of CV Weekly, I had the absolute pleasure of chatting with this wonderful character for quite a while.  He made it feel like we were sitting on a front porch, sipping sweet tea and talking about life, politics, music and God.  Here are some of the highlights:

CVW:  “Did you expect for Long in the Tooth to be so successful this late in your career?”

Shaver:  “No. Well – yeah I did! It surprised me that it wasn’t a bigger one!  I’ll tell ya what happened… I took, “The Get Go” and “Hard to be an Outlaw” over to my friend Willie Nelson. I didn’t think he’d cut ‘em, and he cut ‘em right away.  My album wasn’t set to come out until June 6th, and I don’t really know what happened…maybe him and my record company came to some kind of agreement, but they pushed my release out to August. Willie came out with his album with my two songs on there first.  It’s a great album, but it kinda made it look like I sucked his hind teat. But that’s alright – I made more money off of him than I would myself I guess.”

CVW: “Making money in music these days is kind of a trick.”

Shaver:  “It don’t mean nothin’ to me.  This is my hobby. Not to belittle it, but this is what I do for fun.  I enjoy livin’ and I enjoy writing.”

CVW:  “You’ve survived so much physically, emotionally… What is it that keeps you ticking?”

Shaver:  “I just have to whistle by the grave yard.  Nobody really likes to see a guy having a pity party all the time. I have found in my backstage things when I get done, there’s people who got worse deals than I got. Not that that makes me feel any better, I feel bad for them.  But I’m a born again Christian.  It doesn’t seem like I am, but I am, and I’m out there smuggling a message to ya in there every once in a while.  It might look like it’s coming from a wrong place, but it works.  There are people out there who wouldn’t go to church.  I don’t go to church myself – I don’t usually have time, but this body we have is our tabernacle and there’s people who won’t go and listen to anything,  but they’ll listen to me.  It’s a responsibility. You’ve got to do it.  You can’t just stand around and not at least point to what people need to do and where they’re looking to go.”

CVW:  “You joined the navy in 1956. That was an interesting time in our history.”

Shaver:  “I was a hospital corpsman.  I was going into the Marines, but my buddy talked me into going to the Navy with him like his dad did, and back then they had a buddy system where you could enlist with a friend and they’d ship you off to the same place and all that stuff – they ‘promised’ anyway.  Got in there, and they had us all go to a John Wayne movie – some kind of a navy movie he made –  and my buddy shows up too, and we’re all in our civvies (civilian clothes), and I said, ‘Man we better hustle up and get on down the road to get shipped off!’  And he says, ‘I gotta tell you somethin.’  I said, ‘What?’  He says, ‘I didn’t join up.  I’m sorry man, but you know that girl we both like and she likes you a little bit more than she likes me? Well I want her to myself. And that position you had on the football team, well I wanted that too.’  He laid it on me man, I was about to cry! I told him to get away from me before I hurt him.  And he went on, and I went on in the Navy without my buddy.  I’d already sworn in.  Anyway, they told me that if I wanted to be a Marine so bad, they’d put me in the hospital corps and when D-day comes, you can be a free marine (the Marines use corpsmen out of the Navy). I went on in and got in all the trouble I could and enjoyed every minute of it.  I enjoy life – I have fun.  During the Korean conflict – they never did get around to calling it a war and we lost more people over there than anywhere and it’s still going on.”

CVW:  “Tell me about the Opry”  

Shaver:  “I came to Nashville in 1966, and the reason I got to appear on the Opry is ol’ Porter Wagner – he took a shine to me cause I was the only one who would talk back to him.  He was one of those guys who got his way all the time, and he thought I was kinda funny.  And every time we came to town, he’d have us play a couple songs anyway. He eventually set us up to make good money out the back. After the show at the Opry was over, we’d have a 90 minute show with a stage and everything.”

CVW: “So you have made a career out of writing, singing and playing guitar and you’re missing some fingers!  How does one lose fingers and then decide, ‘I’m going to play guitar!'”

Shaver: “I shot a prayer up to God when that happened.  I said, ‘I’ll get to doing what I’m supposed to be doing if You just get me out of this.’ I didn’t bleed or nothing, but the tendons of course, we’re hanging all the way down to the floor.”

CVW: “Of course.”

Shaver:  (chuckles) “There was this cowboy there – one I just knew I was going end up fighting one day – well, he took a look at me, and took off running – ran straight into a wall and knocked himself out. I dug through the sawdust to find my fingers, ’cause two of them got wacked off.  I had read an article how in Japan they’d sow fingers back on and stuff.  I had to get in my old pickup truck and drive over to the doctors.  I got over there and he says, ‘Well, you got a problem there,’ and I said, ‘Yeah I do.  Can you sew these here fingers back on?’ He said, ‘What do you mean, sew ‘em back?’  I said, ‘They’re doing it over in Japan!’ He says, ‘This is Texas.’”

“We went on to the hospital.  The doctor sewed everything back together.  He got it wrong once and had to go back in there. Then my heart quit beating and they had to get my heart back going. Then they had to do more to it… it was a mess. I just left it like it was – two major fingers gone and another two just as messed up as the rest of it.  But I got out of there. ”

“My grandma bought me a guitar before I was 12, and I would mess with it.  I sold newspapers on the corner when I was 8-9 years old.  I guess I sang enough that she went and bought this Gene Autry guitar that cost $11 from Sears and Roebuck.  It had a picture of him on a horse rearing up.  It was a pretty good little guitar. My grandmother died when I was 12, and I had to go live with my mother and my stepfather.  He was real strict and all made me pay for stuff.  I had a job making $20 a week washing dishes at a place called The Chicken Shack. But what happened was, I was gone to school or work, and for some reason my step father gave my guitar to a fella’s son who he’d hired to pull up a stump in the yard.  My stepfather went and gave his son my guitar.  Here I was, about 13 or 14… I got so upset about it, I said, ‘I’m not going to do nothing but write poetry.’ And I did.  I quit guitar and singing until I had that accident when I was 21. That’s when I shot that prayer up.  I promised that I’d get back to doing what I’m supposed to do.  I always knew what I was supposed to do. I always knew I had a gift for it. I remember being small enough to be rocked by her on a rocking chair telling me, ‘You’re gonna be on the Grand Ol’ Opry’. We managed to get a radio and Roy Acuff was her favorite person. And as it turned out, he ended up having a lot to do with me making a lot of guest appearances.  I got a funny little gate.  I don’t play so much now because I got a shoulder that’s bone on bone and I can only raise my arm only so high, and if I play all night long, it hurts. I’m supposed to have another shoulder put in but I don’t have time for that.  I’m just going to go on because I have a great band, a great manager, who also manages Steve Earle.  I think the world of Steve Earle.  He’s a great poet. I’m a big Willie Nelson fan too.”

CVW:  “Any plans on a new album?”

Shaver:  “My manager just asked me that, and I said, ‘Yes I do!’ I’ve got about 500 songs to pick from but I like the fresh ones that are raring to go.  New songs are like my children – I keep ’em around a while before I ever play them for anyone else.  I nurture them a while before I let them go.  I’d like to be around when that happens, but I might be gone by the time everyone figures it out. There’s no accountin’ for class.” (he chuckles).