Editor’s note: The CMT Outlaws concert, featuring Toby Keith, Merle Haggard, Billy Joe Shaver, Shelby Lynne and Jack Ingram, debuts Friday (Nov. 4) at 8 p.m. ET.
AUSTIN, Texas — It’s time for that most hallowed tradition among musicians in Austin — a mid-morning breakfast in a Mexican restaurant. Billy Joe Shaver orders what he always orders — bacon and eggs. As soon as the waiter has taken my order, Shaver pinches me on the shoulder.
He wants to tell me about Cheatham Street Warehouse, a dive bar/listening room in the nearby college town of San Marcos, where he had played a record release show for his new album, The Real Deal, the night before. He knows the place well, being a regular since its inception in 1974.
“Back then, I was playing in quite a few places by myself, and that’s one of the ones that was easy to get into,” he says. “I just played for the door. Everywhere I played, I played for the door. But I made a lot of money back then. Honky Tonk Heroes had just come out, and I was hotter than a firecracker.”
Indeed. In 1973, Shaver’s songs were brought to the mainstream with Waylon Jennings’ Honky Tonk Heroes album. Every song but one was written by Shaver.
“I was having businessmen, senators and astronauts — all kinds of people — they would come up and stick $100 bills in my pocket,” Shaver recalls. “I mean, I’d make out like a champ! I’d make four or five thousand dollars a night. It was really nice. It’s hard to believe that I’m not making that now.”
Catch a Shaver show these days and several songs from Honky Tonk Heroes still crop up, including “Black Rose,” “Old Five and Dimers (Like Me),” “Ride Me Down Easy” and the title track. You might also hear his renditions of “I’m Just an Old Chunk of Coal” (made famous by John Anderson), “When Fallen Angels Fly” (made famous by Patty Loveless) and “Love Is So Sweet” (an uptempo tune just waiting to be made famous). His accomplishments earned him induction into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame last year.
After mentioning the variety of merchandise at his show (CDs, his autobiography, bumper stickers that say “God Loves You When You Dance”), he pauses before a confession: “I’m not so sure about the thong panties.”
“Why not?” (It’s intended as more of a follow-up inquiry than a rhetorical question.)
“That’s right!” he answers, grinning like a kid. “Why not!”
When the meals arrive, the small talk consists of his ex-girlfriend (who left him for an older man), his sizable weight loss (due to lots of lovemaking, he says) and women in general. (“All women are actors,” he says. “You should just hand them Academy Awards when they’re born.” Nevertheless, he got hitched less than a week later, to everybody’s surprise.) He’s wearing a blue denim shirt embroidered with the words “Slim Chance,” a gift from his band and a reference to a song on The Real Deal about a down-on-his-luck musician.
After a few final bites, he remarks that he always enjoys breakfast at this restaurant, especially the bacon. I mention off-handedly that maybe I should have ordered bacon, too.
“Here, take some of mine,” he says. Before an objection can be raised, his fork is already transferring the strips from his plate to mine, and he’s begun talking about the CMT Outlaws concert taped in Los Angeles on his 66th birthday. For the occasion, he was serenaded by Merle Haggard, one of his oldest friends, and Toby Keith.
“Toby turned out to be a really great guy,” Shaver says. “I’d never met him, but I almost met him a time or two. He’s a sure-enough Outlaw, I’d say. Merle is the same. Merle’s the one who started all that stuff.”
So, does that make Haggard the original Outlaw in country music?
“I’d say so,” Shaver says. “He couldn’t do nothing else. That was it. He was locked into that, and fortunately, the world accepted it. But it was so good. I think he’s about the best there is, and a good fellow, too.”
Like Haggard, Shaver has his share of young admirers. (A live tribute album last year included performances from Bruce Robison, Kelly Willis, Todd Snider, Jack Ingram and many more.) He also included a punched-up rendition of “Live Forever” on The Real Deal with his new friends, Big & Rich. He lights up at the mention of the duo’s name, clearly finding a kindred spirit in the enthusiastically evangelistic Big Kenny. He can’t explain why Big Kenny bellowed the impromptu phrase “angels and sunshine” at the end of the song, but he is definitely delighted by it. Together, they filmed a music video with actor-director Rick Schroder (“Whiskey Lullaby”) in San Diego last month.
He wrote the song with his only son, Eddy, a stunning guitarist who died of a drug overdose on Dec. 31, 2000. Billy Joe’s wife (and Eddy’s mother) Brenda had died earlier that year following a long struggle with cancer. The lyrics suddenly took on a grim but ultimately enlightening sheen, almost becoming his anthem.
Although he didn’t have an official showcase, Shaver sang the song at the South by Southwest music festival in March during a free show in the parking lot of a coffee shop in South Austin. But the usually gregarious character looked frail on stage with his band — and for good reason.
“I tell you what,” he confides. “I actually went to the hospital that night, and they went to work because they thought it was my heart. But it was an inner ear infection. You get one of those, it will last about 10 days. It scared the heck out of me. I thought I was never going to get well, but finally I got my equilibrium back. It was a strange thing. You almost have to crawl.”
Why didn’t he just cancel?
“Oh, I don’t like to,” he says. “I’d rather die on stage than miss a show. I’m kind of looking forward to it, really. But I’ve got a lot of stuff to do. I have to work this record. Then I can die.”