Billy Joe Shaver Shoots From the Hip
"Everybody in the place thought they heard firecrackers popping," Texas-born singer-songwriter Billy Joe Shaver recalls. "The guy shot at me twice, at least. That's why I had to throw down on him. I was afraid that he was going to hit me."
In his rambunctious new song, "Wacko From Waco," he pulls no punches about that infamous night in 2007 when he was arrested for shooting a man in the face outside of a Texas bar.
Shaver was eventually acquitted of all charges on grounds of self-defense, but he still feels like the complete story never came out. At age 72, his voice is still welcoming, but there's a straightforward swagger in his speech that lets you know when he means business.
"I got to at least write a song about it, so everybody will know," he tells CMT.com. "I wrote 'Wacko From Waco,' and that's a true account of what happened."
Shaver's new album Live at Billy Bob's Texas finds him presiding over a top-notch band. The package also includes a DVD of his performance at the "world's largest honky-tonk" in Fort Worth. With two new songs and a set list of crowd favorites, it's his first release since 2007, serving as a teaser for a new studio album said to be in the works.
"This is a big deal for me," says Shaver of the project. "[Billy Bob's] has got to be my favorite place. I just love it because it's Texas, really. My great-great-great-grandfather was one of the three men who founded the Republic of Texas, so I got a lot of Texas in me."
Over the years, Shaver's history has seeped into some of the sacred texts of country. You can include him in the list of Outlaw kings alongside Johnny Cash, Merle Haggard, Willie Nelson, Kris Kristofferson and Waylon Jennings, although he rarely gets name-checked in contemporary songs like the others.
He's been writing poetry since he was 8, helped along by an English teacher who passed him books by Robert W. Service, an author with a knack for vivid adventure tales about the Alaskan gold rush. Shaver's favorite parts were the fiery language and the fact that it was written from experience. Those traits still inhabit his own writing.
But in his poor farming community of Corsicana, Texas, there wasn't much need for poets. He sold papers on a street corner, worked as a cowboy on the surrounding ranches and eventually ended up in a saw mill. Then, in an accident at the mill, Shaver lost two fingers on his right hand. It was the wake-up call he needed to push him out into the world.
"When I cut my fingers off, I made a deal with God," he says. "I said 'If you get me out of this, I will go on and do what I am supposed to do.'"
By 1966, Shaver was living in Nashville. Four years later, he earned a promise that Jennings, a fellow Texan, would listen to his songs -- but Jennings was reluctant. Their meeting in a bustling recording studio ended up being one of the greatest true stories in country music history.
"When I ran into Waylon, I threatened to whoop his ass," snarls the fearless Texan. "He had told me he would listen to my songs. I'm the kind of guy that thought he meant it. I chased him around for about six months, and then finally, I just threatened to whip his ass in front of everybody.
"He took me into a room and said, 'Hoss, you can get killed that way.' I said, 'I'm down to it. You're either going to listen to these songs, or we're going to go a round or two.' I was a big ol' boy. I could handle him. I knew I could. He said, 'All right, I'm going to listen to one song. And if I like it, I will let you play another. If I don't like it, you and I are going to part, and I am not going to see you again.'
"I went ahead and did 'Ain't No God in Mexico,' and he liked that. He said, 'OK, one more.' So I did 'Old Five Dimers,' and he liked that. By the time I got to 'Honky Tonk Heroes,' he slapped his leg and said, 'I know what I got to do.'"
Jennings walked back into the studio and decided on the spot to record Shaver's songs. Thus it was Shaver's pen that filled Jennings' immortal 1973 release, Honky Tonk Heroes.
"[Record producer and RCA Nashville label chief] Chet Atkins had a fit about it," Shaver says. "He thought we were going to mess things up. Nashville was so different. We were saying things like 'God' and things you ain't supposed to say. To me, it was passion and poetry. It was good stuff. I knew it, and Waylon did, too."
For his efforts Shaver was inducted into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2004, but he says his run-ins with the law might keep him out of the Country Music Hall of Fame.
"The truth usually winds up hurting the one that tells it," he says. "I don't mind sticking my neck out. I've had an axe close to my neck a time or two."
With Live at Billy Bob's Texas -- and specifically "Wacko From Waco" -- Shaver's sticking his neck out once again, but for him, that just comes with the territory. The songs are what it's all about in his world, and passing up a juicy story like the one in "Wacko" was just not an option.
"I am proud I am still alive," he marvels. "I am happiest right after I write a great song. For me, it's a wonderful gift that God gave me. I am proud to do the best I can with it."